Rockabilly is nothing more than jazz, blues and country all mixed around. You can hear the jazz and blues influence in the Western swing artists of the late '40s and early '50s. And like blues players, many original rockabilly artists came from poverty, trying to use music as a way out of their family's plight. As I write in today's Wall Street Journal (or go here), there aren't many of these pioneer rockabilly artists left, particularly on the female side. One of the last ones still performing is Wanda Jackson.
Wanda is considered the first female rockabilly recording artist. She toured with Presley in 1955, before he became nationally famous, and she dated him. But she's no has-been. Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan have both praised her moxie and originality. And her 2011 album The Party Ain't Over was produced by Jack White, while her new one—due on Tuesday—was produced by Justin Townes Earle.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Wanda in Memphis, at Graceland, where they graciously took down the velvet rope to the Jungle Room and allowed us to sit and chat after tour hours. This was a two-fold honor for me, since the Jungle Room—Elvis Presley's Hawaiian-themed chill zone and in the '70s his recording studio—is viewed as sacred ground by fans.
In Part 1 of my three-part interview for the Wall Street Journal, Wanda, 74, talked about her family's move to California and back to Oklahoma, the double-dog dare she took on, and her first recordings for Decca...
Marc Myers: Your family moved to Los Angeles from Maud, Okla., when you were four years old?
Wanda Jackson: Yes, we were Okies. There was no work in Oklahoma right after the Depression. The economy was still in the gutter and there was plenty of work in California. There was an old song written by Doye O’Dell about us called Dear Okie: “Dear Okie, if you see Arkie, tell 'im Tex got a job for him out in Californy” [laughs].
MM: Did your father want to move?
WJ: Yes. After working backbreaking jobs in Oklahoma City, he wanted to move West. So me, my mother and my father moved to Los Angeles. I was four years old, so I don’t remember much. When we got there, my father decided to go to barber school and got a barbering job in Greenville, a cotton town just outside of Bakersfield. I had no trouble fitting in. There were plenty of people like us out there. [Pictured above: Wanda Jackson]
MM: Growing up, whose records were most influential?
WJ: One of my big influences was Kay Starr [pictured above], who was from Oklahoma. She had such a clear voice, and her pronunciation was always correct. I’m big on that. I also listened to Jimmy Rodgers. My daddy loved him and had a lot of his 78-rpm records. I also listened to Hank Williams, and Hank Thompson and Rose Maddox. She was in the Maddox Brothers & Rose. They were real big on the West Coast. She was feisty. She played the bass with her brothers. She wasn’t a beautiful lady but she was so cute and confident.
MM: Did your father encourage your interest in music?
WJ: Very much so. One day he came home with this little old Stella, a cheapie guitar. It was new and so pretty. I’m an only-child, and both my parents worked and held down good jobs. So they weren’t so poor that they couldn’t afford a few nice things. The guitar had an Uncle Sam’s hat on it with stars. I have a photo of me holding it, wearing a cowboy suit my mother had made me.
MM: What did your family do for fun there?
WJ: In the evenings, we didn’t have the kind of entertainment we have now. All we had was the radio and ourselves. Daddy played guitar and taught me how to play. As an only-child, I had all of their attention, which was a blessing. My parents sacrificed a lot for me, and I grew up to be a stable, happy teenager. I was anxious to get out of school, though. I never liked school, even in California. We had some family out here, and I played a lot with my cousins.
MM: Did you go out to see bands?
WJ: On Saturday nights—or as often as my parents could—they would take me out to a dance. Everyone brought their kids. Unlike today, there were no babysitters. We would also go see Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Spade Cooley, Tex Williams—all those great Western swing bands. They toured in California just like the big bands did. But they appealed mostly to country folks who had moved there for work.
MM: What do you remember most about those evenings?
WJ: My very first remembrance is of those beautiful girls in gowns and flashy clothes who came out on stage and yodeled while they played. That’s when I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I told my parents that I was going to be a girl singer. I guess I thought I had a choice [laughs]. I never once wavered while pursuing my goal.
MM: Why did you move back to Oklahoma when you were 9 1/2?
WJ: We moved back because my mother was getting homesick and she had an invalid mother. Her brother and sister were caring for her, but my mom started feeling guilty that she wasn’t pulling her weight. My mom insisted we return. [Pictured above: Maddox Brothers & Rose]
MM: What did your father think?
