January 23rd, 2011 | Interviews

Illustration by Christine Hale

Any girl that’s ever rebelled should know the name of Wanda Jackson. In the 1950s, this Fujiyama Mama strutted out onto the country scene wearing tight fringe dresses, hair dyed black, and with a rocking growl, arrived at the party in Elvis’s pink Cadillac. While she’s finally in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, young folks have probably never heard her on the radio. That should change after her new album with Jack White offers the world a lesson in reality. This interview by Daiana Feuer.

You’ve been waiting for your spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rather than being an endpoint, that’s spurred a new beginning for you.
That’s for sure. In 2009, I was thinking that I finally got into the Rock Hall. That was the top and then it was like, ‘What is going to happen now? It will start slowing down probably.’ In three months Jack White called and I was like, ‘I better hang on tight. We got another round here.’
Did you know of him?
Everyone else knew who he was. I had heard the name White Stripes and I knew that he was rock ‘n’ roll in some form or fashion. And on our trips to Europe I would hear about this guy that filled up a coliseum by himself. I thought, ‘How is that possible?’ I knew his name but not his work. Then he did the album with Loretta and that brought him to my attention and it was nominated for four Grammys and won two of them! I knew who he was after that.
Has he got a thing for collecting legendary ladies?
I don’t know if that’s his intention or it just came about. He’s a young man with an old soul. He loves all the different genres from way back. He loves the history. He’s a very intelligent young man. And that’s why he dabbles in recording women like us. We are very fortunate for that. I understand he was a fan of mine for a long time. In high school Jack had a big poster of Wanda Jackson on his bedroom wall. He has a great appreciation for the pioneers of certain music styles and musicians, a certain way of playing.
He’s very tall.
Yes! We did a photo shoot for GQ magazine and in order to get me in the frame with him I had to stand on a box.
So you covered Amy Winehouse’s song. Do you know who Roger Moore is?
He’s Agent 007! I was a big fan of James Bond. I read all the books. That was before they were making movies of them.
So it’s sort of a tough girl song of today. She’s like a—
A bad girl. Ha ha! Did you say tough girl? Yes, tough girl … I didn’t choose it. I knew who Amy Winehouse was for being infamous for getting in trouble. I didn’t know what she sounded like. But after Jack and I decided to collaborate, he began sending me songs to consider. Of course the album is all covers. I was familiar with two or three of them. This was one I didn’t know. I played it and I was like, ‘My goodness, I can’t record something like this!’ I was known as a bad girl rocker but this was too much. And this was our first hitch. But he was adamant. I said, ‘I can’t do it better.’ And he said, ‘You’re going to do a different job of it then.’ I had some reservations about working with him since he is a rock star. He would want me to do this new kind of rock music. ‘I don’t want to do it. I don’t think my fans would like it. And I don’t know if I can even sing these songs.’ But I was wrong on all counts. Through the months I discovered I was very wrong. It has been exciting since I let go. I said, ‘I tell you what—you came to me because you want to record me. I’m taking my hands off the project and I will do my darndest to give you the performance you want.’ He picked all the songs but three that I brought to the table that he found something in them that he liked. The rest are his ideas. It’s a very interesting mixture, that’s what I’m hearing. From ‘Rum and Coca-Cola’ to ‘Rip It Up’ and back to ‘Teach Me Tonight.’ It’s just, I decided—what he was doing was showcasing my career. He even has a gospel song. I thought that was neat. Everyone probably thinks I chose that song and told him I had to but that’s not true! He chose it. We got along fabulously. We have a mutual admiration going.
Amazingly enough, it’s not the first time a visionary musician wanted you to make ‘this new kind of rock music.’ From Elvis to Jack White: Wanda Jackson.
