Plenty of people have fantasized about the young, virile, mid-Fifties Elvis Presley. But Wanda Jackson, who can make a persuasive claim for being the first female rockabilly singer, is one of the few who actually dated him.
"I know that you've read that he was a true gentlemen, and he certainly was. I was very impressed with that," she says. "And he loved his fans. It just broke his heart when it got to where he couldn't sign autographs anymore. One time in 1956 or 1957, we were going out for dinner with my mother and daddy after a show, and the kids just about ripped him apart when he made a dash for our car. His coat was half off, someone had ripped his tie off, and his shirt was all unbuttoned--they'd tried to pull that off, too. And, of course, he was just laughing. He loved every minute of it."
As anecdotes go, Jackson's Elvis memories may not compare with author Albert Goldman's tales of the late-period King romping with willing vixens clad in white panties, but it's an indication of the width and breadth of her musical career. She emerged on the pop scene as a teenager, and while her rockabilly tunes didn't bust any sales marks, they have proven to be lastingly influential. Whether they know it or not, every woman rocker with a brassy manner and a knack for putting men in their place owes a debt of gratitude to Wanda Jackson.
But Jackson is more than a rockabilly icon. When her dalliance with rock and roll began to run its course, she returned to her first love: country music. She scored country hits throughout the Sixties and, after becoming a Christian in the early Seventies, embarked on an excursion into the gospel field. Today she continues to practice Christianity, but she has no problem performing the scorching rockabilly with which she made her name. "I was always pretty careful selecting material," she maintains, "and I always had Christian beliefs even before I actually became a Christian--I was brought up in the church. Besides, I think all that music was very innocent."
That may be so, but it didn't sound so pure when Jackson sang it. Her enthusiastically lascivious delivery of the lines "Some people like to rock/Some people like to roll/But movin' and a-groovin's gonna satisfy my soul" (from "Let's Have a Party," a Jackson signature piece that Presley warbled in the film Loving You) strongly implies that playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey isn't what she's got in mind. She's just as forward on "Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad," in which she gets even with an indifferent boyfriend by going out with his best friend, then laughing in her beau's face when he demands to know where she's been. And on "Fujiyama Mama," she offers one of the most jaw-dropping performances of her era or any other. The tune's lyrics--"I've been to Nagasaki/Hiroshima, too/The same I did to them, baby/I can do to you/Because I'm a Fujiyama Mama/And I'm just about to blow my top/And when I start erupting/Ain't nobody gonna make me stop"--may be politically incorrect atomic-age relics, but Jackson gives them a gleeful danger that can still stop clocks nearly four decades later.
The forcefulness that Jackson exudes has made her a women's-movement hero--an honor she's reluctant to embrace. "I'm certainly not a feminist," she declares. "I'm all female, if you know what I mean. I like it the old-fashioned way. I like men to take care of me." But at the same time, Jackson recognizes that she didn't kowtow to Fifties notions of how women were supposed to behave. According to her, "I was just being me, but I did realize that I was different."
Born in Maud, Oklahoma, less than an hour's drive from Oklahoma City, Jackson moved with her family to California when she was four. A few years later she picked up a guitar, and by the time she was sixteen, she was duetting with the Brazos Valley Boys, a group associated with Hank Thompson. She cut a handful of country sides for Capitol in 1956 and wound up on several package tours with Presley while promoting them. Inspired by Elvis, she interspersed country recordings with the rockabilly tunes for which she's best known in rock circles--"Honey Bop," "Mean, Mean Man" and "Riot in Cell Block #9" among them.
Just as memorable as these tracks was Jackson's look. "I decided I wanted to get some sexiness in there," she acknowledges. "I was the first one to get into tight skirts and high heels and long earrings. I always liked the tighter clothes, the more sexy clothes. I even designed them, and my mother made them--she was a professional seamstress.
"I was wearing silk fringe back in the late Fifties, long before go-go girls came along. When I walked or patted my foot, all this fringe just shook, which people thought was pretty wild. And when they thought it was wild, I probably got a little wilder--although probably not as wild as I am today."
"Party," among Jackson's more unrestrained extravaganzas, was her first substantial pop success: It broke into the Top 40 in 1960 (two years after it first appeared) and paved the way for the modest successes "Right or Wrong" and "In the Middle of a Heartache," both from 1961. The latter ditties also made noise at country radio, which subsequently embraced straight C&W offerings such as 1966's "Tears Will Be the Chaser for Your Wine" and 1967's "A Girl Don't Have to Drink to Have Fun."
During the same period, Jackson enjoyed enduring popularity in Europe, where she was worshiped for her rockabilly exploits. "I had a number-one song, `Santo Domingo,' in Germany in 1965, and it's still popular there, even though, to me, it isn't really country," she discloses. "I sang it in the German language, which was the hardest work I ever did. I had to do it phonetically because I didn't have time to learn the language, and they liked my accent--they said if I learned to speak German I'd lose my accent, and they didn't want that to happen. It took me six hours in front of the microphone to get it, but I'm glad I did, because I'm still reaping the benefits from it."
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In 1973, two years after her Christian transformation, Jackson left Capitol for Myrrh Records, but she was lost in a corporate shuffle the next year. As a result, she struggled through the remainder of the decade by recording and manufacturing her own church-music records and selling them at revival meetings where she performed. Fortunately, her European audience remained loyal. She's toured the continent annually for the past twelve years and recently rewarded her Old Country fans by releasing a new CD (Let's Have a Party, featuring pleasant but somewhat sedate versions of several of her classics) and Right or Wrong: The Wanda Jackson Story, part one of a scheduled two-volume autobiography.
Jackson's stateside status seems to be improving as well. She's always been looked upon as something of an outsider by the country establishment, but earlier this month she was asked to donate a guitar and an outfit for a display at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. And she's currently touring with Rosie Flores--her first such jaunt in well over a decade. "So many of my fans are glad to hear that I'm getting some recognition now," she explains, adding, "Heck, they're just glad I'm still alive and kicking."
No, she's not the same Fujiyama Mama she once was. In fact, she sounds proudest not about her return to U.S. stages but about her grandchildren. "For Halloween, the youngest--she's three--was a ballerina. The other granddaughters were bikers." She laughs before revealing, "I was a biker babe, too."
Elvis would have been pleased.
Wanda Jackson & Rosie Flores, with Jim Lauderdale, 9:30 p.m. Friday, November 17, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $12, 1-800-444-SEAT or 294-9281.