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Wanda Jackson Speaks About Elvis, Kitty Wells, And Jean Shepard

October 8, 2009

I found this interesting, and trust my readers here at “Mother Church Of Country Music” will feel the same.

Her latest album , “I Remember Elvis,” finds her paying tribute to her former boyfriend, Elvis Presley. We caught up with Jackson, who rocks the Rhythm Room Sunday, Oct. 11, to talk about that Elvis and a younger Elvis who may have paved the way for her induction to the Hall of Fame.

Question: Congratulations on the Hall of Fame. How was the ceremony?

Answer: Fantastic. I got to visit some with Rosanne Cash, who presented me with my award. We got to sit and have dinner with her and also, Scotty Moore, D.J. Fontana and Bill Black’s two children. So it was like a family reunion.

Q: You did a lot of touring with Scotty Moore and those guys in the ’50s, right?

A: Yeah, in the early days, working with Elvis.

Q: Is it true that Elvis is the one who got you into singing rockabilly?

A: Yeah. Of course, I loved his stuff and being able to watch him perform on these tours. I was a teenager, so it was my generation’s music. But I didn’t think I could do it. I had it in my mind that I was just a country singer, because that’s all I’d ever done. So he gave me the courage to try to be more than what I was or what I thought I was. And rockabilly and country were like kissing cousins. It wasn’t too big of a stretch.

Q: I wondered if it felt that different, moving into rockabilly.

A: It is different. It’s wilder and more abandoned. That’s why I found it so much fun to sing. I started off with a song that was written for me by a friend in Oklahoma City called “I Gotta Know,” and it was my transition song. And then, I found a song that Betty Hutton did in some movie, called “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad.” I loved singing that song. After that, I began writing a lot of my own songs because nobody was writing rock and roll for girls. There weren’t any other girls doing it.

Q: When you moved into writing, did you meet with much resistance at the label?

A: No. They were thrilled that I was coming up with some songs to record. My producer was a fantastic producer. He had so much faith in the artists and letting them do what they felt they could do. It took three years for me to get a hit in America with rock and roll. “Let’s Have a Party” was pulled off my first album and released as a single after it was beginning to get some exposure up in Iowa. A disc jockey was using it for his rock and roll record show theme song. He was getting so many phone calls from people wanting to hear it all the way through and wanting to know who that was that he took it upon himself to contact Ken Nelson at Capitol Records and suggest that they release it as a single. And for some reason they did.

Q: So you and Elvis dated?

A: It wasn’t traditional dating because we were on tour, but we’d go out after a show and eat or get a Coke and drive around. He was already popular enough that it was kind of hard to go into a restaurant or a café, because the word would spread and here’d come all the fans. So we’d go to a drive-in and have a hamburger or something, just getting acquainted. We liked each other a lot. It was a very sweet relationship. Nowadays, people try to muddy the waters with things that . . . you know, they weren’t done. He asked me to be his girl and he gave me his ring to wear around my neck. So we were dating, officially. It just wasn’t traditional-style.

Q: Was Elvis enjoying his success when you knew him?

A: Absolutely. He was more or less a kid himself. He loved the girls clamoring over him and screaming. He got a big kick out of it.

Q: What was it like to be a girl in the rock and roll world of the ’50s? It was kind of like a boys’ club at the time.

A: All music was. In country music, there was only three of us when I first started. Kitty Wells and Jean Shepard were two of the first, and then I came along. But I was first in rock and roll. That’s just the way it was, and I didn’t think a whole lot about it, although I was disappointed that I couldn’t get airplay, because when I would do songs like “Hot Dog” or “Let’s Have A Party” on a personal appearance, the audience just loved it. So I couldn’t understand why the disc jockeys wouldn’t help me. I was one of the few artists that could open for Elvis, because if they were men stars, even stars that he was thrilled to be working with – Webb Pierce or Hank Snow – that audience came to see him, and they didn’t want Webb Pierce and Hank Snow. It got to where they couldn’t work with him. It was just too degrading. And he’d say, “What’s wrong with those kids?!”

Q: You sang with another Elvis on your 2003 album, “Heart Trouble.” Were you familiar with Elvis Costello?

A: Not a whole lot. I knew his name, of course. I remember he came to Oklahoma City and our kids were teenagers at that point and wanted to go to his concert. But his drummer came by a rehearsal and said that Elvis was one of my biggest fans and he would love to do a song with me. I had to make a special trip back to California to get with him on his schedule. But it was worth the trip. He said, “I won’t do it unless I can be in the studio with Wanda, singing with her.” Then he became a real advocate for me to get me into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And his help really got things stirred up.

 

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