What was it like to sit in the Jungle Room at Graceland with Wanda Jackson? Pretty neat. If you've visited Graceland, you know that this room—with its grass-green carpeting and Hawaiian theme—is off limits on tours. Small by today's McMansion standards—the Housewives of Any City, USA, have larger and more elaborate homes—Graceland remains larger than life. It's the place where Elvis Presley lived after he won the American Dream lottery—and was consumed by it.
Rockabilly star Wanda Jackson knew Presley up-close and personal between 1955 and the start of 1957. So sitting in the room meant quite a bit more to her than to me. At first, Wanda seemed overcome by the space. But she also knew who Presley really was and what made him tick. The room made complete sense to her as she looked around in wonderment.
Marc Myers: After you graduated from high school, what did your father do as your manager?
Wanda Jackson: When I graduated in 1955, my daddy drove me to performances and kept an eye on me. He also found a promoter, Bob Neal, who also turned out to be representing a young man named Elvis Presley.
MM: How did your father find Neal?
WJ: Pure accident. My daddy got hold of a Billboard magazine and found Bob’s name in there. He called him in Memphis, where Bob was based. My daddy told him who I was over the phone and that I was ready to go out on tour and asked if he was interested. [Pictured above: Bob Neal and Elvis Presley]
MM: What did Neal say?
WJ: Bob said, "You know, I'm managing a young man now who's getting popular real fast. I'd like to book a girl on those shows, too." The following week we signed with Bob.
MM: What did Presley think when Neal told him?
WJ: I don’t know, but I heard later that Elvis wasn’t happy initially. He said, “Bob, we don’t need no country girl singer on these shows [laughs].” After we met and did those first couple of performances in July 1955, Bob said to him, “So what do you think now?” Elvis said, “Well, you didn’t say she was a knockout.” [Pictured above: Wanda Jackson and Elvis Presley]
MM: Where did you first meet Presley?
WJ: Bob Neal introduced me to Elvis in July 1955 at radio station KCMO in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
MM: What did you think?
WJ: I was impressed. Elvis was dressed real nice. Most musicians, even in those days, didn’t dress up. Here was Elvis all spiffy. Of course, I had cleaned up, too. I had on a yellow skirt and sweater and big black flower on my sweater. He walked in wearing black slacks, a black shirt and a yellow sport coat. I thought, man, that’s different. But you know, he was a good-looking guy, and I was 17. My first impression was he looked rather different being dressed that way and his hair being longer than most guys wore it back home in Oklahoma City. [Pictured above: Wanda Jackson and Elvis Presley]
MM: What color was his hair?
WJ: It was sandy blond. This was before he started dying it black. He had just gotten his blond hair permed. It was real kinky in the front. I thought that was unusual, too. Then we did our interview together at the station. As we were leaving, he got into a pink Cadillac. I had just graduated from high school a month earlier, and five days later I was performing with Elvis. It was the first tour I did after being out of school.
MM: What did Elvis like about you?
WJ: My dark hair and looks [laughs]. But it wasn’t just that. In early 1956, he talked me into trying his brand of rock and roll. Everyone knew he was trying a new kind of country rock-and-roll, but no one knew how long it was going to last. Maybe it would be a fad. But you knew right away when you heard it that his style was fresh and new, and the young kids were just loving it—and loving him. [Pictured above: Wanda Jackson and Elvis Presley]
MM: What did your father think of Presley?
WJ: My daddy liked Elvis. Elvis was very polite. He told my daddy that he wanted me to do well. He said, “The music business has always aimed records at adults, and they bought them. But singles are the big thing now, and young people are buying them. You need stuff out there that young people like.” Daddy turned to me and said, “Elvis is right.”
MM: Did you think of Elvis' music as rockabilly?
WJ: Not then. Rockabilly was just a name for country and the blues. Country and the blues were kissin’ cousins. Elvis started with country and gospel and his music evolved into blues with a kick. For the delivery to work, you kind of had to sound a little out of control.
MM: How so?
WJ: Like you’re caught up in it and can’t help how you’re reacting.
MM: The fiddle disappears, too, doesn’t it?
WJ: Yes, the fiddle was exchanged for the electric guitar, and the blues set songs right. You know, it’s amazing how you can control an audience with the songs you choose. If an audience is rowdy, a blues settles people down. Sing a gospel song, and people get very serious. They really start thinking.