The fact I’ve been fortunate to work with both these greats—he reminds me so much of Elvis. His thinking. His charisma for one thing. Maybe his temperament, his easygoing style. I’ve been around him quite a bit the last year and I’ve never seen him get mad, upset or angry about anything. He goes with the flow and makes things happen. He’s exciting to be around. He’s always thinking all the time. Do you know people like that? You just like to be in the room with them. He has that appeal that Elvis did. You could be in a room with quite a few people in it but when Elvis walked in, all conversation hushed and everyone gravitated to him. Those people are very special and few and far between. They both have a handle on their generation’s music, as you said. It’s not happening by chance. They know what they’re doing and why. That’s why Elvis talked to me about getting into this new type of music before we had a name for it. He said, ‘The young people are buying the records. They have a voice in what the disc jockeys and record stores stock. If you want to sell records, you are going to record songs that they like.’ He was like 20 years old at the time. It was wise thinking. My father and I agreed with him. Night after night you could see the excitement that his music and him were creating. And how music was right there in front of us changing.
What do you want now?
A hit record—that would be a good starting place. Right here in my seventies. That would be wonderful. If you mean it as a little deeper question, I want to continue to do what I’m doing as long as I’m able to. If my health and my husband’s health holds, we won’t cease. But life has its ways of stopping you. We are having the time of our lives right now. We love to travel. It’s the only way of life I’ve ever known. I’ve been on tour for 54 years I think. I’ve been recording for 56 years. You just hope with all this going on … I think I’m safe for a while. I will still be able to draw a crowd. I promised myself I would not be the type of performer that kept hanging on and hanging on. When my crowds start diminishing then I’m going to bow out.
Fifty-four years of touring is a long time. What gives you a sense of home?
I do have a home! My kids—my grandkids. Kids have a way of bringing you right back down to earth real quick. When I come home it’s very easy to forget the road and things. Maybe I’ll need to design a new outfit or get something special for a show or makeup but when I get home, I tend to forget that and then I’m two days from leaving for tour and I haven’t done those things yet! That’s my sense of home. What helps is that my husband, Wendell, is my manager and he travels with me. I have a sense of home—wherever he is, is home to me. And now that my kids are married and have their own lives, he’s where I’m home. That’s why we are comfortable anywhere in the world.
You don’t see much lasting love these days.
No, they take it way too lightly. This year in October will be our 50th anniversary. I waited. Back in my day, girls got married as soon as they graduated high school and started having babies in a year and were housewives. I wasn’t ready to do that. My career was just getting started. I was 23 when I met Wendell and six months later we were married. I knew I was waiting until I fell in love. I thought I had loved maybe before. But something told me I am not in love with that person. You have to be in love with them the rest of your lives, put up with them, and them put up with you. We enjoy the same things and he jumped in and learned my business, show business, very fast and very well. He had his own career. He was in computers and programming, already, working for IBM a little while, so he had quite a future. I gave him the choice of staying with his career and me more or less quitting. I could have still recorded but not toured, or we could continue my career. ‘Well, we’re not getting married to be apart—we’re getting married to be together,’ I said. ‘You choose the way we will go and that’s the way we will be.’ He said, ‘You’ve worked hard and your parents have.’ It was 1961—a pretty big year for me, and I was thrilled. I wasn’t at all sure of staying home the rest of my life. I’m a real gypsy. I get antsy at home.
How do you know the difference between ‘in love’ and ‘love’?
You like to ask the tough questions. Put me right on the spot. All I knew is I knew the difference. I had a big crush on Elvis. Heck, when our careers separated us, he went away to make movies, I didn’t miss him that much. I was excited about what I was doing in my career. But when I met Wendell it was different. I wanted to be with him every waking moment of our life. It wasn’t easy at first. You can imagine, him not knowing much about business and I was a star in country. I just had ‘Let’s Have a Party’ and ‘Right or Wrong.’ He didn’t understand my dividing my attention between him and my public. But we knew that we’d get through it. That was never a question. It was just how? ‘How can I help you understand my job better?’ We worked through it. I think that’s the way you tell. You just want to be with them all the time. Your heart longs for them, to just hear their voice.
That’s so sweet.
Well, it’s worth waiting for. It truly is. Not that I waited very long. Girls get married later nowadays by choice. But in my day, girls didn’t have as many career options as they do today. We had about five occupations—secretary, nurse, airline stewardess, teachers, or housewives—and be a good one, keep a good house. Everything, your children, homemaker. And none of those rang my bell! I liked the stewardess the most.
The stewardess job was a lot different then!
