There were other girls in Elvis Presley’s life when Wanda Jackson dated him in the mid-1950s. She didn’t see him with them; she didn’t have to. “I think a woman’s intuition would tell you,” she recalls with a chuckle.
Jackson was the first to bring a woman’s intuition into the boys’ club of early rock & roll, and she did it on Elvis’ urging. A budding seventeen-year-old country star from Oklahoma, she took her tourmate’s advice and tried her hand in the feisty world of rockabilly. Half a century after the two young singers rubbed elbows, Jackson, 68, is honoring her old beau with the tribute album I Remember Elvis, due January 31st.
“He broke into my train of thought and made me realize I could stretch myself,” she recalls. “I could do more than I thought I could.”
The album features Jackson’s renditions of early Elvis songs such as “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Love Me Tender” and “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” all of which she first heard while standing in the wings. The CD will include a bonus track of stories from Jackson’s courtship with Elvis. She still has the ring he gave her: “My husband says it’s all right.”
Elvis and Wanda were part of an extended package tour during 1955 and ’56, just as he was becoming a superstar. “Our dating amounted to what we could do on the road,” she says — not to mention what they could do with her father, her manager, in tow. “If we got in town early, we might take in a matinee movie. Then after shows we could go places with his band — and my dad, of course.”
Soon, however, Presley could hardly go out in public: “Anywhere that pink Cadillac went with the bass strapped on the top, the whole town was there.”
Wanda’s father Tom, a onetime barber who quit his job to accompany his only daughter on the road, would serve as her manager until she married Wendell Goodman, still her husband and manager today, in 1961. By then, she had lost touch with the King.
“It was very important, a girl’s reputation, in those days,” Jackson says. “There were things you could and couldn’t do, and my daddy made sure I never crossed that line.”
Once she took up rock & roll, however, she left another impression. Her songs were full of vinegar — “Mean Mean Man,” “Hard Headed Woman” — and she cut covers by some of rock & roll’s wildest, including Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. She sang them all with gravel-throated gusto.
“It just came natural, I guess,” says the unfailingly gracious grandmother of four.
Her signature, the raunchy raveup “Let’s Have a Party,” was initially recorded by Elvis (as “Party”) for the 1957 film Loving You. Jackson claims she was actually inspired by a subsequent version by Larry and Lorrie Collins, the Collins Kids. Her belated hit with the song, backed by Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps, kicked its way into the Top Forty in 1960, two years after it was recorded. By then, Jackson had already given up on rock & roll and returned to her roots in heartache-y country music.
After Elvis, Jackson’s career took more than its share of detours. Already a star in Japan due to her Number One recording of the atomic platter “Fujiyama Mama,” in 1965 she was persuaded to record in German. Though she initially protested — “I said, ‘I’m an Okie! I can hardly sing in English'” — she had another overseas Number One with the song “Santo Domingo,” to this day a staple of German pop.
In the 1970s, Wanda and Wendell were born again, devoting themselves to gospel music and running a ministry. When another European label approached Jackson about making a return to rockabilly in the mid-’80s, she had to think long and hard. “We prayed about that,” she says. “We talked to our pastor, and he said, ‘You need to take your testimony wherever you can.'”
By the mid-1990s, latter-generation American rockabilly fans had caught up with the Europeans in their appreciation for Jackson, and she has been touring as the “Queen of Rockabilly” ever since. Neko Case, Robbie Fulks and Wayne Hancock were some of the contributors on the recent tribute album Hard Headed Woman: A Celebration of Wanda Jackson, and you can hear her influence on the White Stripes as well.
In September, Jackson was honored as a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship. “It’s the most prestigious award any artist can receive,” she says. “It blows you away.” And it helps counter the nagging sense that Wanda Jackson, arguably the first woman in rock & roll, should already be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
“There’s been a big push for that,” she acknowledges. “My fans are upset. I’m in all the other Halls of Fame you can think of. It’ll happen — it’d be nice if I’m still living, but it’ll happen. ‘Cause I was the first.”
Reaching back for some of the old attitude, she says with a laugh, “Hey, if they don’t know it, that’s their problem.”
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