Wanda Jackson not only had a front row seat to the early days of Rock 'n' Roll, she was part of it. In 1956, she became America's first female Rock 'n' Roll singer. She is often referred to as the "First Lady Of Rockabilly" and the "Queen Of Rockabilly".
Q - Wanda, when you were growing up, did you sense that something was drastically changing in the music business?
A - Yes. Oddly enough I knew it because I was experiencing it with Elvis. In '55 I started touring with him. Not exclusively, but a lot of tours through the next two years. My Dad traveled with me then. He said "this is phenomenal what's happening." Even Elvis himself encouraged me to try and do this type of music. I was just strictly Country and naturally I didn't think I could. He and my Dad convinced me that I could if I wanted to. So, I jumped in and tried. It wasn't successful for me at that point, but it has certainly paid off years later! And I finally did get a Rock 'n' Roll hit in '59 or 1960. I guess "Let's Have A Party". But, I had recorded numerous things since '56 and I wanted a hit right then to get in with the guys, Jerry Lee (Lewis), Carl (Perkins) and Elvis. America wasn't ready for a girl doing that type of music. They were hardly ready for Elvis. It took the young people to make him a hit.
Q - Who encouraged you to record "Let's Have A Party", your father or Elvis?
A - Elvis had done it in the movie Lovin' You. I'm sure I'd seen the movie. The Collins Kids had it recorded. They'd had a pretty good little hit in Country music on it. So, I did my first album project with Columbia Records in '56 and I did eleven Country songs. We needed one more and by that point I had my own band I toured with. We'd been opening with "Let's Have A Party" because I thought that's a great opening song. I could tell people loved it. I asked my producer Ken Nelson "Can I put this little Rock 'n' Roll thing in here?" He said "Sure. Do what you want to." It was three years before that song was pulled out of that first album. I kind of backed into Rock 'n' Roll in that sense. A disc jockey in Iowa began playing it in '59. The story goes he contacted Ken Nelson at Capitol and said "You got a hit on your hands if you'll put it out of that album and release it as a single." So, they took his word for it. He was right. He'd been flooded with requests for it. He just played it on his show. I've been forever grateful to that young man. (laughs) It's a good story and it's the truth. I didn't have to be talked into recording it. I loved it and had my way.
Q - Is it true that Gene Vincent's Blue Caps backed you on that record?
A - Well, no. I don't know where that rumor got started. I've been hearing that the last few years. I worked with Gene and was with him at conventions. I kind of knew him, but we never did any recording. The band on "Let's Have A Party", the record company never used to give recognition to. This was during a tour with my own band and that was "Big" Al Downing on the piano, my guitar player Vernon Sandusky, Buck Owens on rhythm guitar and I think James Burton was there. Anyway, that's the information on that.
Q - Your father was an amateur musician. So, he never played professionally then?
A - Well, he did. He had a dance band. We're talking early '30s. He played guitar. He sang. He played fiddle. He was professional. Of course he had to pick cotton and do all those other things too. But, on the weekends his band would play at National Guard Armorys or whatever. Then, the Depression hit and he wasn't able to work as much 'cause entertainment is the first thing to go when money gets tight. He'd met Mother in the meantime. They were married and I came along about a year later. So, his career was over because of the times. Actually, he was very good. He taught me guitar. We used to sing together. My introduction to Country music was through him.
Q - Did both your parents encourage you musically?
A - Oh, yeah. I'm an only child. Daddy was so excited when I loved the music he liked. He was so instrumental in not only encouraging me, but showing me how to do it and helping me all 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 eventually, which she's still doing even today. Once in a while she'll make something for me. So, I was able to have their full attention and all their energies put out on me. It was wonderful for me. It was important in those days for a woman's reputation to be kept intact. So, that's one reason he traveled with me. The other reason was strictly economics. I wasn't making enough money to have a bus or band, so we pooled our money and scrimped and saved and went on the road 'til I was finally able to make at least $100 a night. When I started, it was $50.(laughs)
Q - You must be amazed at how the world of music has grown sinced you started out.
A - It boggles my mind. It's good and I'm happy for those. I still think in some respects the American people hold the entertainers in such esteem that the really important jobs in our society take lesser money...teachers, firemen, police. These people are what protect us all. I get a little upset when I see these outrageous salaries, but heck, that's free enterprise. The people go and pay their money. More power to 'em. It upsets me that the great performers in my era worked for $1,000 a night. That was big money! We didn't have record sales like they do today. We didn't have media coverage.
Q - You had your own radio show in Oklahoma City at 15. What did you do on this show? Did you sing?
A - I was a little younger than that. I was either 13 or 14. It was just a little 15 minute program and I sang with just my guitar, took requests. I had to keep a sponsor. So, I had furniture stores and lumber companies that I worked hard to keep so I could keep my show every day after school. In those days the radio stations didn't specialize. They didn't have all Country, all Pop, all news. So, a station had to do a little bit of everything. They had preachin' and the next show would be Pop music. So, I won a little contest, being on one of those Country music shows. The man devoted the last fifteen minutes of his one hour a day to local talent. (laughs) So, I won this little contest and the winner received their own show, 15 mintes everday, after the news. I don't know for how long. They said if you can keep the show's sponsor, you can keep the show. So, that's how that came about. It was quite a deal for a gal like me to have my own show when there were so many other entertainment things.