Oh yeah—the requirements were tougher. You had to be 5 foot 4, I think. I was never over 5 foot 1 in my life so that let that career out. So I figured I better make it in music because if I don’t, I’m sunk! I didn’t prepare myself for anything else. I took one business course in school and got the lead in the senior play so I dropped the course and kept the lead. It was easy to see where my love and passion was: performing.
Have you come to embody the things that were most important to you as a child?
My folks tell me that from the time I was about 6, my daddy put a guitar in my hand and began teaching me chords. He was a singer and musician himself but he had to give up that during Depression days. Once I learned to play guitar they took me to dances. Almost every weekend they went to hear the big western swing bands when we lived in California. And I was so fascinated with the music, they said—they never had to worry about where I was because I was right in front of the bandstand watching the music and the girl singers. From the time I was 6: ‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’ ‘I’m going to be a girl singer!’ That’s why I feel so fortunate. This was my one dream. I didn’t have a lot of things. I wanted this and only this. I was most interested in singing. I didn’t take dance lessons or acting and all that. Just the music.
Why do you sing?
It’s the only place where I really have enough confidence to do something well. I’m not patting myself on the back or complimenting myself but so many young people these days can do so many things well. They have so many choices it’s hard for them to settle on one. In my day it was easier. Wait, I forgot the question … Oh yeah—I don’t know. I suppose it is that way with anyone who is truly passionate. I just love to make people happy. I’m a people-pleaser by nature. I want to go anywhere where it’s sad and people aren’t talking and get people going, talk to each other and be a ringleader. That gives me pleasure. And singing, I don’t know—it’s just such a wonderful way. Singing is my golf game. That’s the best to describe it. I make my living doing it but it’s total relaxation. I can sit and sing for two hours and give out but I will feel so good when I’m through. I just truly wish everyone in the world could be as happy with their life, their choices, their work, as I have been and am. The world would be a happy place, let me tell you. I think it would be heaven probably.
Even people with success can’t always say they that are happy.
That’s right. I was fortunate to have good people around me. My daddy traveled with me until I was married and he made sure my feet were always on the ground and my head was on straight. This was my job to make a living. He chose to be a barber and was happy. ‘You chose this—you don’t take it for granted. You don’t be uppity or snooty because you are a star. You work it like a job.’ That keeps you in line, when you have someone talking to you that way.
You never strayed from the good path?
No, not really. I had a little rebellious time but I didn’t get into alcohol and drugs. There was a time, well, I was feeling sorry for myself. All my friends were married and starting families and I would come back in from a trip and call my girlfriends from school. ‘Oh, I can’t—my husband is doing this and that.’ They had their lives going and I felt like I wasn’t going to meet the right person because of my traveling. You don’t have a chance really to get to know someone. I was not able to date in the traditional sense. Even Elvis and I—when we were on tour—we’d try to get away, take in a movie, drive around, get a hamburger … that is what our dating amounted to. Oh, let’s just say I had a window of time I felt cheated. I was doing what I wanted to do, but every young girl wants to be in love. Most do, wouldn’t you say? Then I remember coming into town, I was feeling sorry for myself and my best girlfriend, Norma Jean, who was a singer, I called her—‘Let’s do something tonight.’ ‘Well, Wanda I’m sorry, I’ve got a date with Wendell.’ Her new boyfriend. ‘Well, dangit, I don’t want to sit at home with my mom and dad.’ I was pretty brazen. ‘Ask Wendell if he minds if I come along with y’all?’ Can you imagine that? In 1961—boy, I was real brave! Sure enough he didn’t mind. ‘Tell him I’ll pay my way, but I’d like to go with y’all.’ He was the envy of everyone. He had a blonde on one arm and a brunette on the other. I already knew I was falling in love with this boyfriend of hers. That was really causing me turmoil. That was my frustration. I was mad at the world. Everyone’s met someone—even Norma Jean! I can’t go with him, it’s her boyfriend. That was a mixed up time for me. She got her break and had to move to Nashville to record and be on a television show there. And when she left, she told me to take good care of Wendell. So six months later, I called her—‘You told me to take care of this guy, and the only way I can do that is to marry him.’ So how did I get on this story? I suppose because you asked me about love before. Well, there was a time I was feeling sorry for myself and was a bit rebellious—maybe more than this story. Let’s leave it at that. My head is starting to go astray. It does that sometimes.