Wanda Jackson 0Interview
Wanda Jackson is a pioneering female Rockabilly performer. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. After winning many talent contests she went out on tour with Elvis Presley right after high school. Wanda scored a major hit with the song "Let's have a Party". The "Queen of Rockabilly" is popular all over the world. Wanda recently recorded an album with Jack White and is still going strong today. I recently caught up with Wanda.
R.V.B. - Hello Mrs. Jackson?
W.J. – Yeah , that's me
R.V.B. - How are you? It's a pleasure to meet you. This is Rob and I'm from Long Island up here in New York.
W.J. - I see, well nice to meet you.
R.V.B. - The first thing I want to say to you is The Rock and Roll community, the country community, the blues community, and the music community in general are very proud of your accomplishments in your life.
W.J. – Well, thank you so much.
R.V.B. - And you must be proud of yourself also.
W.J. - Hahaha
R.V.B. - Can I start off by asking, when you were young in your house in Oklahoma, what kind of music were you exposed to at a very young age?
W.J. - Ah at a very young age, that would be country first, you know.
R.V.B. - That's basically what your parents played around the house?
W.J. - Yes. My dad was a guitar player and played fiddle and he sang and that's what he played was country music. So he taught me to play guitar and then eventually I was chording' while he played fiddle. So in the evenings after I learned to play the guitar, we'd make music yeah.
R.V.B. - Oh I see. Did you have any other hobbies as a little girl? What else did you like to do? Did you like to hang around the neighborhood and play with your friends and stuff?
R.V.B. - Did you have friends out in California and Oklahoma City, that you palled around with as a young girl?
W.J. - Well sure definitely. Everybody has their friends they pal around with. When I came back to Oklahoma, I was nine. I went to school with the same kids I went to church with. We went to Sunday school class, so they were my friends and there was a pretty big group of us that ran around together and did things.
R.V.B. - Were your friends musical also? Did you sing in church or play anything in church?
W.J. - Ah … not necessarily in the church. We had after church parties at somebody's house, and I would bring a guitar and sing for them. (Cough) I sound terrible today. I woke up this morning with this awful throat. (hehehe) So I'm trying to talk and…
R.V.B. - You know take your time. If you want me to call back at another time, that's ok also.
W.J. – No, we'll go ahead and get what we can.
R.V.B. - You got caught in a storm last night on a plane? (Her husband told me that in the screening)
W.J. - No, I had been in California. I had two working dates this weekend and we came home from L.A. last night.
R.V.B. - Do you remember what your first guitar was?
W.J. – Well, I remember it but I don't know the brand for sure - but I think it was a Stella. (haha) It was kind of a little girl’s guitar.
R.V.B. – Yeah, Stella was a very popular guitar, it was inexpensive. I even have a Stella.
W.J. - Is that right? Well you know Jack White does too. (hahaha). I thought that was strange, a man like him has a Stella guitar.
R.V.B. - Mine's red... red sunburst
W.J. - That sounds pretty.
R.V.B. – Um… so obviously it was an acoustic guitar right?
W.J. - Ah ha – sure - and it had Uncle Sam's hat on it. I don't know if you know what I mean?... Uncle Sam?. This was during war days and there used to be posters of Uncle Sam saying I want you. (haha)
R.V.B. - Oh, I remember those signs.
W.J. - So my guitar had stars on it and Uncle Sam's head.
R.V.B. - So where was your first professional gig? Was it a dance? Was it a local gig?
W.J. - Probably the paying things, I don't know - I did a lot of contests. Those used to be real popular, talent contests and if you won, you won a wrist watch or… I can't remember what else. I won a lot of the contests and I had a radio show. I don't think I got paid for that, however. So I'm sure what my first paying job was.
R.V.B. - Those contests that you are talking about, were they local community contests held in a local movie theater or something?
W.J. - Ah ha, right.
R.V.B. - So when you got that radio show, you must have become popular around your local community.
W.J. - Right... I got the radio show by winning a contest that the radio station put on and the winner of it got their own- oh - fifteen minute spot for however long it was, a month maybe. So I won the contest and did that and they said if you can keep your show sponsored, then you could keep that fifteen minute time slot. So I worked at keeping the sponsors and learned how to write copy and to read my own commercials.
R.V.B. - When you won the contest were you playing the guitar? Because I know you played the piano also.
W.J. - Oh, I don't play the piano in public much. It's just to help me figure out chord progressions on songs, to practice, or to learn a new song. That's how I use the piano but yeah, I played guitar on the contests.
R.V.B. - Did you play the acoustic guitar or the electric ?
