Rock and Roll’s Original “Party” Girl Is Still Shakin’ All Over
It’s a chilly Thursday morning in Oklahoma City, and Wanda Jackson is talking about boobs.
Specifically, how a well-chosen guitar will tuck right under ’em.
Over bracing hot sips from her first cup of coffee, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and “Queen of Rockabilly” chats openly on a range of topics, including how she dated Elvis Presley back in the ’50s, the design of her eye-catching stage costumes, and which actor is her favorite James Bond.
Back in the day, unruly signature hits such as the raging “Let’s Have a Party” first propelled Jackson to national attention, but her uncanny ability to out-sing her male contemporaries was what sealed the deal. Jackson’s scorched re-readings of sides from Elvis, Orbison, and Jerry Lee made ashes of the originals. She survived the first rock era, went country, went gospel, disappeared, reappeared, and recently forged an impressive full-scale comeback with the aid of White Stripes Wunderkind Jack White, who produced her successful new CD The Party Ain’t Over. Today, at age 73, she proudly wears the triple mantle of music pioneer, grandmother, and living legend.
She’s also still got one helluva set of pipes.
On the morning after getting back home to her native Oklahoma from a tour with White’s 11-piece band, Ms. Jackson takes a few minutes to speak to Stomp and Stammer. Her voice is calm and quiet, with a slight rasp, reflecting the rigors of touring (including a two-hour time zone change) and the earliness of the hour.
Stomp and Stammer: You’re headed out to Spain, Germany, and Austria in a few days. That must be pretty exciting.
Wanda Jackson: Well, after this last tour with Jack White, it’s gonna take a lot to excite me. [laughs] I stayed excited for two weeks, working with him and that fabulous band. Sold-out houses! We had to add a show another night in Los Angeles because the venue sold out so fast, and it’s been one whirlwind trip. It’s been so much fun, doing the Letterman show and then Conan O’Brien…
The Party Ain’t Over recently was in the Top Ten on amazon.com, and –
It was Number One on iTunes’s rock chart. Number One! I’m saying, this can’t be!
Did you ever imagine things would take off again like this, so late in your career?
Why, heavens no. These things just drop in your lap from heaven. It’s hard to believe all that this young man has done. He got me back in the charts and on network television. I have to pinch myself to make sure it’s real.
There’s some wonderful 1958 TV footage of you playing live on Town Hall Party, wearing this stunning-looking fringed white dress that accentuates your stage moves. Was that something you came up with?
Yeah, that was my creation. I didn’t ever like cowboy boots and hats, but that was what hillbilly singers were supposed to wear. As I got older and wanting to be glamorous and sexy, I just couldn’t see wearin’ those old frumpy clothes, which I decided were hidin’ all of my assets. So my mother, being the seamstress, decided we’d make tight skirts and put some fringe on it to stay kinda western-looking. That set my style.
And you wore a similar outfit on David Letterman’s show.
Yeah, that’s my new design – the jacket. I tell people that when the sand shifts, you gotta change the placement of the fringe!
You famously dated Elvis back in the day.
I was 17, and I think he was 20. I had two country songs in the Billboard charts by that time, so as soon as I graduated from high school I was ready to tour, make my mark, become a star, and what-have-you. My dad decided he’d better travel with me. He’d seen me go off and do some TV shows and forget to get paid, I guess because I’d had so much fun I couldn’t believe they were gonna pay me for it. [laughs] So the first rattle out of the bag was with this young man that was risin’ real fast, Elvis Presley. I worked a lot with Elvis. I was one artist that his audience of young girls – and a lot of guys too – I was one that they accepted. Other men stars, even big country stars, Elvis’ audience didn’t want to hear. They’d come out to see Elvis, and they made that very evident.
What exactly would a girl do on a date with Elvis?
