by Rick Cornell
It was a good year for the future Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson. Yup, in 1952, still in her early teens, she won a talent contest, which led to her own radio show on a local station and, subsequently, an offer from bandleader Hank Thompson to perform with his Brazos Valley Boys.
And 2009 was none too shabby either. Jackson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with Rosanne Cash handling the induction speech honors. She had a street named after her in her home city, and she was the subject of a documentary, which is currently airing only on the Smithsonian Channel. And she finished recording an album, produced by Jack White, which is set to drop toward the end of 2010.
Of course, the nearly 60 years in between were hardly idle. There were shared bills with Elvis Presley, a couple decades’ worth of memorable rockabilly and country sides recorded for Capitol (including her signature song, “Let’s Have a Party”), some national hits, and countless tour miles. Her focus shifted to gospel music in the ’70s, and she did inspirational concerts with her husband and manager, Wendell Goodman. But a tour with Rosie Flores in the mid ’90s found Jackson rockin’ in the U.S. again.
As Jackson talks from her home in Oklahoma City, she’s excited about the release of a 7” featuring two songs from the upcoming record (an atmospheric, horn-dotted take on Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” and a right-in-her-wheelhouse version of Johnny Kidd & the Pirates’ enduring “Shakin’ All Over”), and she’s preparing to leave for a brief tour that will finish in Raleigh on Valentine’s Day. But the Independent got to talk to her before she got out of town.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: First, congratulations on your 2009. It was quite a year for you. I was hoping that we could talk about some of the accomplishments and events from last year, starting with your induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
WANDA JACKSON: Well, it was very exciting just to be there with these people who were inducted with me and, of course, all of the presenters. We also brought our whole family, plus some of our staff there with us so that they could all experience it, so that made it doubly nice for us. And I was very happy to finally meet Rosanne Cash. She had been to one of my performances in New York once. She couldn’t stay, and I didn’t get to meet her, so this was our first meeting. What a doll she is, and what a great presentation she gave. My goodness. I was flattered, very flattered.
I’ve never had that experience, sitting there while someone says all these wonderful things about me. I wouldn’t know how to act.
Well, nobody does. [Laughs.] You just try to enjoy the moment.
And there’s also the documentary, The Sweet Lady with the Nasty Voice. Could you give me some information on that?
I’m proud of it simply because these are top-quality producers. The man [Vinnie Kralyevich] who approached us has his own production company, and he does documentaries mainly for channels like Discovery and History—very in-depth. He’s wonderful. And a lady [Joanne Fish] approached us at the same time, a week apart, both wanting to documentaries on me. So my husband said how about y’all getting together, see if you can work together on it. So that’s what they did. She was with CMT, Country Music Television, and did a lot of their specials and interviews and production and editing and the whole works. So top-quality people doing it, and it turned out to be my life, of course, but also a wonderful history of rock ’n’ roll. We’re picking up so many new fans all the time from every age you can imagine, through all the media and the popularity of ‘50s rock once again. So this will be very good to give them a quick little education about the beginning of rock ’n’ roll.
I can’t wait to see it. It sounds great.
When it first came out, on some interviews, someone asked me, “What do you think about that title? Do you like it?” I said, “Well, you have to admit it’s catchy. But I’m not sure it’s really a true statement. They said, “How’s that?” I said, “Because I’m not at all sure I’m a sweet lady.” [We both laugh.] OK, there’s your quote.
Well, it’s a good one. Now you also had a street named after you in your home city of Oklahoma City. That’s got to be a thrill as well.
Yes, it is. And especially, they gave me a street in our artsy area, you know—Bricktown, it’s called. So many cities have those now. Ours has the riverwalk and a new baseball field. And my street is right across from the main entrance to the ballpark. It’s just a little kind of a cross street. It’s not really an alley because it’s out in the open. It’s very highly visible and very little traffic on it, so I was pretty thrilled about that. And the people who take the boat rides on the river go right under the street. Couldn’t have been better. I’m right there next door to Mickey Mantle Drive and Vince Gill Avenue, and mine’s called Wanda Jackson Way.