W.J. – Well, I don't ever play an electric guitar. The photos out there in cyberland show me playing an electric guitar, but that was in Japan on a two month tour I did. And for some reason I didn't take my guitar on that tour so they got a guitar for me and it was an old electric guitar (hahaha). So I didn't plug it in, I just hung it around my neck .(haha)
W.J. - Right, let me see. When I was sixteen, a junior in high school, I signed with Decca records. That was my first recording contract was with Decca. I had gotten that through Hank Thompson, who had heard me on the radio and invited me to sing with his band when he was appearing in Oklahoma City at a dance hall - a pretty famous one back in that day in Oklahoma City. So he had helped me get my first contract because I had a couple of songs in the Billboard Country charts. So as soon as I graduated high school, I wanted to go on the road and do that to make my living.
R.V.B. - Well that must have been very exciting for a girl just sixteen to be discovered by a famous person and then have the opportunity to do that.
W.J. – Yeah, it certainly was. I felt very fortunate.
R.V.B. - So how often did you practice? Did you play every day?
W.J. – Yeah, I'm sure I did. I sang all the time. (hahaha) And once in a while my mother would say "Wanda... why don't you go play with the kids or go ride your bike or something?". She got tired of it (hahaha). Hearing me clunk around on the piano and the guitar... singing.
R.V.B. - Did you take singing lessons or is that just natural talent?
W.J. – No, I didn't take any lessons. It probably wouldn't have hurt me to take some, but I luckily the way I sing - however I do it - it's never hurt my throat no matter how much I sing, you know. I go out on long tours and sing every night or just about every night and I never have any throat problems. That's why I'm baffled this morning when I woke up and my throat is so sore.
R.V.B. – Well, you have a beautiful singing voice and that's something that you can go night after night without having issues. How long is your set approximately? Did you do more than one set back in the day?
W.J. - Oh back then? Well when I got my band, I carried my own band for about twelve years. After I formed the band, we did dances primarily around in the mid west. So I would do three thirty minute sets a night and the band the rest of the time did dance music.
R.V.B. - Oh, I got you. When did you make the transition from straight - ahead country to rockabilly?
W.J. - Well, that was because Elvis talked to me about it and encouraged me to try to sing that. And I said, "I don't think I can". He said,"Well, I know that you can if you'll try it". He said, “ You need to be recording this kind of music because it's getting very popular very fast.” And of course he was right there (hahaha). So I changed record labels when my contract was up with Decca and I went to Capitol records. When I did that, I started recording little rock songs. It was hard to find material for a girl and when you look back into my discography, you see a lot of cover songs. That's about all I had. I began writing my own rock and roll songs. So you I've written quite a few and some country songs.
R.V.B. - I see. Now did you tour with Elvis from the record company? Did they put you together? Did you meet him in venues? How did you go about playing with him?
W.J. - It was purely accidental you know. It was just meant to be, I guess. My dad decided I shouldn't go out on the road alone at seventeen and I'm an only child. Mother decided she wanted me to have Daddy along to drive for me and take care of business - which suited me just fine and so. He quit his job and he didn't know how to book anybody so he found a name on a billboard and called Bob Neil in Memphis and asked if he would be interested in booking dates for me and Bob Neil said, “yes” he would. He said, " I'm booking a young man who is getting real popular" and I could use a girl on the shows that he does. So that's how I met Elvis and began working tours with him.
R.V.B. - What would that be in the late 50"s. 57ish?
W.J. - It was 1955.
W.J. – Yeah, I graduated that year. Let's see… I graduated in May and in July was working with Elvis.
R.V.B. – Wow! So you moved up the ladder quickly after high school.
W.J. - Yeah, yeah
R.V.B. - So throughout the years you played with quite a few good musicians in the band. I see Roy Clark.
W.J. - Yeah
R.V.B. - Who else comes to name that you really enjoyed playing with in your band?
W.J. - Well , all of my guys were good musicians and if I told you names it wouldn't mean anything. They were just young men that maybe had a band formed and I used them and called them “The Wanda Jackson Band” or something.
R.V.B. - Were they from Oklahoma or did you find them in major cities like Nashville or cities like that?
W.J. - The first band that I used was out of Kansas.
R.V.B. - Oh really?
W.J. – Yeah, I had signed with the man that booked Hank Thompson. His name is Jim Halsey and so I signed with him and he did the booking. It was getting to where I needed my own band to play these dances because it was getting very hard night after night to have different bands. He found a little four - piece band there in Kansas somewhere and put them with me and they were called Bobby Poe and the Poe Kats. I didn't have a name for my band until I had the hit song "Let's Have a Party" - so the name of the band was Wanda Jackson and the Partytimers.
R.V.B. - That sounds like a fun name.
W.J. - Hahah
W.J. – Ah… in Hollywood at the Capitol Tower.
R.V.B. - Oh ok. In that round building?
W.J. - Uh huh
R.V.B. - I see. Did you ever come to New York to record?
