At 79, Wanda Jackson Looks Back on Introducing 'Sex Appeal' to Rock n' Roll in the '50s
Ask the legendary Wanda Jackson about critics and fans insisting that she helped introduce a raw sex appeal to both country and rock n’ roll in the ‘50s (CMT once dubbed Jackson as ‘Country Music’s First Sex Symbol’), and the Oklahoma native will gladly beam with pride over that distinction.
“That’s exactly what I wanted to do,” she expressed to Billboard recently. “I didn’t like wearing cowboy boots and hats. I thought I was covering up my assets, so I designed different clothes that my mother made,” she said. “But, I wanted to put some glamour and sex appeal into it.”
Jackson – who will turn 80 next month - has been in the public spotlight for well over six decades now, having released her first hit recording in 1954 with “You Can’t Have My Love,” a collaboration with Billy Gray which went all the way to No. 8 on Hot Country Songs when she was just 17 years old.
“I remember that it was very thrilling, and there would be nothing to it. Just record something, put it out, and it would be a hit. I had a lot to learn,” she said with an infectious laugh. “Billy was the frontman in Hank Thompson’s band. I sang the song, and he did the recitation."
As it turned out, Thompson was very instrumental in helping Jackson get her start in the music business. “He was my mentor and good friend," she said proudly. “He lived in Oklahoma City. I had a radio show every day after school. I had fifteen minutes of just me and my guitar. He heard the show, and heard me sing and stopped and called me, and asked me to come sing with him and his band that Saturday night at the Trianon Ballroom, which was a really nice venue here. I said I would love to, because he was my favorite, and I couldn’t believe I was talking to him on the phone.”
What she told Thompson next threw him for a loop. “I told him I would have to ask my mother. He asked me ‘Just how old are you?’ I told him I was fifteen. He said ‘You sounded older, but go ahead and come down.’ That started off a lifelong friendship for the both of us. He was instrumental in getting my first record contract with Decca. A few years later, I had an option, so I went with Capitol Records. I learned so much from him. He had a television show that he did here. He let me sing on that, which gave me good experience. He was a very wonderful man, with a lot of charisma. He was very important to me.”
Once Jackson inked her deal with Capitol, the sound of her music took on an upbeat sound, mixing her country stylings with the popular rock n' roll sounds of the day. Interestingly enough, while Jackson is now looked at as a music pioneer -- gaining induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence in 2009 -- the hits were hard to come by. Of her rock recordings, only 1960’s “Let’s Have A Party” made a dent in the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 (No. 37). She explained that the odds were somewhat against her at that time.
“I wasn’t getting the airplay that I needed. I think the disc jockeys were having a hard enough time accepting Elvis, Jerry Lee, and these people. When you had a teenage girl singing in that style, I don’t know why, but it seemed like they just all got their heads together and said ‘Let’s don’t help her.’” So her musical style shifted back towards a more mainstream country sound. 1961’s back-to-back top 10 country hits “Right Or Wrong” and “In The Middle Of A Heartache” helped to establish Jackson as a presence in the genre. But had things worked out like she planned, “Right Or Wrong” would have been a hit for somebody else.
“I wrote that song with Brenda Lee in mind,” she admitted. “I wanted to write something that she would record. As it turned out, I did with it my producer, Ken Nelson. He said ‘You’re not going to give that one to anybody. You’re going to keep that one for yourself.’ I thought ‘Maybe he’s right. Brenda’s had a lot more hits than I had.' So, I took a chance and recorded it, and sure enough, it has been a very good record for me.”
Over the years, Jackson’s presence has continued to inspire artists as wide-ranging as Joan Jett and Angaleena Presley, and Jack White produced her electrifying 2011 album The Party Ain’t Over, which contained covers from artists such as Kitty Wells and Amy Winehouse. What does Jackson think of the attention she so deservedly has merited? “It’s very thrilling to me. It truly is. It’s so humbling when I see these great artists that got some inspiration and encouragement from me and my story. Then, to watch them become huge stars themselves – is a wonderful feeling.”
Jackson puts her life to paper with the November release of her autobiography Every Night Is A Saturday Night: A Country Girl’s Journey to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She says that finishing the book was something that gave her a sense of accomplishment. “I had never done anything but sing, travel, and perform. I always thought ‘My career wouldn’t be that interesting to people.’ I was never in drugs – or never in rehab. I didn’t even have a divorce. I raised two children, and had a wonderful husband who traveled with me. I really didn’t think I had much of a story. Somebody said ‘Wanda, you’re wrong. That is your story. You were able to keep everything together, and live a pretty normal life while being in show business.' That made me feel good, that maybe my life story would encourage somebody along the way.”
And, though her husband Wendell Goodman – who also served as her manager before his passing earlier this year – will always be the love of her life, she realizes that people will always be intrigued by her relationship with Elvis Presley, of which she has nothing but the fondest of memories.
"It was real fun. I was seventeen. He was a couple of years older, and the first person that I toured with after I graduated from high school. We hit it off real well from the beginning. I remember that my dad was traveling with me, so he could do the driving, and take care of business. He was a big joker, and so was Elvis. They always had something they were laughing about. He was definitely a happy-go-lucky young man whose career was exploding at that time. I felt very privileged to know him and to work with him as long as I did. Our dating consisted of moments when we would be in the town that we were going to work that night, we would go catch a matinee movie or go out for burgers and a Coke.”
Jackson says she still has a special souvenir of their time together. “He did ask me to be his girl, and gave me his ring, and I wore it around my neck. I still have the ring. My mother kept it to make sure I didn’t lose it.”