In July 1955, 17-year-old country singer Wanda Jackson - the future first lady of rockabilly - first shared a stage with a young man from Memphis named Elvis Presley.
Jackson had graduated from her Oklahoma City high school the previous month. She didn’t have a manager yet. She didn’t know how to get herself on a tour. So her dad found the name of Presley’s manager in music trade publication Billboard. He gave Bob Neal a call.
“The first rattle out of the bag,” Jackson recalled last week, “Bob said, 'Well, yeah, I’ve heard of Wanda Jackson. I’m booking a young man who’s getting popular so fast, so it would be good to have a girl on the show.’ “
Touring with Presley in 1955 and ‘56, Jackson, already a hit recording artist thanks to 1954’s “You Can’t Have My Love,” pursued her career while simultaneously witnessing Presley’s swift ascent to national stardom.
“It was great fun seeing all the explosive things happening to him,” she remembered. “I was touring with him when he was getting his clothes yanked off by the kids. All the girls were rushing to the stage and screaming and crying and yelling.
“We’d never seen audiences go wild like that. Our audiences had always been adults but here Elvis was drawing this younger crowd. Kids my age were coming to see him.”
Presley’s popularity soon outgrew that of the country acts with whom he and Jackson toured.
“Big country music artists tried to work with Elvis but it got to where he didn’t need them,” Jackson said. “His name was already big enough all through Texas and Arkansas, Mississippi and, of course, Tennessee.”
Presley later surprised Jackson by encouraging her to start singing the new music he was doing. But having grown up with western swing and country-and-western, Jackson saw herself as a country act.
“I thought, 'He’s crazy. I can’t do stuff like that.’ But Elvis just kept on and kept on. He took me to his home one afternoon and we played records. He sang, giving me the feel for this music. Even while all this was happening for him, he really was that interested in my little career. I thought that was wonderful of him.”
Jackson seriously considered her famous friend’s advice. She talked it over with her father, too, who’d been a professional musician himself.
“And then Elvis got us both together,” she said. “He explained that this is where music is going, that it’s the young now who are buying the records and requesting that the disc jockeys play this music. Elvis said if you’re gonna be a big artist, you need to be doing this kind of music.”
Jackson’s father had no reservations about his daughter singing rockabilly.
“He loved that kind of music, too, even though Elvis was beginning to get bad press for that 'hellish’ music he was doing and for 'ruining our teenagers.’ But my daddy never felt that way at all. Maybe because he knew Elvis. So daddy said, 'Yeah, I think Elvis is right.’ “
Once Jackson sang “I Gotta Know,” a rockabilly song written especially for her, the style felt right to her.
“I loved country music and I wanted to be a country star,” she recalled. “But country and rockabilly were so closely related that I didn’t see any problem with doing both of them.”
Jackson’s subsequent 45-rpm records featured a country song on one side and a rock song on the other. But comfortable as she was singing the new sound, disc jockeys of the era wouldn’t accept a girl doing rock ‘n’ roll.
“When I came along in my tight-fitting fringe dresses singing these songs toe to toe with the guys, the disc jockeys, I think, collectively said, 'We’re just not gonna have this.’ “
For instance, Jackson’s 1958 rockabilly classic, “Fujiyama Mama,” was a hit in Japan but a flop in the United States.
“So I couldn’t get much airplay on the rock things,” she said. “Luckily, they kept playing the country.”
Ahead of her time, Jackson has only recently been feted for her pioneering contribution to rock ‘n’ roll history. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, citing her as an early influence, inducted her in 2009. The Americana Music Awards gave her a lifetime achievement award in 2010. And last month Jackson toured with the best-selling recording artist of 2011, Adele.
“So I’m just now reaping the benefits of all those rock ‘n’ roll songs,” she said.
Jackson’s 2011 album, The Party Ain’t Over, is another example of her resurgence. Produced by rock star Jack White and recorded at his Nashville studio, the disc includes remakes of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good,” Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ “Shakin’ All Over” and a song by a major influence upon Jackson, Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #6.”
“Jack is so talented and creative,” she said. “And this album that he’s done for me, I think it’s a classic. He had a direction and a sound in mind for me on every song. And I didn’t stop singing until I got the performance he was wanting.”
The queen of rock ‘n’ roll even learned a few things from her young producer.
“You’re never too old to learn,” she said. “And Jack gave me such confidence by wanting to work with me. And now I miss hearing from him, the emails and things, because we aren’t working on anything now. And I just miss him. I look at him like a son, even though he’s younger than my son. He’s a delightful, special person in my book.”