Like Jean Ritchie in traditional folk music and Billie Holiday in classic jazz, Wanda Jackson was a pioneer in the early years of rock ’n’ roll. She was there when rock ‘n’ roll began to break out, first in America and later all over the world — and she learned from many tours with one of the best and most prominent pioneers of early rock, Elvis Presley.
Jackson’s roots were in country music and blues, but as she began recording more singles in the early 1960s, she embraced rock ’n’ roll. She would typically record a country song on the A side and a rock ‘n’ roll song on the B side of her 45 RPM recordings. Her career began in 1954, before the days of long playing vinyl albums, or LPs.
Jackson, now into her 70s, will perform two sets with a local band, Jet Weston and his Atomic Ranch Hands, on Saturday, July 18, at the Record Collector. She can’t leave the stage without performing songs like “Let’s Have a Party,” “Fujiyama Mama,” “Right or Wrong,” and “Mean, Mean Man.”
Her latest album is “I Remember Elvis,” on Cleopatra Records, and she credits Presley for “turning the whole industry upside down,” in the mid-1950s, when he took blues and added some rhythm and amplification to it. “Everybody else was just kind of floundering, but in the end it was the young ones who kept the record business afloat,” says Jackson in a phone interview from her native Oklahoma. Jackson and her husband and manager, Wendell Goodman, live in Oklahoma City when they’re not on the road. For the last 15 years, Jackson has kept up an ambitious tour schedule of more than 100 shows a year throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, and Australia.
Jackson says her first awareness of music came about through her father’s record collection. Her mother worked at the local Air Force Base and her father gave up his day job once Jackson was ready to go on the road after high school. She says her father’s record collection “didn’t amount to a whole lot, every one was very poor in those days, but my dad had Jimmy Rogers records and he had black artists, blues records as well.” She was inspired by blues and country music from the time she began playing guitar as a six-year-old.
“The radio was also very important in those days, and in fact the radio was the catalyst in my whole career,” she says, adding she began singing and playing her guitar on a local radio station as a 13-year-old. “The radio show was just me and my guitar and only 15 minutes, but I learned to do some radio commercials and keep a sponsor happy.” Hank Thompson, who had a western swing band that rivaled that of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, heard Jackson singing on the radio and sought her out. She began performing with Thompson and his band on Saturday nights while still in high school, accompanied everywhere by her father. Thompson took Jackson under his wing, and that led to her own record deal with Capitol Records while she was a junior in high school.
“By the time I graduated high school in 1955, I had already had two or three songs that had been on the Top 20 on the Billboard country charts,” Jackson says, “so I was ready to go on tour as soon as I graduated.” Her mother made her dresses and her dad was her tour manager. “I was an only child, so it made it easier for them to sort of spoil me and give me all the help I needed,” she says. “Needless to say, I wasn’t all that scholastic in high school, I was just biding my time until I could get out.”
She says she never took formal guitar lessons — “my dad taught me all the guitar chords I needed to know and then I picked up more chords” — but did take piano lessons for about three years. “I wish I had stuck with it longer,” she says.
She met Elvis Presley at a radio station in Cape Gerardo, Missouri, in the summer of 1955, several months after she was graduated from high school. “I had no idea who Elvis Presley was, but I was very impressed with him from the beginning,” she says. “When my daddy talked to him, he’d say ‘Yes, sir, no sir,’ and he’d call me ma’am, so he was like a true southern gentleman. I hadn’t ever heard of him, they weren’t playing his records in Oklahoma yet, so I had no idea who this Elvis Presley was. But when I saw him, I was very impressed. He was a good looking guy, he dressed well, and he was very mannerly.
As her career evolved, she says, “Elvis was always very good and very encouraging to me. One day he explained that before he came along, all of the songs were directed at an adult audience. Then, all of a sudden, it was the young people who were buying records. After he explained that to me, I began to record more rock ’n’ roll. I would put a country song on one side of a single and a rock ’n’ roll song on the other side.”
Despite the fact that she didn’t make much money in the mid and late 1950s in the record business with her regional touring around Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Tennessee, she found success again in the mid-1990s when rockabilly and roots singer-guitarist Rosie Flores helped resurrect her career.
“I had been going over to Europe four or five times a year and playing over there, and I didn’t know about the new generation of rock ’n’ roll fans here in America,” she says. “Through Rosie Flores, I found out about them. She introduced me to all these people in the new generation.” Although she started recording in earnest in 1954, she admits, “it took me to 1960 before ‘Let’s Have a Party’ broke and got me my first little rock ’n’ roll hit here in America.”
A comeback album of sorts, “Heart Trouble,” quickly expanded into a star-studded project as musicians who had been influenced by Jackson or who long admired her musical style came out of the woodwork to ask if they could be on the album. This included people like Elvis Costello; members of the punk-rock-blues group the Cramps; Dave Alvin, formerly of the Blasters; and Lee Rocker, formerly of the Stray Cats.
‘They all called and said they’d like to be on the album with me,” she says. When it was released on CMH Records in the late 1990s, suddenly droves of younger rock fans began to take notice of Jackson and her live shows, and they began showing up at clubs where she was playing. In December, 2006, Bruce Springsteen and his wife, Patti Scialfa, came out to hear Jackson perform with the Lustre Kings at Asbury Lanes, a bowling alley and nightclub in Asbury Park.
Fortunately, for contemporary fans and students of rock ’n’ roll history, Jackson’s body of work from the 1950s and ’60s is preserved on a number of excellent boxed sets of compact discs issued by the German-based Bear Family Records label.
A documentary movie about her life and times was produced recently and is now available. Earlier this year, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Roseanne Cash, Johnny Cash’s daughter.
As for the July 18 concert, she says, “the audience should be ready to have some fun and learn a bit of the history behind some of these songs that I do. It was mainly by watching people like Elvis and Johnny Cash that I learned how to put on a good show. From Elvis, I learned to really have fun on stage, and my daddy always told me if I had fun on stage, the audience would have fun, too. So there’ll be some rockabilly, some country, some blues, and some gospel, too.”
Wanda Jackson, Gas Money, and Jet Weston, the Record Collector Store, 358 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Saturday, July 18, 7:30 and 10 p.m. $30 in advance; $35 at the door. 609-324-0880 or www.the-record-collector.com.