W.J. - The only thing I ever recorded in New York was a couple of songs in the Japanese language and for some reason they set me up in New York to do that. That was later in the (Oh Gosh) 80's.
R.V.B. - I went to Nashville this year, and I went to the Country Hall of Fame and I walk in on the third floor and there is a big video there of you playing "Hard Headed woman" and I said to my buddy, "Stop, we gotta watch this"
W.J. - Hahaha
R.V.B. - I absolutely love that song. You had such confidence in singing it and everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves in the background. Now, where was that recorded?
W.J. - When or Where?
R.V.B. - Was that from a TV show?
W.J. – Yeah, what you saw was a Town Hall Party clip. That was in Compton in the Los Angeles area. It was a real popular Saturday night live show. It had Tex Ritter on it and Joe Maphis , The Collins Kids, and quite a few names that were popular.
R.V.B. - Right, now you mentioned that you toured Japan and did some songs in Japanese, but I see you also made an album in German. I'm sure that took you on a tour to Germany and you were very popular over there also - correct?
W.J. - Right. My very first release at Capitol Records of Germany, that's who I did it for. The first release became a number one song in Germany - also in some of the bordering countries. I think Austria- and maybe Brussels - and places like that. So yeah, it was a beautiful song and now to this day people still know that song. The younger people sing the chorus right along with me. So it came kind of what they call an evergreen song. Every generation knows it.
R.V.B. - That's fantastic.
R.V.B. - Do you go over there periodically?
W.J. - Oh yeah. I usually always go once a year - and for several years I worked... ninety percent of my work was in Europe. Great Britain and Europe and Scandinavia. So I'm very well - known in those areas.
R.V.B. – Yeah, it's amazing how the great American artists are really appreciated almost more than in the U.S. , I guess that's just the way it is.
W.J. - Yes, more respected and admired, you know we get bigger crowds. At least I did until recently but now I have big crowds in America too.
R.V.B. - Well, that's great that you're out there still doing what you love.
W.J. - Yeah ,you betcha
R.V.B. - Now you had a long Vegas run. Did you primarily play in one hotel or various spots?
W.J. – Well, let's see… I started out in the Showboat in the lounge at The Showboat Hotel and Casino. Then after I had "Let's Have a Party", I headlined at The Golden Nugget downtown. That's where I would have long runs you know. Two and three week runs at a time. Then the last place I worked in Vegas was with Hank Thompson and we had our show in the Freemont hotel which is downtown. That's the last jobs I did in Vegas.
R.V.B. - Where did you meet your husband? It sounds like you have a nice long - lasting relationship and he's a real great guy.
W.J. - Well thank you, I think so. Well, we've celebrated fifty two years of marriage now and we're still quite happy. I met him through a girlfriend who was dating him. (haha) I used to go out with them when I was in town and you know if they had a date, I'd tag along with them. She was a singer too... is a singer. She got an offer to go to Nashville to be on The Porter Wagner Show -which was a show that was just starting. So she decided to do that and left Wendell here footloose and fancy free. So I grabbed hold of him.
R.V.B. - Hahaha -It sounds like it was a good move.
W.J. - I chased him until he caught me.
R.V.B. = Hahaha - now as far as your influences... obviously there's country but for a while there you were playing a gospel style. How did you enjoy that?
W.J. – Well, that was very special work. My husband and I became Christians in 1971 and we were just so thrilled with our new life in Christ and I wanted to sing gospel music and Capitol let me put out one gospel album. But after that, they didn't want me recording any more gospel. I felt like I wanted to and so I got my release from Capitol and went to Word Records which was an all gospel Label. But after I signed with them - shortly after - they sold out to a big conglomerate. I got lost in the shuffle there and so I left that label and by that time my husband and I were doing ministry of where we still traveled and mostly one - nighters. We would have an evening in a church or a high school auditorium or an outdoor event where I would do a concert of gospel songs. I would give my testimony and then he would come and give his testimony and it was like a church service, but it was just all he and I. We saw a lot of lives changed. People coming to Christ like we had. It was very gratifying work.
R.V.B. - It sounds it. It sounds like a fantastic thing to do and you're up close with people and meeting new friends all of the time. That sounds fantastic.
W.J. – Yeah, it was a wonderful time. We went back into secular music when I got an invitation to go to Sweden and record an album of rockabilly, country and gospel - whatever I wanted to sing. So we went there and we did a three week tour around cutting the album. On the strength of that I worked Sweden, Norway, and the Scandinavian area for twenty two years straight.
R.V.B. – Wow!
W.J. - I had a lot of fans there and I didn't even know it. Then Germany opened up and Great Britain and places like that.
R.V.B. – Now, when you did all of this touring did you live out of hotels? Did you have a home base? How did that work?
W.J. - Well no mostly in hotels. The last couple of years we had a flat that we got for the summer months - you know - like all of July. That's usually the time I worked the most. So we had a little apartment there.
