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WANDA JACKSON

The singing star tells of her early career and association with "the King"

Wanda Jackson Wanda Jackson not only had a front row seat to the beginnings of rock 'n' roll she is also part of that history. In 1956 she became America's first female rock 'n' roll singer. She is referred to as the first lady of rockabilly and the queen of rockabilly.

GJ: Wanda, did you have the feeling as you were growing up, that something wa shappening musically that would forever change the world?

WJ: Yes, oddly enough I knew because I was experiencing it with Elvis. In '55 I started touring with him, not exclusively but a lot of tours through the next 2 years. My Dad travelled with me then. Even Elvis encouraged me to try and do this kind of music. I was just strictly country at that time. I finally got a rock 'n' roll hit in 1959 'Let's Have A Party'.

GJ: Who encouraged you to record that song - your father or Elvis.

WJ: Elvis had done it in the movie 'Lovin' You'. I'm sure I'd seen the movie. I did my first album project with Capitol Records in 1956 and I did 11 country songs. We needed one more and we had been opening with 'Let's Have A Party' and it was obvious everybody loved it.

It wasn't until 1959 that a disc jockey in Iowa began playing it and he contacted my producer at Capitol Ken Nelson and told him he'd have a hit on his hands if he released the track as a single. I've been forever grateful to that young man (laughs).

GJ: Is it true that Gene Vincent's Blue Caps backed you on that record?

WJ: Well, no,and I don't know where that rumour started. I've been hearing that for the past few years. I worked with Gene and was with him at the conventions. I kind of knew him but we never did any recording.

GJ: Your father was an amateur musician, did he ever play professionally?

WJ: Well, he did. He had a dance band, we're talking early-1930s. He played guitar, fiddle and sang. Of course he had to pick cotton and do all these other things too. But at weekends his band would play at National Guard Armorys or whatever. Then, the Depression hit, and he wasn't able to work as much. He'd met my mother in the meantime, and they married. So his career was over because of the times.

Actually he was very good, he taught me guitar. We used to sing together, and he introduced me to country music.

GJ: Did both your parents encourage you musicially?

WJ: Oh, yeah. I'm an only child. Daddy was so excited when I loved the music he loved. He was so instrumental in encouraging me and showing me how to do it, and helping me along the way. He even quit his job after I was out of school in order to travel with me so I could go on the road.

My mother stayed home and worked, she made my stage outfits. So I was able to have their full attention and all their energies. It wa simportnat in those days for a woman's reputation to be kept intact, so that is one reason why he travelled with me, the other reason wa sstrictly economics. I wasn't making enough money to have a bus, or a band so we pooled our money and scrimped and saved until I finally made $100 a night; when I started it was $50. (laughs).

GJ: You must be amazed at how the world of music has grown since you started out?

WJ: It's mind-boggling. I still think that the American people still attach too much esteem to entertainers, the really important jobs in society are less well-paid. I get a little upset when I see the outrageous salaries but, hey, that's free enterprise. It upsets me that the great performers in my era worked for $1000 a night, bt we didn't record record sales like today. We didn't have the same media coverage.

GJ: You had your own radio show in Oklahoma City at 15. What did you do on this show, did you play other people's material, did you sing?

WJ: I was actually 13 or 14. It was just a little 15 minute program and I sang with just my guitar and took requests. I had a sponsor. In those days the radio stations didn't specialise. They didn't have all country or all pop, all news. So I won a little contest being in one of those country music shows and that was my own 15 minute program.

GJ: About a year after getting this radio show, you were signed to Decca Records. How did that happen, did someone hear your radio show?

WJ: Yeah. It was my very favorite singer then and still is. Hank Thompson had moved to Oklahoma City and had his band and headquarters there. he heard my show one afternoon. After the show I took a phone call and he invited me to sing with him the following Saturday night.

He had a recording studio and his band was available, He offered to help me make a demo to send to Decca, and two years later he was instrumental in my signing to Capitol Records.

GJ: Why the switch of labels?

WJ: I wanted to be on the same label as my hero Hank Thompson, Capitol wouldn't sign me until I was old enough.

GJ: What was your tour with Elvis like, in June 1955.

WJ: My father arranged it, as it turns out. I was ready to go on the road, I'd had a couple of hits and my name was pretty well known. He wanted to help me and get me some dates but he really didn't know how to start. So he bought a Billboard and just looked through it and for some reason he was drawn to the contact Bob Neal, in Memphis, who had Elvis. Bob said he was familiar with me and said they could use a girl in the show. That's how it came about: pure luck.

GJ: So this was pre-Colonel Parker?

WJ: Yes.

GJ: How did you travel?

WJ: My dad and I just used the family car. Elvis at that time was driving on tour with his first pink Cadillac.

GJ: Where did you perform?

WJ: Some clubs, but not very many.. Most of the time it was auditoriums because he already had a following from Tennessee via Texas. I had never heard of him. Oklahoma wasn't playing his records. he had some real 'hot' spots and that's where we worked.

GJ: When was the last time you spoke to Elvis?

WJ: It was in '64 and I was in Vegas. My husband and I and another couple were staying in Vegas, it turned out that our rooms were on the same floor as Elvis. His entourage had the whole floor with the exception of our two rooms. I said to the security guard to tell Elvis that I was in the hotel and that I would love to say hi to him. After about 20 minutes the message came back that Elvis would love to come down and say hi to me and my party.

He came to the room and we chatted for about 10 to 15 minutes. I was so grateful that my husband got to meet him too, as he was a big fan.

The truth is although we dated there was no hanky panky between me and Elvis. (Laughs) My Dad was with me.

GJ: If he hadn't been there, you could have been Mrs Elvis Presley…

WJ: We really liked each other and liked similar things, but he wasn't ready to marry. I wanted my career and he was career-orientated so we just had fun together. We'd go into town together, catch a movie and we'd get a hamburger after the show. But it finally got to the point where he was mobbed wherever we went.

GJ: How long were you on tour with Elvis?

WJ: Until 1957, that's when Elvis went to California to begin his movie career. He'd already signed with Parker, which I didn't like, and then our paths didn't cross again until 1964 in Vegas.

GJ: What keeps you busy these days?

WJ: I tour 12 months a year. I've taken one little sabbatical but I couldn't stand being at home! I told my husband 'Get me back on the road!'

© 2002 Gary James. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.


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