Wanda Jackson is still on the road performing. She'll be at the Highline Ballroom in New York on October 12. I caught her at a one-room blues bar on the outskirts of Memphis when I was down there. She was escorted to the stage by her husband Wendell Goodman and she proceeded to rock the house.
When I saw Wanda the next evening at Graceland, we sat close together on two director's chairs, and I was able to look into her eyes while we spoke. They were swimming-pool blue and glimmering, like when the afternoon sun plays on the surface of water. They also were full of fun, and the country-singing teen was still there. [Pictured above, Wanda Jackson at Graceland, by Robert Dye]
In Part 3 of my three-part complete interview for the Wall Street Journal (go here for my article), Wanda talks about dating Elvis Presley and what she learned from him about rockabilly...
Marc Myers: When did Elvis tell you he liked you?
Wanda Jackson: Oh I don’t know [laughs]. We hung out together a lot. He’d call me every day when we weren’t on tour. My mother remembered that just about every afternoon around 4:30, Elvis would call. She said I always made sure I was by the phone when he rang the house. When he called, we’d talk like teens about what we had been doing. It was like teenagers do even though he was no longer a teen by then.
MM: Why did he call you so much?
WJ: I just thought it was ‘cause he liked me [laughs]. I don’t know. Maybe it was more than that. Oh, we had fun talking. We had a lot in common. We were both only-children, we both had music careers—though his was, of course out of sight and mine was barely hanging in there. That’s why he was concerned with me stretchin’ myself. I thought that was so kind of him.
MM: How serious did things get?
WJ: I wore his ring. But I never thought I was his only girl. It didn’t bother me though. I got to work with him and they didn’t. He was growing so big, it would have been foolish of me to feel as though he could be held onto by only me. I was smart enough, and he was too.
MM: Was it love?
WJ: No. This wasn’t a love affair. I was not in love with Elvis. I thought the world of him. I had a crush on him. We liked each other. And that was it.
MM: What was it?
WJ: We were happy-go-lucky kids having the time of our lives and we enjoyed each other’s company. He and my dad got along great, so my daddy let me go to his house that day to hear him play and sing or to go driving after a show.
MM: What do you remember most about his face?
WJ: His eyes.
MM: What color were they?
WJ: I don’t recall. They were just dark. Smoldering. Dark almost like circles but smokey. His mother had that too.
MM: If you’re teaching me what Elvis taught you, what would you say? What tips?
WJ: I’m not sure. He didn’t give me lessons in so many words. I worked with him long enough and watched every performance. I said to myself, “That’s the secret: He’s just having fun and flirting with the girls.” He knew they were going to pull on his leg, so he’d give them a foot out there so they could get him. There was just a lot to learn from him. And yet his charm was his shyness.
MM: What did you think of RCA when he signed with the label at the end of ’55?
WJ: At first I thought they just ruined him. Everything sounded too right, too perfect. I thought Heartbreak Hotel was too contrived. Of course now it’s my favorite song of his. His performance is just so good on there. But at the time, the music I heard on those records just wasn’t Elvis. [Pictured above, Elvis Presley signs with RCA in November 1955]
MM: How so?
WJ: It wasn’t free. It felt spelled out. I’m sure I didn’t tell him that to his face. I was just a backward country Okie girl and he was becoming a big star. I was in awe of him and had a crush on him.
MM: What did you think when Colonel Tom Parker took over as Elvis’ manager in March 1956?
WJ: Well, I had signed with Bob Neal and couldn’t understand why Elvis would leave Bob for this guy who didn’t have the look. [Pictured above, Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley]
MM: The look?
WJ: He didn’t look like he was for Elvis. He seemed too showy and slick. He was going to make Elvis into something he wasn’t deep down—and he did. Soon after he took over, they had Elvis stop autographing or having contact with audiences after. This isolation was already starting in late ‘56 because the crowds were pawing at him and we didn’t know anything about security back then. The Colonel got that interacting stopped.
MM: What did Presley think?
WJ: Elvis didn’t like it. He told me he really missed interacting with his fans, shaking their hands and having pictures made with them. He loved his fans. That’s another thing I learned from Elvis: love your fans. They make you what you are and allow you to enjoy this life you’re living.
MM: You stopped touring with Presley in January 1957, when he started making movies, yes?
WJ: Yeah he was getting ready to go to California. He was going to take a train and he did. People told him, “Elvis you can fly out there now and be there in a few hours.” But he didn’t want to fly.
MM: You also toured with Jerry Lee Lewis.