MM: Were you and Presley an item?
WJ: We liked each other a lot. We couldn’t really traditionally date working a job like ours on tour all the time. But when we could, we’d escape to get a burger and Coke. Most of the time, it was Scotty [Moore, guitarist] and Bill [Black, bassist] and daddy and Elvis and me. Elvis asked me to be his girl and gave me his ring. It wasn’t any big romance. We were both wrapped up in our careers. It was just nice.
MM: What was Presley’s appeal?
WJ: Elvis had so much charisma and was so nice and gentlemanly. I thought the world of him. But with Elvis, you couldn’t get a serious word out of him. He was always horsing around. In fact, that behavior got on my nerves. I remember remarking to him, “Elvis, don’t you ever take anything serious?” He just laughed it off.
MM: Did Presley have stage fright then?
WJ: Oh yes. I remember him getting so nervous before performances. He’d walk a mile back and forth wringing his hands. I never had that problem. I was just anxious to get out there and sing. I asked Elvis, “Why do you still get so nervous? The place is full of people who have come to see you?”
MM: What did he say?
WJ: He said, “This is the first time most of those people are seeing me live. I want to live up to their expectations. I don’t want to let them down.” It’s funny, in all the time we spent together, I never heard him talk seriously about his career. He was excited, of course. He had money for the first time and was able to buy his mother things and help his folks. But he was still only a child.
MM: Did you pick up other performing pointers from Presley?
WJ: I studied Elvis from the stage. You could see the excitement that the music was causing. It was such a fresh wind. Young people were so excited by his music. The big lesson for me from Elvis is not to take yourself too seriously.
MM: Isn't that hard to do?
WJ: Very. Even though I looked so casual on stage, I was always concerned about what I was doing and how I was looking. To this day, I tell myself, “Get out there and be a free spirit and have fun and do like Elvis did.” I still flirt and play with my audience. That’s why I like them to be down close to the stage. I look at everyone in first few rows, looking everyone in the eyes at least once. I want that personal contact with them. [Photo above of Elvis Presley by Robert W. Dye]
MM: Did Elvis believe in what he was doing with his new music?
WJ: Absolutely, yes. I was a pure country singer at the time and had been recording country since 1954. In early 1956, Elvis said to me, “If you want to sell records, if you want a hit, you have to record what kids want to hear.”
MM: What did you say?
WJ: I said, “I don’t think I can do it.” He said, “If I can, you can, you can." I said, “But Elvis, I’m a girl. I’m just country.”
MM: How did he change your mind?
WJ: He brought me out to where he was living with his mom and dad on Audubon Drive. We spent an innocent afternoon in his bedroom. His mom was in the kitchen. He put on records for me and played his guitar and sang. It wasn’t a formal lesson but he did exactly what he needed to do. He gave me the courage to try. He said, “You’ve got the spunk and the voice—so do it."
MM: Was it hard for you to find that kind of material?
WJ: Yes, because the music was so new. And I didn’t want to cover anything he was doing. My first rockabilly venture came when Bob Neal got me signed to Capitol in 1956. I sang a song that was written for me by Thelma Blackman called I Gotta Know. It’s a transformation song that shifts back and forth between country and rockabilly. I didn’t want to lose my country audience. I had a little name going for myself then. So this song straddled both styles.
MM: What’s the difference between rockabilly and country?
WJ: Country is very life-like. It’s about hard times—you cheated on me, I’m going to cheat on you, you drank, and so on. Real-life stuff. With rockabilly, you’re just set free, especially as a young person. You can sing about anything you want—a hot dog, riding in a convertible, a Coke date, or going to a movie or sock-hop. The music is about the energy and excitement of being young. I was a teenager myself at the time. In these parts, it was my generation’s music.
MM: What does a convincing rockabilly song need?
WJ: Sass and a certain explosiveness to excite audiences. When you’re excited, teen audiences get excited, too. Such excitement grew fast in the songs that were aimed at young audiences in the South then. [Pictured above: Capitol producer Ken Nelson and Wanda Jackson]
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 Rosanne Cash inducting Wanda Jackson into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. It's a three-parter (you'll be prompted to click for Wanda's acceptance speech and again for her performance)...