We’d sneak off to matinee movies, or go out after a performance and get a hamburger, and drive around and talk, as teenagers do. He was concerned that if I wanted to sell a lot of records, I needed to be doin’ songs that the young people were liking. If we weren’t on tour together he would call just about every day, and we’d keep in touch. The last tour I did with him, after that one, he went to Hollywood and starred in movies. He took the train. I thought, my goodness, he’s gonna take a train all the way to Hollywood?! [laughs] I couldn’t feature that.
When did you start playing guitar?
My daddy, when I was six or seven, he put a guitar in my hands. He bought one of those small ones, I think from Sears-Roebuck, but it was a real guitar. He began teaching me chords. I don’t know if something told him I already had a love of music, but I think it did, because they used to take me to dances with them. This was out in Los Angeles and Bakersfield, where we lived for about four years. That’s where the influence came in, watching the big western swing bands, and seeing the girls sing and yodel.
Why did the guitar suit you so well, as opposed to other instruments?
Because you can accompany yourself when you sing. You don’t see people singing and playing their background fiddle! [laughs]
I never thought of it that way.
I never had either until you asked that question, but that has to be it, because I didn’t want to be a musician. I wanted to be a singer.
Are you still playing much guitar, or just leaving that to the backing band?
For the most part I do, but Daisy Rock, the girl guitar company, is sponsoring me. So I do have a pretty pink acoustic/electric guitar that I put on for one segment of my show.
What’s the first thing you look for when you pick a new guitar up, to see if it suits you?
The neck and how high the strings are on the neck. Men’s hands are so much larger. The cheaper a guitar gets, the wider the neck gets and the higher the strings are. So that’s the first thing I would look at, and then the size of the body of the guitar. The Daisy Rock guitars are made more shallow, for girls, because it’s very hard to have the guitar fit in the right places, underneath you, and to be able to put your arm over it and play too. [laughs] Dolly Parton even uses some Daisy Rocks. Okay, I drew you the picture!
Your remarkable singing style on your rock classics, that shout/growl/squeak –
Yes! How did that evolve?
Material was very hard to come by, because they weren’t writing any songs for girls to do in this new wild music, but I found Annisteen Allen’s “Fujiyama Mama” on a jukebox and learned it. I took it to a session and was having problems figuring out what I wanted to do. I didn’t want it like Annisteen’s exactly, but I didn’t want to stray too far. My daddy said, “Just forget about whatever is causing you problems. Just rare back and sing that thing the way you would on stage!” I said okay, I can do that, and here’s this gruff voice powerin’ out of my throat. It just happened. The song was just wild enough to unleash whatever that was.
You come across as so assertive on those old recordings. Were you that way offstage, or was that a persona you adopted?
Mostly a persona. I used to be “America’s Party Girl.” Well, my new handle was “The Sweet Lady with the Nasty Voice.” That’ll be the name of my documentary! I’ve settled into that style, kind of a kittenish wildcat gal. It’s right the opposite of me.
“Shakin’ All Over” makes a terrific opener for The Party Ain’t Over. Had you ever done that one before?
No, the only song on this album that I had done before – but that Jack still wanted me to do again – was “Rip It Up.” That came off really good!
You also cover Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.” It’s fun to hear you singing about more modern things in that song, like Stella Artois and Roger Moore.
Yeah, I know it. It’s crazy.
Who’s your favorite James Bond?
Oh, Sean Connery. He was from my era. But, you know, Amy wrote the song.
At the beginning of that track, before you sing, you sorta mutter, “I always have to push.”
Jack was pushin’ me! Stretchin’ me! He was wantin’ a sound that was totally like Wanda Jackson, not like Amy Winehouse. I was tryin’ to sing it more like a blues or softer, so it took a lot of takes for me to finally figure out what he was goin’ for. And then, once I got the feel of that, he came over the speaker and said it was great. So I thought, whew, finally I can move on to a different song. Then he said, “Let’s do one more, and if you’ll just push a little bit more,” and turned that mic on. And I said, “I always have to push.” He cracks the whip. He’s younger than my kids, you know, and I thought, boy, what have I gotten into here? But I wound up understanding what he was going for. He wanted that wild 18-year-old kid that was down in there someplace. I think he found her!