Interview: Wanda Jackson

Holly George-Warren

By Holly George-Warren

on 01.26.11 in Interviews

As the title of her sensational Jack White-produced album proclaims, for Wanda Jackson, The Party Ain’t Over. At 73, the Queen of Rockabilly is experiencing new highs in a 60-year career: appearances on David Letterman and Conan, sold-out concerts in New York and L.A., and her first performance at the Grand Ole Opry since the mid ’50s. All of this comes on the heels of Jackson’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.

Jackson was only 13 when she began performing on the radio in her hometown of Oklahoma City. Soon, she was singing with Hank Thompson and recording for Capitol Records. After a tour with Elvis in 1954, she took up rock ‘n ‘roll, where her fireball delivery and rough-and-tumble persona set her apart from her more demure female contemporaries. Her high-octane “Let’s Have a Party” is every bit as resonant today as when she recorded it in 1958.

eMusic’s Holly George-Warren caught up with Jackson to discuss working with Jack White, the virtues of getting angry and her tricks for memorizing lyrics.

You and Jack White have just made the best album of your career. How did you two get together?

Jon Hensley, my webmaster and publicist, and Wendell [Jackson's husband and manager] were kicking ideas around for another album and we settled on Wanda and Friends, a duets album. John mentioned this to a hair stylist friend of his in Nashville, and she said, “That sounds like a great idea, but whatever you do, get in touch with Jack White because I know he’s a fan of Wanda’s.” And so John got a hold of him that day and asked Jack if he would be interested in doing a duet with me, and Jack very politely said “No, I wouldn’t be interested in that. But I’ll tell you what I would be interested in. I would be interested in recording a single, and possibly an album with her.” So John’s feathers drooped and then they perked right back up again. I couldn’t believe it either.

The Party Ain’t Over has such an eclectic mix of songs, from Harlan Howard’s “Busted” to Bob Dylan‘s “Thunder on the Mountain,” as well as classics by Kitty Wells, Little Richard and Jimmie Rodgers. There’s something from every facet of your career, or your life, and then some…

I think that was what Jack had in mind when he started selecting songs. I think he said as much — having a showcase-type album. In fact, one of my claims to fame is that I was the first artist to record a Harlan Howard song back in the ’50s. It was “Queen for a Day.”

When you started picking the songs for the record, did you have some advance notice and practice singing them before you went to Jack’s studio in Nashville to record?

Yeah, we mailed songs back and forth. The full story, Holly, which is all right to print because I’m totally honest — more than I should be, probably — is that I went into the project kind of kicking and screaming. For one thing, I was going to be out of my comfort zone. I was ready for something new, but with Jack White, I knew how popular he was and that he is a rock star, and I’m thinking, “Now what is he going to have me do?” The one song that really hung me up, was the Amy Winehouse (“You Know I’m No Good”), so I didn’t even hardly bother learning it. I just made up my mind I wasn’t going to do it. Well, when two immovable objects meet, something’s gotta give. And so Jack wound up getting his way. He already had the [backing] track made. He said, “Just try it for me, Wanda.” He’s so gentle and subtle — I describe him as a velvet-covered brick.

He knows how to get his way, eh?

That just about says it, ’cause you’re gonna do it if he thinks it should be done, and he has his reasons why he wants it a certain way, and he wouldn’t let me off the hook. So he commences to teach it to me. He was singing it in my ear on the phone to teach it to me. Then he was pushing me, push, push.

You can hear me on the [track] saying, “I always have to push.” He left that on there. I said, “You’re not supposed to leave that stuff on there.” He said, “Oh, that was hilarious.” I said, “I always have to push” ’cause we’d just got through with a take, and he said over the speaker, “Oh, that was great,” and I thought, “Whew, I finally pleased him, we got it done.” He said, “Now give me one more and just push a little bit harder.” Anyway, he got the performance he wanted by getting me almost to the angry point.

Very crafty.

Yeah, it happens to me that way. I can think of two other of my recordings where I got mad, and that attitude kind of helped punch the song up a notch.

What were those other songs?