WJ: [Laughs] Oh my gosh, he was just a wild man. Crazy, wild, always up in the air, always boisterous and loud and horsing around. All the guys seemed to play around all the time. That’s how they let off steam. I was more serious. But that’s what I eventually learned from Elvis. Lighten up. Have fun. [Photo above of Jerry Lee Lewis and Wanda Jackson]
MM: How did you teach yourself to do that?
WJ: It’s just a matter of inward talk. And getting the confidence you need to do it. You have to have confidence before you can pull that off. I always seemed confident when I sang, but in other ways, I don’t think I was. I still don’t have a lot of confidence.
MM: What do you mean?
WJ: I have to be pushed and nudged. Is that strange? When I’m on stage, that’s my world, that’s my kingdom and I know what I’m doing. You put me in a household situation and tell me to cook for six people and I go berserk. I don’t know what to do [laughs]. [Photo above of Wanda Jackson on August 5, 1955 at the Overton Park Shell in Memphis by Robert W. Dye]
MM: When did you give back Elvis’ ring?
WJ: Oh I didn’t. I still have it. It’s just a guy’s dinner ring. There’s kind of chipped diamond and chips around it. It’s a pretty ring. I had it checked out later. It’s all real.
MM: Was Elvis a good kisser?
WJ: Yeah, he was.
MM: How so?
WJ: Well, you don’t have to explain that to girls. He was very comfortable. He loved girls. He really did. Some men do, some men tolerate them. He loved women, loved his mother and grandmother—which are good indications.
MM: Being an eyewitness to the start of rockabilly, what do you think?
WJ: We weren’t trying to turn country music into something else. In fact, I straddled both forms for a long time to survive. There was no strategy laid out. No plans being set. It was just a phenomenon that just happened. A new wind came along, a fresh wind. Elvis turned the music industry upside down. Him and Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash and the others who came along.
MM: Not as many female rockabilly pioneers. Why not?
WJ: Girls buy more records and they love boy singers. Back then, guys were the ones singing rockabilly at first. I fell in line because of Elvis. I don’t claim to be an instigator of a new movement or anything. I just wanted to get on it.
MM: But you come at the music as a good girl.
WJ: And I’m proud of that fact. I was an innocent, sweet sexy gal. It’s not anything new. I had to always be a lady. I was taught to sit like a lady, speak like a lady and be a lady on stage at all times. That while I’m singing a rock and roll song. I can become whoever I want—as long as I keep it lady-like. I was sassy, but I was more feisty than vulgar. My daddy would never allow that. And I wouldn’t have thought of it anyway. Women were ladies in my day. I wish they still were.
MM: Excited about your success now?
WJ: Very [laughs]. It truly is exciting. After Jax [Jack White] happened, everyone looking forward to the next album. I’m just blown away, frankly.
MM: Why do you think you and the music are being rediscovered?
WJ: Because of the innocence and the good pure unadulterated music. The music sounds innocent. And it is. It’s simple music. Today’s music gets so complicated. Everyone’s trying to make a statement, you know, to tell the government this or that or people should do this or that. We didn’t do that. For us, we were just kids and we were going to sing about what we do. We dance, we drive fast, we play chicken—we have fun. Young adults today wish they could enjoy a more innocent time, like we were able to when I was a teen.
MM: Did Elvis ever call you in later years?
WJ: We didn’t have any contact. I saw him in ‘64 by accident. We were staying at the same hotel. He had the whole floor of the Sahara except the room my husband and I shared and another room where our friends stayed. The rooms were up front by the elevator so they weren’t desirable and were given to us when we checked in. But we didn’t know that Elvis was there on that floor.
MM: What happened?
WJ: One night my husband and I came in early and when the elevator opened, a hotel security guard was standing there. We thought he wanted to see our key. We said what’s the deal? He said, “Well, Elvis and his entourage are on this floor.” I said, Elvis? Really? Well, if you’re on duty when Elvis gets in, would you please tell him that Wanda Jackson would like to say hi to him. The security guard got excited. “Wanda Jackson?” Turned out he was a fan of mine, too, so that helped.
MM: Did he call?
WJ: We went to our rooms, and it wasn’t 20 or 30 minutes before the phone rang. The person on the other end asked if it would be alright if Elvis came to our room to say hi. I said, “Yeah.” He came down and spent 10 minutes with us and met my husband and the other couple with us. We just talked about what we were doing there. And that was it. [Photo above of Elvis Presley in 1964]
A big JazzWax thanks to Kevin Kern, Alicia Dean and the entire team at Graceland and Elvis Presley Enterprises.
For more on Wanda Jackson, go here.
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.