Q - About a year later after getting this radio show, you were signed to Decca Records?
A - About that, right.
Q - How did that happen? Did someone hear you on the radio?
A - Yeah. My very favorite singer then and still is, Hank Thompson. I was still a teenager. I didn't realize Hank Thompson had moved to Oklahoma City and had his band and headquarters here because he worked Saturday night when he was home at a dance hall here. So, Hank heard my show one afternoon. After my show, they said "you have a phone call." When I took it, I nearly fainted. He said "This is Hank Thompson." (laughs) I could tell by his voice it really was. He invited me to come sing with him that following Saturday night...to sing along with his band. I remember saying "Oh, I'd love to Mr. Thompson, but I'll hae to ask my mother." (laughs) Anyway, that's how that came about and he had a recording studio. His band was available. He had that much confidence in me and wanted to help. (I) made my demo record to send to Decca and then he was also instrumental in me signing to Capitol Records two years later.
Q - Why the label switch?
A - 'Cause I wanted to be on the same label he was on...my hero. Capitol wouldn't sign me until I was of age. It had some problems with some artists, legal matters, because they were underage.
Q - What year did you tour with Elvis?
A - June of '55.
Q - What was that like? Who arranged that?
A - My father, as it turned out. I was ready to go on the road. I'd had a couple of hits. My name was pretty well known. He wanted to travel with me and help me, but he really didn't know how to start getting some dates. So, he bought a Billboard and just looked through it. For some reason he was drawn to contact Bob Neal in Memphis, who had Elvis. Bob said "I would love to help you with booking Wanda." He was familiar with me. He said "we can use a girl on the show." So, that's how it came about. Pure luck. (laughs)
Q - So, this was pre-Colonel Parker?
A - Yes.
Q - How were you traveling?
A - My Dad and I just used the family car. We had a '54 Plymouth and that's what we traveled in. My Daddy would never let me buy a car until I could pay cash for it. Of course, after I worked for about a year. I was able to pay cash for my first car. Elvis at that time was driving on tour with his first pink Cadillac, with the bass on top.
Q - Where did you perform? Clubs?
A - Some clubs, but not very many. I only remember one in Arkansas on the first trip. Most of them were auditoriums because he already had a following from Tennessee or west over through Texas. I had never heard of him. Oklahoma wasn't playing his records. He had some real hot spots and thats where we worked.
Q - Where was the last time you spoke to Elvis?
A - It was in '64 and I was in Vegas. My husband and I and another couple, we were staying at I think the Sahara. It turned out that our rooms were on the same floor as Elvis.
Q - What was Elvis doing at the Sahara at that time?
A - His entourage had the whole floor with the exception of these two rooms. So, when we were coming in the first night of being out, there was a security man on the floor. When the elevator opened he said "I need to see your keys." We said "OK, but's what's the deal?" He said "Elvis Presley and his entourage are here and we have to secure the floor." I said "Well hey, in that case, get word to him that I'm here and I'd just love to say Hi to him." So, we went on to our room and in about twenty minutes the security guard called...no, Elvis called or somebody in his party. I'm not sure, and said "Yeah, Elvis would love to come down and say Hi to you and your party." So, he came to the room. We probably visited and talked for ten to fifteen minutes. I've been so grateful that my husband got to meet him. He was a fan of his too. All of these years that I've had to talk so much about Elvis it would've been hard for a man to sit back and listen to all of that. But, he got to meet him and know him well enough where he felt like he knew his heart. Everything I said was true; that we didn't know each other and that there was no hanky-panky. We dated yeah, but we didn't do it. Need I say more? (laughs) My Dad was with me.
Q - Just think. Had your Dad not been there, maybe you would have been Mrs. Elvis Presley.
A - We really liked each other 'cause we liked so much of the same things.
Q - Like I said, you could've been Mrs. Presley.
A - He wasn't really ready to marry. I wanted my career and he was career oriented too, so we just had fun when we were together. I wore his ring. When we'd get into a town early enough, we'd catch a matinee movie 'cause we loved movies and go out to get a hamburger after the show. It finally got to where we couldn't go in a place and eat 'cause they'd start mobbing him. They'd see that Cadillac wherever it was in the town. So, we'd get hamburgers at a drive-in and drive around and eat 'em and talk, you know like teenagers do. I think he was about 19 and I was 17.
Q - How long did you tour with Elvis?
A - Well, the ledger that my Dad kept says the last tour was in February of '57. The best information I have is that's when he went to California to begin his movie career. He'd already signed with Parker, which I didn't like. None of us liked that idea, but he did it. And then our paths didn't cross any more, working. I saw him in '64 in Vegas.
Q - Do you still tour?
A - I tour twelve months a year and have been ever since. I took one sabbatical for about two years. So much happened, I couldn't stand being at home, so I told my husband "get me back on the road." Every year, I go at least three times to Europe and several times it's been five. So, that's whats been keeping my career alive and make my living doing what I want to do.