Editor’s Note: In January of 2006, I had the opportunity to interview Wanda Jackson: an opportunity I naturally jumped at, as I had coincidentally just started getting into her music. At the time, Wanda was 68 years old and still near the beginning of her late-career resurgence: she had recently received her first of two failed Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominations, and was promoting I Remember Elvis, a collection of covers by her one-time boyfriend Elvis Presley. I was 21 years old and kind of an idiot (some things never change). Below is the review I wrote of I Remember Elvis, followed by a transcript of our telephone interview. It remains a highlight of my career as a music journalist–though not, I’ll warn in advance, through any particular achievement of my own. – Z.H.
When Elvis Presley first walked into Sun Studios in 1954, he was 19 years old and running on the kind of breakneck momentum most artists only dream of. His Sun recordings are simple and spare, sometimes eerily so; yet with little more than guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black, and producer Sam Phillips’ famous echo to back him up, his fast-paced, hot-blooded mixture of country and Rhythm & Blues made history. Just two years later, a streamlined version of that sound would be frightening parents across America and beyond. In short, this was truly epochal stuff.
The story of Wanda Jackson is not quite as legendary, but its ingredients are similar: a young, aspiring singer, whose geographic and historical position has placed her on the cusp of a musical revolution, finds her sound and uses it to craft some truly earth-shaking rock and roll. Jackson’s music isn’t only notable because her mentor in the world of rockabilly was Elvis himself, or because her short-lived romantic relationship with Presley put her in a convenient position to be the Queen to his “King of Rock and Roll”; it continues to be worthwhile on its own merits, raw and visceral and crackling with sexual energy that manages to put even the Pelvis to shame. She might not have filled stadiums and TV screens the way Elvis did in his prime, but her impact in terms of influence is nothing short of monumental: like Elvis’ Sun sessions, the tremors of those late ’50s recordings can be felt everywhere, from Patti Smith to Chrissie Hynde, Neko Case to Peaches.
I Remember Elvis, despite its artist and track listing, does not capture the essence of either of those bodies of work. It doesn’t because that’s not what it’s trying to do: 2006 is not 1956, any more than the Wanda Jackson of today is the same shrieking, spitting rockabilly queen who shimmied her way into notoriety 50 years ago. This covers album isn’t about starting a fire, busting boundaries, or even (that less-vaunted Sun Records goal) selling records. It is, like Wanda herself says at the beginning of the album, simply “my way of saying ‘Thank You’ to a dear friend.” And when viewed in that context, it could hardly be a better effort.
But for those who expect the kind of intensity found in early sides by Wanda and Elvis, a little adjustment will be necessary. Despite the best efforts of Wanda and a studio band that includes former Blondie drummer Clem Burke, opener “Good Rockin’ Tonight” sounds flaccid: a pale, midtempo shadow of Elvis’ classic call to arms. Nor does it help that Ms. Jackson’s almost 70-year-old voice, while still impressive, is beginning to show its age; that famous growl has diminished to something a bit more stately, and it’s ironic that her long-awaited return to rock and roll has found her with a voice that’s better suited to country music. Once producer and bandleader Danny B. Harvey latches on to that fact, however, I Remember Elvis hits its stride. Slower numbers like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Trying to Get to You” work best, of course, but there are a few surprise successes, as well: “Baby, Let’s Play House” and “Mystery Train” may not hold a candle to the originals in a strict side-by-side comparison, but they’re more than convincing rockers, faithful to the Elvis arrangements and yet covered with Jackson’s personal stamp as well.