I was going to ask you whether it was Street or Boulevard—you never know what it’s going to be…
One of the reporters that day of the ceremony said “How do you like having your own way?” [We both laugh again.] You know what’s coming. I said, “Honey, I’ve had my own way ever since I can remember.”
There’s another quote for me.
Yes, there’s another one for you. I’m full of them.
There’s the album that you finished recording in 2009, and that’s being released at some point this year.
Jack White doesn’t want to release the album until early fall. That’s better for me, too. We both have heavy tour schedules in the summer, and we couldn’t promote it properly. So we’re waiting, holding back a little on that.
I know you don’t want to give too much away about the album, but can you share a little about it?
Well, he has asked me not to divulge too much about it. [Laughs.] So I’m honoring his request. He does like to come out with surprises. And it will be a surprise. I’ll tell you that. Surprising in the way that my single is. I think that’s a bit surprising, for the type of songs that I’m known for. It’s current, but it’s still my type of song.
Here’s one more thing from 2009, one of my favorite musical moments, and it involves you. I was at the Ponderosa Stomp last April, and early into your set, Bonnie Raitt stood up from her seat in the balcony and pointed down at you and, in effect, thanked you.
I introduced her. They’d told me she was there. I’d been out to see her about a month before then. She’d appeared here in the Oklahoma City area, so I went to see her. She was so sweet. She talked about me throughout her whole show and then called me up and the end of her main set, and I sang “Let’s Have a Party” with her and her band, and that was so much fun. Then she insisted I stay out there on the encore and sing another song with them. That was nice. And I was thrilled that she came in to the Ponderosa Stomp a day early so she could catch my show. I was very glad to have her there. Also, another monumental thing about that show was James Burton was there.
You know, I do the little tribute to Elvis, and I asked James Burton if he’d come out and play on those songs, and he did. It was so exciting for me to hear those songs just the way I’d been hearing them all my life. I’d forget my words, I forgot where I was because I got to listening to him. [Laughs.] It was funny actually. That was a memorable night for me.
That was a very public acknowledgement by Bonnie Raitt, both at her show that you mentioned and at the Ponderosa Stomp, of your work as a pioneer in rockabilly and country and early rock ’n’ roll. I know that’s far from the only instance where a musician has thanked you or acknowledged your role.
Well, Rick, there’s been many. Big names—some have shocked me that I influenced them. They’re on my documentary, so when you see it, you’ll understand this. Bruce Springsteen and his wife, Patti, are big fans, and he came out to see me when I worked in his hometown of Asbury Park. It’s a very small town, so they put their shows on in a bowling alley. He’s done shows there as well, so I felt if he could do it, I could as well. But he came out to see me, he and Patti, and it was pretty cute to see him sitting on the ball return watching my show and having a big time. He’s on the documentary. And also a fellow who championed getting me into the Rock Hall was Elvis Costello. A few years ago, he got on the bandwagon and said this is an injustice that she isn’t there. So he, along with my husband, got the job done. I thought they put me in a very good category. I was very happy with being in the “Early Influences” category. I never had a string of No. 1 hit rock ’n’ roll songs, so I never thought I’d be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But when they put me in that category, I said, “Yeah, that’s deserving. That’ll work.”
How do you feel about that role as a pioneer? What was it like when you started out as a female rockabilly and country singer who was doing it her own way?
Of course, I was a teenager. I was fearless. [Laughs.] I had people behind me that agreed that I should try this kind of music: my dad and there was Elvis, of course. You probably heard that he encouraged me to try it, felt sure I could do it. And then my producer at Capitol Records gave me the freedom to choose my own songs and do it my way. The rest was history, I guess. It wasn’t anything very different for me as far as being in the boys club at the time. That’s just the way it had always been, whether it was a television show or a package concert. No matter how many men were on it as stars, there was always just one girl. So I didn’t think anything about that. I’d just meet ’em head on.
Wanda Jackson plays Berkeley Cafe in Raleigh Sunday, Feb. 14, with the Lustre Kings at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15.