WJ: He wasn’t as keen on returning, since he’d need to find new work. My daddy loved his white gravy—what we put on most things. He said to my mother, “We’ll go back to Oklahoma City, but the first time you have to make gravy with water instead of milk, we’re moving back.” After we got back, my mother always kept milk on hand to make his gravy [laughs].
MM: What did you think about moving back?
WJ: I was a little upset. I had become close to my cousins out there. They were fun to be with, and I hated to leave them. But wherever my mother and dad went, I was happy. That’s the kind of family we had.
MM: How did you spend your time fitting-in after being out West?
WJ: When we moved back, my mother joined a church and she always took me with her. Daddy wouldn’t go to church with her, but he was always for her going. She’d take me to Sunday school, and I made friends quickly. Soon, the people at the church found out I could play guitar and piano and sing pretty well. I had learned to play the piano while we were in California.
MM: Did you play at events?
WJ: Yes. There was a radio show on KLPR. It broadcast to an area called Capital Hill, in southwest Oklahoma City. They would play different kinds of music in different segments, and there would be preaching and the news. The last 15 minutes of the show was devoted to local talent. My friends at church kept asking me why I didn’t try to get on the show. But I wouldn’t do it. Then they dared me—a double-dog dare.
MM: Is that a big deal?
WJ: Oh yes. You don't back down from one of those.
MM: What happened?
WJ: The disc jockey put me on, and I won the contest [laughs]. Not long after, in the early ‘50s, Hank Thompson heard me and asked me to sing with him and his Western swing band, the Brazos Valley Boys [pictured above], whenever he was in Oklahoma City.
MM: Did he help you get a record deal with Decca?
WJ: Yes. Capitol didn’t want me. They said that girls didn’t sell records. It wasn’t until Kitty Wells had a hit on Decca in 1952 that they changed their minds. As soon as I started working with Hank after high school in 1954, my daddy quit his job driving a cab to manage me. By then, his feet had been played-out barbering. My mother worked for the government, so she kept her job.
MM: Did RCA's signing of Janis Martin [pictured above] have anything to do with Capitol signing you in ’56?
WJ: I don’t think that was their intention. Capitol signed me as a pure country artist. Producer Ken Nelson was just doing country stuff. On my very first session, I brought in I Gotta Know and Hot Dog (That Made Him Mad). When I started playing them, Ken’s head went spinning. I told him, “This is what I want to do.” Ken, bless his heart, let me be. He had faith in his artist. He said, “If that’s what you want to do, go right ahead, honey.”
MM: Who came first, you or Martin?
WJ: I was first female artist to sing rockabilly—even though she had a crossover hit [with Drugstore Rock 'n' Roll in 1956] before my Let’s Have a Party [in 1960]. I was the renegade. I could stand up and see eye-to-eye with any of the guys. The other gals just sang the song.
MM: You were also marketed a little differently, weren't you?
WJ: Yes, I wasn't positioned as a wild gal or trouble like many of them were. I’ve been taught all my life to always be a lady. That was very important to my dad and mom. Daddy had a lot of rules for me in those days, and he made sure my reputation stayed intact. All the guys knew that Wanda’s daddy was on board, so they didn’t make trouble.
MM: Are the guitar solos on your records yours? Or were you simply playing rhythm guitar?
WJ: At Decca, my guitar playing was bleeding into the vocal mike because I played so hard. So they gave me a felt pick or had me use my thumb. I had to learn to sing without the guitar, which was hard, since I was so used to it being in my hands. Instead, they slid a wooden chair in there, and I’d hold onto the back. But I continued to play the guitar in concerts until I was married in 1961 and began recording country.
MM: Did you ever play guitar in the studio?
WJ: The only time I played guitar in the studio was when I taught guys a song I had written. But when you have guys like guitarist Chet Atkins and steel guitarist Jerry Byrd in the studio, there isn’t much teachin’ to do.
A big JazzWax thanks to Kevin Kern, Alicia Dean and the entire team at Graceland and Elvis Presley Enterprises.
JazzWax tracks: Wanda's hit singles can be found on Let's Have a Party! The Very Best of Wanda Jackson here.
And one of my recent favorites from 2003, Heart Trouble (CMH), can be found here.
JazzWax clips: Here's Wanda Jackson singing Hot Dog (That Made Him Mad) in 1957...
Here's Hard Headed Woman in 1958...
Here's Wanda's first hit, I Gotta Know (1956), which combined country and rockabilly...
And Rock Your Baby (1958)...