“You Can’t Have My Love” [1954] and “Fujiama Mama” [1957].

What were the circumstances with “Fujiama Mama?” That’s one of your greatest hits!

I wasn’t exactly mad, I was very frustrated. The main gist of it was [Capitol Records producer] Ken Nelson was trying to give me his idea of how it should be sung. I was trying to do it rockabilly. I just punched it up a few notches with the gravel voice, and Ken was getting me frustrated. So my daddy came in the studio and took me aside. He said, “Wanda, don’t pay any attention to what Ken Nelson is saying. You just lay back and you sing that song the way you want to.” And so that always gave me the freedom. If Daddy okayed something, then I knew it was okay to do it. So I just went up to the mike and sang it just like you hear it on the record. And Ken was happy and I was happy.

With “You Can’t Have My Love,” I didn’t want to record that because it was a duet. Hank Thompson‘s bandleader, Billy Gray, had the recitation part in it, and I just knew that if the record did well then we’d have to stay together as a duet team, and man, I didn’t want that! But I was kind of forced to do it, and so I just got in there and sang it — I thought — as bad as I could, and it turned out to be exactly what they wanted.

It was your first big country hit, in 1954. I guess sometimes you just need a situation to get you into an emotional territory that’s going to really add that extra something to the song.

Yeah, like on the Amy Winehouse song. It finally dawned on me that Jack is wanting that 18-year old Wanda Jackson that’s still down in there somewhere. He wanted the fire and that attitude, so once I understood it, I was able to do it.

He found that girl.

Yeah. I’ve told people, and it’s so true — that Jack pushed me, and kept pushing until he pushed me right into the 21st century. And it feels so good, Holly, now at this point in my life, my career, to be accepted and to be relevant as an artist of today, not yesteryear.

I was so afraid my longtime fans would not like me doing other people’s songs, or something original and current. But I found out I was very wrong. They were anxious to have fresh material, and so then I eased up and somewhere along the way toward the beginning of our relationship, I told Jack, “I’m going to take my hands off the project. I want you to have full rein. You tell me what you’re hearing, how you want me to sing it, and I’ll do my dead-level best to give you the performance that you’re after.” And he said, “No, I want your input.” I said, “You ask me anytime you want to, and I’ll give it to you, but I just feel like I should put myself in your hands because I don’t know this market today, I haven’t done songs exactly like these, so you just take the helm and guide the ship.”

What were your original reservations about “You’re No Good?”

I told Jack it was very sexually explicit and I’d never done that type of song. I’d done sexy songs, but I said, “I’m not going to sing that second verse, so you can just mark it out.” And he said, “I’ve already changed it for you. I didn’t expect you to sing it that way.” So he was way ahead of me.

When I saw you do it live in Austin last year at South by Southwest, it was fantastic. You were so powerful and sultry, and it just seemed like your song. You really made it your own.

Yeah, it really feels that way now when I sing it. I thought, “What was the matter with me?”

I remember when I visited you in Oklahoma City, we were driving around together in your convertible and you had a tape playing of your songs and you were practicing by singing along with the tape. Did you do anything like that to prepare for these sessions?

Oh yeah, I have to. They would send me lyrics and I write them out by hand and that helps you remember it. Plus, I put notes on it and little key things to help me with melody. I guess every artist has their little things — like, if I want to growl in a part, I put a little jagged line under the word, and if the melody goes up on the end, I put a little tent pointing up. Because when you’re learning 12 songs, it’s kind of bang-bang-bang, you’ve got to have some help remembering that stuff.

Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountain” — there are a lot of lyrics in that song!

Bob Dylan’s version was 11 minutes long, and it had 700 words, but Jack cut ours down and ours is five minutes long. And I had 11 verses that make no sense. They don’t tell a story. One verse doesn’t hinge on another one. It’s the hardest thing to try to memorize I’ve ever tackled.

Did Jack know that “Blue Yodel #6″ was one of the first songs you ever learned to sing and play?

