Wanda Jackson on working with Jack White and what she learned from Elvis

Although she started out as a country singer, it didn't take Wanda Jackson long to learn the ways of rock and roll though some encouragement of a young Elvis Presley. Just out of high school, Jackson toured with Elvis during the mid '50s and soon became the first lady of rock and roll and rockabilly. While she started recording country and gospel albums in the '60s and the '70s, she returned to rockabilly after being invited to play in Scandinavia and Europe in the '80s.

Most recently, the 73-year-old Jackson teamed up with Jack White, who produced her latest effort, The Party Ain't Over. The album includes some revved up takes on classics like "Rip it Up" and "Nervous Breakdown," a cover of Bob Dylan's "Thunder on the Mountain" and Amy Winehouse's "You Know That I'm No Good," which Jackson said was one of the more challenging tracks on the album. We spoke with Jackson in advance of her show tonight at the Boulder Theater and her date Sunday, April 3, at the Bluebird Theater about working with White, what she learned from Elvis and about her trademark growl.

Westword: How has the tour been going to so far?

Wanda Jackson: Well, we've just had one date on this particular leg of it. I do one tour right after the other. I've had two days off between the last tour and this one. The first night was sold out, and just about every place I've been has been sold out. You can't beat that.

How are the crowds? A mix of younger and older folks?

It kind of depends on the area. Last night was the first time I had, oh, probably a fourth of the audience was older folks, because the venue didn't have seating, and they knew it. But it's mostly thirty-somethings, well, twenties and thirties. They're so cute. I love working with them because they know the songs, and they sing along with me and they're so enthusiastic. It's wonderful.

How was it working with Jack White on The Party Ain't Over?

I wound up just having a blast. He's just such a cool guy. He was very nice and easy to work with. There were some songs that were a little different for me, and yet, he was very patient. He pushed me quite a bit -- you know, "Give me a little bit more." So after about half of the album was done, I said, "I think I've got it figured out, Jack." He pushed me until he'd pushed me right into the 21st century. I was just wondering how much longer would I be able to work just doing the songs from the '50s and '60s. We had a great time, and he gave me not only a whole generation of fans, but new songs to do.

Was it somewhat of a challenge when he was pushing you?

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It was a bit of a challenge, and yet, there was really just one song that I found hard. After I understood what he was wanting from my performance, then it got easier. That was the "You Know That I'm No Good" song. I did totally different than Amy Winehouse, but that's what he wanted. It took a little while to get it, but once I got it, I loved the song.

I was curious how you developed your trademark growl.

Yeah, it's become a trademark with me. I don't know how I developed it. I just began singing the rock and roll songs, and I found that's kind of what the songs demanded, or what I thought. And sure enough, I kind of reached down to my toes and found it. It gives the song more attitude, you know? It was so different in the '50s to hear a girl singing like that is why it became so distinctive with me.

How were people reacting to that back in the '50s?

Well, I think they liked just like they do today. It was different and fresh. Of course, I was young and feisty, and it worked well with my personality. So yeah, it seemed to work for me.

Early on in your career, Elvis pushed to toward rock and roll. What kind of advice did he give you early on?

First of all, he gave me encouragement to try this music. He said, "You can see how well it goes over and you see how popular it's becoming." Of course he knew that. I said, "Yeah, you can see that, but I don't think I can sing that type of song like you can sing it." He said, "Yeah." He was sure that I could.

He explained that the young people were beginning to be the ones who bought the records. It wasn't just the adults anymore. So if I wanted to have a big selling record or album, I needed to do the songs that the young kids can relate to. So that was a good piece of advice he gave me.

Do you think you might have continued singing country songs if you hadn't met Elvis?

I think I probably would have. That's hard to say. But the fact is by my jumping in and trying it, it made me the first woman to sing rock and roll. So that's an advantage too.

Has the new album opened a bigger audience for you?

I think because of all this extra publicity that I'm getting and because of working with Jack on the new album, I'm working larger venues and I am having sold out houses just about everywhere. Probably, on the last three tours, I may have had two venues that weren't totally sold out.

During the '80s, you started getting back into rockabilly after playing in Scandinavia, right?

Yeah, that's where it started for me. And then Western Europe opened up. It was like a revival for '50s rock -- or it never had died. I'm not sure what was happening there because I don't speak the languages. So it's hard to figure it out. But that got me back into singing those classic songs of mine.

In 1995, I realized that America was having a rock and roll revival. I did an extended tour with Rosie Flores across America, and she kind of reintroduced me to this new generation of the bands that are out there. Of course, they all knew my records already, and so that was a shock to me. They were singing the words with me, and I couldn't believe that. So that's when it began for me in America.

That has to be great feeling having the crowd sing along.

Yeah, especially when you look out there and you've got people younger than my children.

Do you have any advice for young gals wanting to get into the rock and roll? Anything you've kind of learned over the years?

The reason I probably don't have much advice is that this business is so different than any other business to begin with. People get into it in so many different ways. But also the music business has changed so much from when I began. So I wouldn't really know how to tell a young person how to start out except to just follow their dreams and to go for it. Young people who are determined to sing -- if they're born to sing -- I think they'll find a way to get into the business.

Would you say that you were born to sing?

Absolutely. It's the only thing that I've ever found that really rings my bell. Music is my real passion.

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