W.J. – Ah - I had one since then called Unfinished Business.
R.V.B. - Oh that's another good name (hehe)
W.J. - (haha) Yeah. "The Party Ain't Over" was done with Jack White.
R.V.B. - How did you get involved with him?
W.J. – Well, he just asked me.
R.V.B. - He's a great musician and a shrewd business man.
W.J. - Apparently
R.V.B. - I just recently purchased this box set of Paramount records and I'm really enjoying it.
W.J. - Oh well, great.
R.V.B. - One other question I wanted to ask you. Did you ever get put on any bills on the tours that you played with any blues players?
W.J. - No - not really.
R.V.B. - You were always grouped with other country and rockabilly artists? I'm sure you've played a lot of festivals in your career.
W.J. - A whole bunch. Everyone that ever was I think (haha). They were mostly rock and roll I would say.
R.V.B. - Who were some of the other bands that you've met throughout your journeys?
W.J. - Oh Goodness - probably too many to name. It's like a who's who, you know. Carl Perkins … oh gosh.
R.V.B. - Did you ever meet The Beatles or any of those English guys?
W.J. - No. I didn't care for the Beatles much. They came in and took over Capitol Records. The rest of us on Capitol couldn't get a record released no matter what we did (haha). All the presses were busy printing The Beatles. So it made it real hard on the other artists.
R.V.B. - How about Johnny Cash? Were you ever on a bill with him?
W.J. - Oh yeah. He worked with Elvis and me.
R.V.B. - Did you ever meet mother Maybelle Carter?
W.J. - I don't think I met her. I knew June Carter but as far as just touring with I met Elvis, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, ah…
R.V.B. - That's some big names right there, so what do you like to do when you are not playing? Do you like to read? Do you like to go shopping?
W.J. - I'm not much for shopping. I wait until it's a dire necessity. So, oh yeah, I love to read and of course with traveling I have a lot of time to read. So at home I try to squeeze in an hour here and there to read but it's mostly just things that everybody does. Running around making appointments, um… and doctor appointments and hair appointments and nails and get ready for the next tour mainly.
R.V.B. - Are you writing any music these days? Do you sit around and come up with new stuff?
W.J. - No. I Think I got just too lazy or something (haha) - something happened. Music changed pretty much.
R.V.B. - It's kind of a shame what happened. The internet killed releasing records and it's just like as soon as you release a record it's everywhere. Something has got to be done. It's not like the old days when you buy a 45 and play it over and over again until the grooves wear out.
W.J. - Right - right. I don't like what's happened either. But the music itself began changing I don't know somewhere in the 80's maybe. I'm not sure because I was in the gospel years ,you know, for so long. But I found I just couldn't write the type of songs that people were singing. My songs were simpler as most of them were in the 50's, 60's and 70's and I didn't know the chords they were using. Weird chord combinations and things - and so I just kinda gave up and I shouldn't have, but I was busy working and didn't have time to mess with it.
R.V.B. - So what's on tap? Where are you playing next?
W.J. - You know ? I don't know (haha)
R.V.B. - I'm sure it will be somewhere right before you know it.
W.J. – Yeah, I've taken it a lot easier this year because about the last three or four years I just net myself coming and going.
R.V.B. – Well, I tell you one thing ,what's a travesty is that you're not in the country hall of fame. I don't know what's up with that? That should be like an automatic. Do you think that's gonna happen?
W.J. - Oh , I don't look for it to. It'll be a nice surprise if it does, but that's just like the rock and roll hall of fame.
R.V.B. - Right, Well, I know you're in that and that's gotta be a thrill too. Did you go to the induction ceremony for that?
W.J. - Oh yeah, yeah.
R.V.B. - How was it and who presented the award to you?
W.J. – Ah… Roseanne Cash
R.V.B. - Oh very nice. That was what in the mid 90's?
W.J. - 2009
R.V.B. – Well, that's very nice and we gotta get you in the country hall of fame, and like I said at the beginning of the conversation - everybody's proud of you. You're having a great career still and it was so nice to see you on the Letterman show playing with Jack White and that was quite an unusual song. That was a rocker.
R.V.B. – Right, that took me by surprise.
W.J. - That whole album I did with Jack, they're all cover songs but that was from that album.
R.V.B. - I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. It was a thrill for me and thank you very much for taking this time with me.
W.J. - Ok that's quite alright Rob. Thank you.
R.V.B. - and tell your husband I said, “Thank You” also.
W.J. - Ok will do.
R.V.B. - Have a nice day.
W.J. – Bye, Bye - you too.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
Visit Wanda Jackson's website for more information www.wandajackson.com
To order Wanda's music click the Amazon ad to the right.
This interview may not be reproduced in any part or form
email me at musicguy247(at)aol(dot)com for more information