Nearly 60 years after its birth, rock and roll remains American music’s most successful illegitimate offspring, with everyone from Bo Diddley and Little Richard to Bill Haley and Ike Turner having stepped forward to position themselves in the delivery room and no one really knowing who deserves to sign the birth certificate. Rock’s mother has never been much disputed, however. That distinction belongs to Wanda Jackson, the “Queen of Rockabilly” who came roaring out of Oklahoma in 1956 as a big-voiced teenager and quickly learned to throw elbows with the boys who were just starting to build rock and roll into a worldwide phenomenon. Though she never reached the level of success of her boyfriend and tour-mate Elvis Presley, her “Mean Mean Man,” “Fujiyama Mama” and “Let’s Have a Party” have become staples in the rock canon, paving the way for her second life as a country singer in the 1960s and as the matriarch for a generation of riot grrls and roots rock revivalists. Now the grandmother of rock, she has outlasted nearly all of her contemporaries, still touring the world and working on new recordings at the age of 72.
But to simply count off Jackson’s accomplishments is to tell only half of her story. Just as important to her is the work she has done since the early 1970s, having found a higher calling than rock and roll when she and her husband committed themselves to their Christian faith and began rattling the roof beams of churches instead of rock clubs. Eventually, Jackson decided that she could reach even more people by playing to audiences outside of the church, and she returned to the rock festival circuit, her legend having grown exponentially during his years out of the spotlight. New recordings followed, a documentary of her life was made, and admirers from Elvis Costello to Bruce Springsteen stepped forward to support her candidacy for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Now working on a new album with the White Stripes’ Jack White (a project she isn’t yet ready to talk about), Jackson appears ready to welcome her musical offspring into the fold.
Busted Halo: When you started singing rock and roll, did you realize that you were the first woman to be involved with it?
Wanda Jackson: Yeah, that I knew. You couldn’t hardly miss that fact. I couldn’t find original material for girls, so I started writing at that point. I had written quite a few country songs before that, but my dad, who was my manager and travelled with me and was so hopeful, he said, “Well, you’re a songwriter and you’ve written some good ones. Try your hand at these songs. They sound pretty simple.” So I wound up writing quite a few of them and went on to write one of my biggest songs, “Right or Wrong,” and I wrote that during that time period. When you look at my discography through the late 50s into the 60s, you’ll see that I did a lot of cover songs, because there still wasn’t much material out there except the ones that I’d already recorded. It seemed strange that I was doing Little Richard songs and Elvis and all these others. But that’s all I had to choose from, and now that’s paid off in spades, because songs like “Stupid Cupid” and “Riot in Cell Block #9,” they think they were my hits.
BH: So from what I’ve read, you originally came to faith through your children wanting to go to church.
WJ: Right. It took them to keep nagging us, you know. But we weren’t home very many weekends, and in this business, if you travel, you’re going to be gone on the weekends. But there came a Sunday that we were going to be home. My mother took the kids to church while we were gone, and we finally got tired of them nagging us, and we said, “Heck, we’re off this Sunday. Let’s go and get them off our backs.” And we went, and both of us gave our hearts of Christ that Sunday. It was wonderful.
BH: What had you thought of Christianity before that?
WJ: Well, I had been brought up in a Christian home. My mother was [a Christian]; my dad wasn’t. But [he was] a wonderful person. No abuse or anything. I was an only child and the light of their lives, and they sacrificed a lot of their time together and a lot of their energy in helping me to make my dream come true. They knew I was destined to do this. I wouldn’t even prepare myself for anything else, so I had to make it, right? If I didn’t, I’d be picking cotton or something. They were wonderful in that respect.
BH: I’ve also read that becoming a Christian ultimately saved your marriage.
WJ: Well, it turned out that it did, but that’s never the reason for someone to get saved. It’s when God speaks to your heart in a definite way and you respond to that call. Our marriage wasn’t in bad trouble, but we were on that road. We could tell, and we knew something needed to change. But before I became a Christian, the thought of not singing anymore or not traveling just scared me to death. It’s not a good thing, but my whole life has been my music and my career, and I don’t really know who I am outside of that realm. It’s kind of a difficult thing to find yourself. We just knew that things weren’t good and that something had to give. Like I said, it’s not a reason to come to Christ, but once we did, all that stuff went out the window. I won’t preach to you, but it was a wonderful thing. All of a sudden we weren’t butting heads anymore and bowed to God’s will for our loves. You know how married people get mean to each other sometimes because there’s nobody else that will put up with it, so you fight with them. The drinking all the time and that way of life — that all changed.
I continued to sing in the places that I’d been singing all along, but finally we got uncomfortable in that situation. We were brand new Christians at that point, and we stepped out in faith and didn’t take any more nightclub dates. Churches were calling us, wanting me to come and sing and give my testimony, and then they began to ask Wendell to give his testimony to get his side of it. We had our own ministry for about 18 years, and it was just he and I. I would sing and give my testimony, and I’d invite Wendell up to give his testimony, and we saw many lives changed. It was a very fulfilling time. My intention was never to divorce country music, because I had gone back to country at that point. I hadn’t had a real big hit in rock and roll. “Let’s Have a Party” came along in 1960, and we were married in ’61, when “Right or Wrong” was a big hit. That put me back on the charts.
BH: When you first started singing in churches, were people accepting or suspicious of you?
WJ: A little bit of both. The main thing was that we were filling the churches with people. My name was still well known with some of the rock audience in the country, and they were coming, going, “What happened to Wanda Jackson?” And that’s exactly the way God wanted to use me at that point. It didn’t matter to me their reason for coming. The main thing was people were showing up in church who the church members would say, “We can’t believe it. We’ve been praying for that guy for years, and this is the first time that he has set foot within our doors.” It was encouraging to church members, the body of Christ.