Well, as it happened, we needed to pick two more songs on the spot so Wendell said, “Jack, do you know she yodels?” And he said, “No, I don’t think I did,” so we chose one and the band had already been dismissed, so he said, “I’ll just do it with my guitar, it would be a good way to end the album.” I picked out the Elvis song, “Like a Baby.” And he brought the band in the next day and we recorded it live. I was in the studio with the band, like in the ’60s.

I enjoyed hearing you do “Blue Yodel #6″ on the Grand Ole Opry” last week. Was that the first time you’ve been back to the Opry since you were so mistreated there by good ole Mr. Texas Troubadour Ernest Tubb?

That really wasn’t anybody’s fault. It was lack of communication. Somebody did not tell me the rules. I had been wearing fringe dresses since about ’54. So I designed a new one and Mother made it. It was so pretty, and I wore it and I was ready to go on backstage. It had the sweetheart neck. It was white with red prints and sparkle spaghetti straps. I was real proud of it and Ernest Tubb came backstage and said, “Are you Wanda Jackson? And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, get ready honey…you’re on next.” And I said, “I am ready.” I was kind of nervous. I was standing there with my guitar on. And he said, “Well, no you can’t go on stage at the Grand Ole Opry like that.” And I said, “What’s wrong?” And he said, “You can’t show your shoulders — women can’t show their shoulders.” And I said, “This is the only dress I brought here tonight.” And he said, “Well, you’ve got to cover up your shoulders some way, and you’re on next.” So I had a white leather fringe jacket and had to put it on, and I was in tears out there on the stage, trying to sing my song, and being upstaged by Minnie Pearl and Stringbean, and I don’t know who else. It was just a terrible situation.

That’s horrible.

Well, it wasn’t professional at all, and that’s the way they did the show. I couldn’t have drums or anything, and I was used to working with Hank Thompson and the full orchestra. That’s what was hard, so I got off stage and told Daddy, “Listen, let’s get out of here. I’m not ever coming back, it’s not for me.” They offered me a position as a regular a little bit later on, but I didn’t want any part of it, and because I didn’t take that, I was able to continue with the Ozark Jubilee, which was a much better show for me.

How do you like being on your new label, Third Man/Nonesuch Records, for The Party Ain’t Over?

They’ve been great! They sent Wendell and I to Paris, France; Hamburg, Germany; and London. And I did 50 live face-to-face interviews in four days. I had four telephones. I lost my voice, I talked so much. But we ended it with England’s biggest musical show event on television, and it’s a New Year’s Eve celebration, hosted by Jools Holland and his band, and I opened the whole show with “Rip It Up” or “Let’s Have a Party” or one of those, and the day after it was shown, on January 1st, my website got 10,000 hits. Everything’s happening, it’s fantastic.

Wow! Can you believe it? This is going to be your year! And now you’re about to be on David Letterman and you’re doing some New York and L.A. shows with Jack and his Third Man House Band…

I’m telling you, I’m just hanging on, but to think that Jack is doing all this to help me promote this album and he e-mailed us and told us that the New York show sold out in 5 minutes.

We should have added another day — that ‘s what we did in California, because it sold out in 25 minutes. We just added another show. It’s very exciting. I’m trying to hang on for the ride!

When I first saw you play back in 1995 with Rosie Flores, that’s only been 15 years, did you have any idea that this would happen?

Well, I was wanting it so bad because it’s what I was doing all over Europe and Scandinavia for 10 years at that point, and I thought, “Why can’t this be happening at home where I don’t have to cross the pond so often in a year?” It’s kind of hard on you — all the jetlag, so sure enough it began to happen. What’s so good is that I haven’t had to go out and knock on doors and try to generate some excitement and stuff like that, it’s all just come to me and been put in my lap.

You’re such an inspiration to guys and gals, the way you have so much joie de vivre and energy up there onstage. Seeing you do “Shakin ‘All Over” is amazing! Your love of what you’re doing just comes across.

Thank you. I hear that from the people when I go to the product table. They comment a lot like that, and I can’t imagine how these days that I’d be inspiring someone. But maybe it’s just the fact that I’m still doing it, still loving it. It’s been so exciting the last several years. My life has just gotten better and better.