This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on May 9, 2007.
Fifty years after she first hit the country and rock charts, singer Wanda Jackson is winning over a whole new generation of fans.
Jackson played alongside Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis in the 1950s, arguably becoming the first woman to sing rock music. She never stopped recording and touring, though she shifted to gospel music in the 1970s. Now in the midst of a comeback, she’ll perform a concert at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn Friday, including her classic songs as well as the Presley cover tunes she recorded on her most recent album, “I Remember Elvis.”
She talked about her career last week in a phone interview.
Q: Are you surprised that young fans know your songs from the ’50s?
A: Here in America, I didn’t know all these rockabilly fans were here. I didn’t know all these venues, until I recorded with Rosie Flores and we did a tour together. Fans were asking for songs that I hadn’t sung in years. One night after one show, there came this young man and he handed me an envelope. He said, “Inside are the lyrics to ‘Mean, Mean Man’ so you can start singing it.”
Q: Elvis Presley was the one who encouraged you to start singing rockabilly?
A: Oh, yeah, most definitely. I was touring with him … As we became friends and became better acquainted, he began telling me he thought I should try this new kind of music — because he thought I could do it. I don’t know how he knew that, because I sure didn’t know it.
Q: How did you make the switch from country to rockabilly?
A: Elvis did take me to his home. We played records, and he had his guitar and was singing — you know, kind of giving me an idea for the feel.
It was very hard to find songs because no one was writing rock-type songs for girls — because there weren’t any girls singing. I was the first one. So I began writing quite a few of my own. “Mean, Mean Man” was one of the first that I wrote and recorded of my own things.
Q: Did you have a particular mean man in mind when you wrote it?
A: Not really, no. That’s the title that my Dad came up with. I thought it was a cute idea.
Q: Did you know right away that Elvis was something special?
A: I knew that he was special. I’d never seen anybody be able to do with an audience what he was able to do — just walking out onstage, before he even sang a note. I was quite amazed. I learned from working with him and watching him. I learned not to take myself serious. He just kind of played and flirted with his audience — collectively, as if they were one person. And I’ve been able to do that, too.
He’s been very helpful to me and my career. Of course, I had his ring that I wore.
Q: You were his girlfriend for a time?
A: Well, I think I was. He asked me to be his girl. Apparently, for a while there, I was.
Q: Tell me about the time you played on the Grand Ole Opry.
A: I was wearing clothes different than any other girl. I was always sort of out there on a limb. That’s where I liked it. So when I was invited to come to the Opry, I designed a special dress and Mother made it. When I started designing my own glamorous and sexy styles, she was able to make them — and make them fit me like a glove.
I was waiting to go onstage, and Ernest Tubbs came backstage to see if I was ready. I was standing there in my new dress with my guitar on. And he said, “Well, you can’t go the stage at the Opry with this dress.”
I said, “I don’t know what you mean.”
He said, “Women can’t show their shoulders on the stage of the Opry.”
I said, “I wasn’t told that. I knew nothing about it.”
He said, “Well, it can’t be helped, you can’t go on like that, and you’re on after this song.”
So I was really pressured. I went back to the dressing room and got a jacket I had worn, and put it on, and went onstage in tears. I was so unhappy and mad and upset.
I didn’t like anything about working at the Grand Ole Opry. I had always listened to it and was proud that I was going to be on, but the way that it was handled — the people behind you upstaging you. I told Daddy I wouldn’t ever go back. And I didn’t.
Q: A lot of people are saying you should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
A: Yeah, that seems to be the consensus. There’s all kinds of hall of fames, and I’m in a bunch of them, but I don’t have the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is really quite ridiculous, because I was the first girl to do it.
Photo by Robert Loerzel