In the end, the overarching mood of I Remember Elvis is exactly as it should be. This album is about nostalgia: for a simpler music, a simpler time, and a friendship that, thanks to Presley’s early death, has been over now for longer than it lasted. Jackson pours her heart into every song; more importantly, she and the band seem to be having the time of their lives as they rock and roll through thirteen well-loved chestnuts. Even the sole original, “I Wore Elvis’ Ring,” is heartfelt and sweet where it could have been cheap and maudlin. The words, written by R.B. Warren but clearly coming from Jackson’s heart, nicely sum up the record’s personal bent: “They called him the Hillbilly Cat long before they crowned him King / And I wore Elvis Presley’s ring.” It’s simple, pure, and yes, more than a little slight–much like the album itself. And no, it can’t match the dizzying heights Wanda and Elvis both reached in the mid-1950s. But as a gift to the fans, a celebration of Wanda Jackson’s fiftieth year in rock and roll, and a personal tribute to a very important relationship, I Remember Elvis is perfect.
First of all, thanks so much for making time for this interview. It’s wonderful to be talking to you, and it’s wonderful to hear you playing rock and roll again.
I’ve been playing rock and roll again for about 20 years, at least in Europe! But yes, it’s only been ten years or so that I’ve been playing rock and roll in America–and Rosie Flores did that pretty much single-handedly, bless her soul.
(Editor’s Note: In 1995, “Ameripolitan” singer Rosie Flores featured Wanda on her album Rockabilly Filly, which brought her some notable mainstream attention and arguably got the ball rolling for her 21st-century comeback.)
So even when you only played gospel here in the U.S., you still played secular music overseas?
Well, in 1985 I got a call from Harry at Tab Records in Sweden. He invited me to come over and do a two- or three-week tour and a recording of rockabilly [Rockabilly Fever]. At that point [my husband/manager] Wendell [Goodman] and I had been just involved in our ministry; we played one-night stands at churches and revivals, gospel services. So when it came to a rockabilly album, we had to think long and hard about it: we prayed over it, we talked to our pastor, and finally we decided it was the right thing to do.
We wound up doing a three-week tour, and I had no idea that I had all these fans who wanted to hear country and rockabilly music…I had to relearn some of those songs, I hadn’t played them in so long! I remember one night, the audience kept calling for “Mean, Mean Man,” and I didn’t know any of the words. The next day Wendell had to type up the lyrics for me and I learned it all over again.
It’s been a wonderful experience for me. I wish every artist could go through this: it’s just amazing that later on, in your golden years, you could have all this fuss made about you. I didn’t even pursue this new career–they came to me! And no one appreciates it more than I do.
Last year I received the National Endowment for the Arts, which was a great honor. We were reading through the material we received about the award, and we realized that there was not one other girl country singer on the list of recipients, and no rock and roll artists whatsoever! I read that and thought, good gracious, all those people they had to choose from and they’ve chosen me? But I found out the reason why is because through the years I was always true to the music I’ve been singing, whether it was country, gospel, or rock and roll. The award keeps the true heritage of American music and the arts, and that’s what I try to do as well.
It must be great to be receiving all this attention for your accomplishments now. But at the time, as a female, white rock and roller in the 1950s, how were you accepted?
Well, you could sum it up by saying I wasn’t. (laughs) I wasn’t accepted at all. And it broke my heart, because I was on the ground floor–I was the first girl singer to play rock. I could play in person and they would like it, but I couldn’t get airplay…and back then, if you couldn’t get airplay, you were dead. That’s why for several years, all my single records and two or three albums were country on one side and rock on the other: I was desperately trying to stay in the rock field, but I had to have country, too. It was a challenge, but I never shied away from a challenge!
What was it about rock and roll that made you work so hard to keep playing?
It’s just such good, pure and I think innocent music; now in today’s mainstream, with all the different sounds on records, I think it’s wonderful that they’re going back to a simpler style. The new generation playing the old music will keep it alive. But good music will always be around. Take songs by Buddy Holly, Elvis, Jerry Lee. Carl Perkins had some great stuff: “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Matchbox,” “Rockabilly Fever.” It just seems to always come back, even when it’s been taking a back seat.
The interesting thing, though, is that it never really seemed to take a back seat in Europe. Many artists from around the same time as me didn’t explore that field; they had no idea how big it was. But Brenda Lee started going to England, and I started all over the Scandinavian area, then Germany picked up. I’d had a number one hit in Germany a long time ago, in the German language, and they just picked up right where they left off. They gave me such an ovation it stopped the show…I just stood there with tears in my eyes. It was truly humbling.
