In the 1950s, Wanda Jackson was one of the first women to record rock 'n' roll. Now 70, Jackson is the subject of a new Smithsonian Channel documentary, "The Sweet Lady With the Nasty Voice," in which she's praised by Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen. She spoke with the magazine's Kenneth R. Fletcher.
How did you get your start singing rock 'n' roll?
When I was in high school in Oklahoma City, I won a contest and got a little radio show of my own. One day after the show Hank Thompson [a singer-songwriter who sold more than 60 million records] called and asked if I would like to sing with his band Saturday night. I signed with Capitol Records when I was 18. After I had a few hits under my belt, I was ready to start touring. My dad acted as manager, chauffer and chaperon. Mother made my clothes. The first person that I worked with happened to be Elvis Presley.
Before he was famous?
Yes, but he was getting more popular every week. I saw the girls screaming and hollering. Our music, which was then called rockabilly was actually the first rock 'n' roll. Bill Haley was first, to give credit where credit is due, but when Elvis came along he made it phenomenal. Not every musician was successful with those songs; I was because I romped and roared and stomped through them. And I was the only girl doing it.
You really had a style, inspired by Elvis in some ways, but with very much your own voice.
Most definitely. But finding my voice kind of evolved. [Elvis] encouraged me to try this new kind of music. He said, "We've always directed our music, especially recordings, to the adult audience because they're the ones buying the records." But Elvis changed that. All of a sudden it was the young people, mostly girls, buying the records. When I thought about that and approached Capitol with the idea, my producer said, "Let's give it a try."
Were people having problems accepting a woman singing that? A little too out there?
They didn't want to accept Elvis and Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis and those, but they didn't have much choice because that's what the people wanted to hear. But they weren't going to accept a teenage girl, dressing the way I dressed, and singing this wild devilish music, as they called it. It seems quite innocent now, doesn't it?
Were there any controversies about what you were singing?
I'm sure there was, but I didn't really hear about it. I changed my style of dressing about the time I started working with Elvis. I didn't like to wear the traditional clothes of a country girl singer; the cowboy boots and the full skirt with leather fringe and a hat. I can't stand that. I'm short and it didn't look good and didn't feel good. So my mother and I put our heads together and I started wearing high heels and a straight skirt, which I looked better in and showed my assets off a little better. It wasn't long until all the girls were copying me and they were dressing more like a lady rather than a cowboy. For a while, Capitol, my producer and I had to put a country song on one side of the single and a rock song on the other. My first album was all country, but I included the song "Let's Have a Party." Two years later a disk jockey started playing it on his show and got so much response that he called my producer and said, "I think you'll miss the boat if you don't pull that out of the album." So Capitol did, which is kind of unusual in itself.
Your latest record is a tribute Elvis. Can you tell me about what he was like and his influence on you? Why did you put out a tribute album 50 years after you first met him?
It took me long enough, didn't it? I was a little bit afraid to attempt his music, it's kind of like you're treading on sacred ground. First of all, we liked him very much. When I say we, I mean my dad and I. It wasn't long until just like all the other girls in the country, I had a crush on him. I just thought he was the greatest and he liked me a lot. We hung out together when we were on tour and went to movies and matinees. We were out after the shows almost every night. We got acquainted and he asked me to be his girl and gave me his ring to wear, which I did. We couldn't do the traditional dating because I lived in Oklahoma and he lived in Tennessee. When we weren't working he just called me. Because of his influence on my singing, I just felt I owed him that and this was the time to do it.
So you went to gospel music for an interlude. Why did you turn to that and why did you decide to go back, other than popular demand?
In 1971 my husband I became Christians. It so changed us. We were headed down a pretty rocky road. The main thing that God does for you when you really sell out to him and want to live for him is he sets your priorities up right. But then the requests for us started waning. I wanted to sing the other music. So my husband and I decided that now it was time. Usually, I think, the Lord just wants you to bloom wherever you are planted.
I was also curious if you have any favorite new singers. What do you think of modern music?
I don't listen to radio. I play my own CDs from my collection. I've got Tanya Tucker, Garth Brooks, Brooks and Dunn, Reba McIntire, of the new people. Of course I still listen a lot to Hank Thompson, my mentor who passed away last year. I've always just loved all kinds of music. Today's music, I just can't relate to it. It's just not my generation's music. That doesn't mean it's bad. It's just not my taste.
When you were starting out was a special time. Can you describe the atmosphere when you were developing this new kind of music?
As a 17-year-old, I didn't know that I really should remember all this. I was just kind of in a new world every day. They were my friends and my buddies and it was always a bunch of laughter going on. In the early days my dad was with me. He was a big kidder and Elvis was too. Johnny Cash was real shy. Then the other ones were normal. We had a lot of friends. It was so much fun really just working those 10-day or 14-day tours where you are working almost every night and you drive caravan style. Sometimes one of the band members would ride with me and dad. But I was never allowed to hang around backstage with just the guys. My dad kept me on a short leash.
In the documentary, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello and other musicians pay tribute to you.
Not too shabby, right? The film not only showcases my life but provides the whole scope of the 1950s rockabilly, rock 'n' roll era. My complaint is the title, "The Sweet Lady With the Nasty Voice." I'm not sure that's right, because I'm not sure I'm a sweet lady at all.