Wanda Jackson owes a debt to Elvis Presley
Jeff Spevak / Staff music critic
October 24, 2007) — With a couple of country hits on the charts, Wanda Jackson had her doubts. But she and Elvis Presley were touring together, along with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly and that crazy Jerry Lee Lewis. With her dad, of course, as chaperone. A girl's reputation had to be guarded, you know, although Dad's presence made it a little tough on the romance then brewing between her and Elvis. "He was a kid then, only about 20, I guess," Jackson says. "I was 17, 18. Sometimes, he and I would just get a hamburger and a Coke. Drive around. Talk. Get acquainted. We were young, our careers were just starting. He was so encouraging to me. He give me the courage to try this new style."
Rock and roll. And rockabilly. All of the guys were doing it, and Elvis was persistent. And Jackson caved. She thought, "Maybe I should. I was a teenager, and this was my generation of music. And it would be silly not to try to do it."
Elvis was right. A string of hard-howling, attitudinal hits followed. "Fujiyama Mama," "Riot in Cell Block #9" and even a song Elvis had done, "Let's Have a Party." She was, as the title of a new documentary suggests, The Sweet Lady With the Nasty Voice.
Provided by Michael Bloom Media Relations
With the encouragement of her then-boyfriend, Elvis Presley, country singer Wanda Jackson became the first female rock and roller. She performs Thursday at the German House Theater.
Does Wanda Jackson believe, as many musicologists insist, that she was the first female rock and roller? The 70-year-old born-again Christian pauses for just a moment. "Yes," she says.
So it's history Thursday at the German House Theater, with Wanda Jackson backed by the Lustre Kings. As yet another Elvis — Elvis Costello — writes in the liner notes to her 2006 album, I Remember Elvis, "Tell me why this woman isn't in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."
It's not that Jackson has gone unnoticed. She is in the country music and gospel halls of fame. And in 2005, she was a National Endowment for the Arts honoree, which spotlights folk and traditional arts. "There were 12 of us, including a 93-year-old woman who wove Navajo rugs," Jackson says. She did take note of how few female singers had been honored by the organization over the years. "That made it all the more special to me. Here we are, putting our American music all over the world. I've done my very best to make it pure and not make it pop music, in the poorest sense."
Hers was an era in which rock and roll "turned it upside down," Jackson says. "Up until Elvis, all of our songs were geared toward an adult audience. But young people were now buying the records."
She was quickly accepted into the club. "I often wondered why I was able to work with him," she says of shows where everyone came to see Elvis. "The crowd seemed to accept me; they didn't boo me, like they did some of the other artists."
Well, if Elvis was for the girls, Wanda was for the guys. But the songs were always for the guys. "There just wasn't that much material available for a girl, and I wouldn't get first chance at a rock and roll song," she says. "They wanted one of the guys to get first crack at it."
While Jackson speaks admiringly of Elvis' encouraging words, it's tough to tell to what degree Elvis was the man in Jackson's life; she doesn't tell tales. But Elvis did give her a ring, which she still has.
But soon enough, he went off to Hollywood, and they lost touch. The new man in her life was Wendell Goodman, who also manages her to this day.
And, a decade later, another man entered their lives. "Let's Have a Party" gave way to "I Saw the Light." Becoming born-again, Jackson has said over the years, saved her marriage.
"We were going down a pretty rocky path with the lifestyle," she says. "We knew that we loved each other, that was never a problem. But the lifestyle was getting to us. We knew there had to be a change."
Change may come slow to Jackson, as her move from country to rock did, but it's been a constant in her life. It came again, in 1995, when the spirited Rosie Flores asked her to appear on her Rockabilly Filly album.
"We had a gospel ministry for many years," Jackson says of her husband. "When she asked me to do Rockabilly Filly, I said, 'Well, Rosie, do people listen to that kind of music?' I just really didn't know, having been in Christian music for so long.
"But it got me a whole renewed generation of fans, and we're gaining fans it seems like every day.
"The only conflict I had in my soul was, I didn't know if an older lady, a Christian lady, singing these kiddish songs, was going to work. But once we saw the audience liking it, I knew it was the right thing."
Rockabilly Filly and a subsequent tour with Flores (It was the first time Jackson had been in a nightclub in 20 years) kicked off a Jackson revival. Her excellent 2003 album, Heart Trouble, featured appearances by Costello, Dave Alvin, Lee Rocker and the Cramps. In much the same way that Johnny Cash and a handful of other classic performers had experienced a career renaissance, so did Jackson. The older lady, the Christian lady, was cool.
And now she's brought another man back into her life. The last time she saw Elvis was in 1964, during a brief meeting in Las Vegas. In I Remember Elvis, she sings some of the King's classic Sun Records-era music. Songs that Elvis got first crack at, like "Good Rockin' Tonight" and "Mystery Train."
"I was always a little bit leery of tackling his stuff," she says. "I didn't want it to sound like I was trying to copy him. If Elvis has done a song, it's been done.
"I wanted to keep the ambience of his songs. And I wanted to tell the stories the fans seemed to enjoy hearing so much."
Stories like their first meeting, in 1955, at a radio station while promoting a package tour that the two were a part of. "I had never heard his name, I had never even seen him," she says on the final track of the CD, a handful of respectful Elvis stories. She remembers him as tall, dark-haired and good looking. He was wearing a yellow sports coat, with longish hair, sideburns and a ducktail, "which was different than what my friends in Oklahoma were wearing."
She remembers he drove off in a pink Cadillac. The guy knew how to make an impression. "I think entertainers are just special anyway. They put their pants on one leg at a time, but there is a magnetism and a charisma about them. Elvis had charisma. Anybody that's ever known him always says the same thing."
source: rochester democrat and chronicle
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