Well I love country music, don’t get me wrong. I started out as a country singer, and to warm up before shows or at home, I mostly sing country songs. But I was trying so hard to break through the barrier and play rock and roll, where all these people just wouldn’t let me through. I had to give up finally in 1960. My managers and the label and I put our heads together and said, let’s just go back to country. But that same year, “Let’s Have a Party” became a hit…it was already a year old and it was pretty buried in the back of my first album, but people started to pick up on it. I guess that was when they finally got the message that I was there and in your face and you just had to deal with it. (laughs)
But you stirred up a little controversy as a country artist, too – wasn’t the story that they wouldn’t let you onstage at the Grand Ole Opry?
Oh, because of my dress? Well, I changed into something that didn’t show my shoulders as much–but I did change the look for girls in country music back then, and I’m proud of that because it just happened. When I started out I was just a teenager and I dressed like everybody else, with the cowboy boots and hat. But as I was developing, I realized that I didn’t look good in those clothes! I was short and a little bit hippy, and I was wearing straight skirts as street clothes at the time, so I just decided that was what I looked best in.
It wasn’t risqué, but it was just enough: kinda sassy. Those low-cut things with all that fringe, so all I had to do was just tap my foot and I’d be shimmying all over the place. I remember Roy Clark said something like, “Standing behind Wanda watching her work was like seeing a shimmering Christmas tree.” (laughs) My mother made those dresses for me. Actually, both of my parents were really involved with my career in the beginning: my daddy went with me on tours and managed me, and my mom worked a job eight hours a day and sewed my stage clothes at the same time. She said that she’d rather my dad go with me and not worry than she be stuck at home with dad while he’s worrying. (laughs) But they made a lot of sacrifices for me… I was very blessed.
Another person who did a lot for you in the early days was, of course, Elvis Presley. Your new album, I Remember Elvis, is described as your way of saying “thank you” for the encouragement he gave you at the beginning of your career–but why record an Elvis tribute now, rather than sooner or later?
For several years now, my husband has been suggesting I do a tribute album to Elvis, because he’s so important to me and he was such a good friend. Then a year ago, Cleopatra Records in California asked me to record one song for a tribute to Shania Twain. They kind of specialize in tribute records, so while we were there Wendell mentioned the idea of an Elvis tribute to them, and they were interested, so that sort of got the ball rolling.
I knew that when I did it, I wanted it to be Elvis’ Sun recordings, because that was the time I was standing in the wings watching him, or hearing his songs on the radio when we’d travel. It was exciting to be with him when his career was exploding like that.
And he, of all people, was the one who encouraged you to sing rock music…how intimidating was that?
Yes, exactly. I felt like, hey, you can do this–but I’m a country singer! How can I do this? But he just kept saying, “You can. I know you can do it.” And Daddy–he and Elvis were really good buddies–said “I agree with him, you should do it.” Elvis took me to his home in Memphis and showed me how you could take a country song, jazz it up a little bit, mix it together with blues, and turn it into a rock song. He’d play a record and then pick up a guitar and show me how it was done.
It’s strange because I don’t remember the first song I did in this style…I think it was “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad” or “Fujiyama Mama.” But the minute I sang it, I just latched onto it and thought, I’ve found what I was looking for. I’ve found my style. That’s why I worked so hard to keep playing rock, even when it was a struggle. But I don’t have any regrets: not too many artists have the advantage of being popular in two or three different fields. When you look at my discography, there are a lot of different things going on: first country, then rock, then back to country, then gospel, then back to rock… It’s always been because I like to do all kinds of music. I’m just a singer and I love to sing.
Well, you have no idea what an honor it was to talk to you today. Thanks so much for your time. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Just to all the fans of rockabilly and rock and roll: keep the music, and it’s wonderful that you’re allowing me to keep singing my songs. Lord Bless You.
Support Dystopian Dance Party by using our affiliate link to purchase I Remember Elvis.