Busted: Wanda Jackson
She toured with Elvis in the 50s and is now recording a new album with Jack White -- the Queen of Rockabilly discusses music, faith and getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
BH: Did you feel differently about your rock music after becoming a Christian?
WJ: No, I didn’t. I just didn’t have much opportunity to sing it. Sometimes churches had events or parties where they wanted me to sing some of my country stuff, and I’d do it. From ’73 to ’85, ministry was the main point. But when Rosie Flores asked me to sing two songs on her new album, I agreed to do it, and that started the ball rolling in America. In ’85, I started recording and doing concert tours with country and rockabilly and gospel bands. That’s another point about the European audiences — if they like you they’ll let you sing whatever you want to and enjoy it all equally. Americans kind of like to pigeonhole you. “Are you this or are you that? What is your favorite kind of music?” Well, it’s all my favorite kind of music. And the first man who brought me to Sweden said, “I don’t know what to call your show.” So he ended up calling it “The Happy Wanda Jackson Country Gospel Rockabilly Show.” [Laughs.] So it took a long marquee, but that way people knew that I’d be singing all three kinds of songs. I didn’t want to make them think they were going to hear just this or just that. That little title did it.
And after we worked Scandinavia for awhile, I was surprised by all the fans I had there, because we didn’t have the media coverage then that we do today. You had no idea how big you were in a certain country until you went there. So we worked it 22 years straight. Western Europe opened up to me because they heard about my crowds in Scandinavia. Of course, I had a #1 song in Germany in 1965, and it was done in the German language, and I wound up recorded 18 songs in the German language. That song had become, I found out later, what they call an “evergreen song.” We might call it a standard. Every generation since then knows that song, and when I sing it, they stand and get their cigarette lighters and wave and sing with me. They’ve done that all along, and it knocked me out. Each generation knows the thing, like “Fujiyama Mama” in Japan. You don’t need too many of those to keep working.
BH: Over the years, did you know you had this growing legend status?
WJ: No… I don’t think I knew that. I don’t know why. I knew girls were singing it now, but I didn’t like all of them. The music had changed so much. The style and way of dressing was so foreign to me, so I never thought maybe I influenced those kinds of girls. Then I found out I had been a big influence on them and guys, as well. It has been an exciting ride, I’ll tell you.
BH: Looking over your career, it seems like God has had his hand on you, from Hank Thompson hearing your music on the radio to Elvis’ manager needing a girl on his tour. It seems like God has put you in the right place at the right time.
WJ: I think you’re exactly right, because He knew how He would eventually be able to use my popularity. That keeps it all in perspective for me, because all this acclaim that is being bestowed on me now, some people couldn’t handle that very well, thinking, “I’m really a big deal.” But, like you said, I’m thinking, this is God, so my testimony can reach the world. We’re not going to save the world within the four walls of the church. So we have to meet them wherever they are with a bit of the Gospel of truth in a way that’s nonthreatening. I have fun with it and the audience loves it, so I feel like all this acclaim really belongs to Christ. I’m the voice for it. That keeps you humble and in the right place in your own mind.
BH: What was it like getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
WJ: Well, I’ll tell you, it was one of the best experiences of my life. And they selected Roseanne Cash to present me, and that tickled me, too. So I was one happy camper. I found that I wasn’t so nervous. When you have to speak, that’s out of your comfort zone for most singers. However, in our ministry, I did quite a bit of speaking, so I’m not too uncomfortable. But I found myself getting very nervous as it got closer and closer. I was saying, “Let me sing first so I can settle down,” but I didn’t. So I just said a prayer to God and said, “I’m afraid that I’m going to step up there and fall flat on my face. It’s not going to happen if you don’t settle my nerves and do it through me.” And everyone has commented on how much fun it looked like I was having, and I was. I was more excited when I stepped up to the podium than I was nervous. And that’s what happens if you really let go of something and let God in. It becomes so much better.
BH: So Elvis Costello did a lot of campaigning to get you into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
WJ: Yes. He took it on himself to do that, and we’ve become close… well, I can’t say close friends, because we don’t know each other that well. But we’ve become friends. When he was inducted, he realized that I was not in the Hall of Fame, and he was floored. He said, “I can’t believe it. If the Hall of Fame is to have any credibility and not be just a boy’s club, you’ve got to have Wanda Jackson in it.” He wrote a stinging letter to the powers that be, and there was a certain guitar of his that they wanted for display, and he said, “You will not get that guitar until it can hang next to Wanda Jackson’s.” So he was taking a big step there. Since then, Bruce Springsteen and Patty, his wife, have stepped up. And those kinds of people get the attention of the people that do the voting. And I had my documentary that has been released. I don’t know if you’ve seen it.
BH: I haven’t.
WJ: It’s called The Sweet Lady with the Nasty Voice. I had two producers, one from each coast, and they worked so wonderfully together and did it in HD, and they followed us around to festivals and club dates and even to Scandinavia with us to get a sense of my fans there. Through the whole thing, you learn a lot about me, but you also get a real good education on rock and roll at the beginning. I’m quite proud of it. And that was sent around to some key people at the Hall of Fame, and it got into the right hands. My fans stepped up to the plate, too, and wrote letters, and they said they got a flood of letters from my fans. I didn’t do it alone.
BH: So how long do you think you’ll keep making music? Will you keep going into your 90s?
WJ: Well, you know, in your mind you never get old. [Laughs.] Have you heard older people say that? You still think you’re 21, but when you go to jump, you can’t jump as high, and when you bend over, you can’t get up as easily. I don’t put any deadline on it. I’ll know when I should bow out, and I will do it gracefully and pass the mantle on to someone. But I’m sure enjoying the fact that in my 70s I’ve got this new career and all these beautiful young people loving this music that I did as a kid. I’m really grateful, and I’m having the time of my life. My husband and I both are. We love traveling and it keeps us together, and we believe God has us together for a reason. We understand that, and the more I’m with Wendell, the more I want to be. And that’s God’s way. You don’t get tired of each other, and you’re not looking around for someone else. You keep falling more and more in love with each other. It’s truly great.
BH: Could you have ever imagined this life all those years ago when you started?
WJ: No. I can’t say I could. As a kid, you don’t think that far ahead. I never even thought about getting old. It just kind of crept up on me. [Laughs.] I looked in the mirror one day and said, “Who is this? That’s my mother! It’s not me.”
BH: But it seems like your music has kept you young.
WJ: I think it has. And all the travel. We stay up to date on trends. I’m not a trendy dresser, but I’m not going to be dressing like the grandma that I am. [Laughs.]
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