An Interview with Rockabilly Queen Wanda Jackson

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Back in 2004 Jack White, of the White Stripes and, more recently, The Raconteurs, teamed up with country legend Loretta Lynn to produce the Grammy winning album Van Lear Rose. This year, White will be collaborating with another legend, the 72-year old rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson. One of the most celebrated, hard-headed yet delicate rockabilly artists of the 1950s, the native Oklahoman’s fizzy pop approach, with a touch of Southern twang, gave her a distinct sound that catapulted her onto stages with everyone from Elvis Presley to Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Costello, The Cramps– and now, hopefully, onto a new generation’s radar.

Jackson was one of the first performers to bring glamor to rock n’ roll: She dated Elvis before she was legal, and was dubbed ‘Queen’ of her genre long before her induction into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame last year. With her jet-black, perfectly coiffed hair, red lipstick, tailored dresses and risque songs like her cover of “Fujiyama Mama” (“I’m a Fujiyama mama/And I’m just about to blow my top”), she was cool enough to crack the all boys club that was 1950s rock.

Now, half a century later, Jackson’s first two singles from her collaboration with White– a raw, bluesy cover of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” and another of British rock band Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ “Shakin’ All Over”– have just been released and Jackson’s set to start touring next month. Calling us from a hair salon in Nashville, Jackson spoke with us about her appeal in Japan, present-day pop singers and Jack White.

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How has it been working with Jack? So far I have been very pleased. Jack is very protective of his work and I made the mistake of telling people about recording with him and of course it was printed.. He keeps quiet until he’s ready. But I was excited! It was great working from Jack’s home. He records analog believe it or not! No electronic things, he played the real horns, every instrument was live. I said to him, “Jack, I’m putting myself in your hands because you’re very successful, creative and talented and I just want to trust you. The songs that you think would be good for me to record, you know best.”

What do you think of Jack’s music? It’s not the kind of stuff I’d go out and buy. But he said he was a big fan, and I said, “Well, darn, Jack, I’ll take a chance!”

When you were first starting, it took a while for rockabilly to catch on. Yes. Initially, I don’t think Capitol Records knew what to do with me, so they signed me as a country artist even though I was working with Elvis who was teaching me about Rockabilly, which was a new kind of music and style at the time. It wasn’t until rockabilly and ‘50s rock music had a revival here that I could get airplay. Not until 1960. I was mainly working in Europe before that.

Were you big anywhere else? I couldn’t get a hit in America, but I was so big in Japan right away! I thought it was pretty funny. ‘Fujiyama Mama’ is still an anthem there. They hold on to things a lot longer than they do here.

What song do you think defined you as a Rockabilly singer? “Let’s Have a Party,” the first song I did with Elvis. That was played everywhere, not just in Europe and Japan.

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Are you excited to be touring again? To be attracting a new audience? Oh, I am so excited! I think I’m bigger now than I ever was in a way. In 1995, I toured for Rosie Flores for five weeks and she introduced me to a younger group of fans. There were new venues and festivals and I was blown away. My music became worldwide again. It’s all still fun for me. Performing live is all I know how to do and it’s all that I love.

What do you think of some of the female musicians performing now? Well, I would only advise them: Remember you shake the same hands going down as you do coming up. Make friends, love your fans. Take it seriously. So many young musicians get caught up in drugs and partying. I went through my phase of that stuff. But my daddy toured with me. And I’d say, “Daddy! It don’t matter if I am late for the job!” I was having my fun, you understand. He’d tell me, Wanda, “Now you listen. This is your job. This is how you are making a living and they are paying you to be here. You are going to be there and going to be on time and do your best.” I was lucky to have him. That put a stop to me playing big shot. They need to know that it is a business. Have some respect.

Your dad managed you for the first six years of your career. Then you got married and your husband took over, for the past 30 years. Is it easier being managed by your husband or harder? My father looked out for me. I mean I had a record contract by the time I was just 16. The drugs, the lifestyle and there was Elvis… But you know Elvis turned me on to Rockabilly right away, I was not going to be billed country when we played together. My husband is great. He’s very good at the business side and he always encouraged me to keep performing, playing live. I’m busier now than I have been in quite some time. And the music industry has changed.

How so? Do you think it was harder to be a female rock musician in the ’50s? Definitely. It was really only a bunch of guys. And we didn’t have all the equipment which is why it’s so nice to be recording on analog with Jack.

How did you pick the Amy Winehouse song to cover? Had you heard it before? I had not heard her music before Jack played it for me in the studio. It was the right choice for me, it was smart of him.

Did she hear your single yet? Well, I’m not sure just yet but I guess she will have an opinion about it.

You’ve inspired a lot of fashion too. It wasn’t until after my induction [into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame] that I realized how much it’s caught. Or until I began touring again last year with Rose Flores, but I don’t really follow it that much. I do suppose it’s nice to see the younger generation keepin’ it up.

Well, I heard of a local cover band called The Wanda Jackson Five.