Wanda Jackson, the effervescent, 72-year-old queen of rockabilly, was thinking she might like to make a duets album. After all, her champions include Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, all of whom encouraged her overdue election into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year. Her publicist knew a stylist who knew Jack White, but when connections were finally made, White declined the duets offer. However, the ambitious musician, famous as a member of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs and now the Dead Weather, said he’d love to record Jackson. Furthermore, he agreed to put out a single and album on his own Nashville-based label, Third Man Records. The first fruits of their labors — a double-sided single of Amy Winehouse’s sultry “You Know I’m No Good” and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ rambunctious “Shakin’ All Over” — arrived in January, digitally and on vinyl. A full album is expected in the fall.
“It’s just thrilling me to death because I was a bit leery of recording something I wasn’t sure that my rockabilly fans would want,” Jackson says from her home in Oklahoma City. “But I’m finding that isn’t true at all. They love the idea. Jack, in one sense, has brought me into the 21st century — and that’s what I needed. I was beginning to think, ‘I don’t know if I can keep riding on the past things I’ve done. I might need some new direction.’ Well, he came along and he gave it to me. I’m indebted to him forever.”
Asked to describe White’s skills as a producer, she pauses for a moment until she decides: “Forceful.” After a big laugh comes through the phone receiver, she continues, “In a word! But in such a loving, gentle manner that you want to please him. He is brilliant and everyone knows that. He is so talented. He’s only 34 years old, so I thought just the fact that he wanted to produce me was very, very flattering. Of course, I knew about what he had done with Loretta Lynn‘s album [as producer of Van Lear Rose], and that was a great album also. So I was kind of anxious to see what kind of material he was wanting me to do.”
Jackson recorded the sides during a closed session at White’s home studio in Nashville. She says she had to do her homework on him but ultimately found a kindred spirit.
“I’ve always been this way,” she says. “Jack, once again, brought it out. On ‘You Know I’m No Good,’ I got a little bit … not mad… frustrated. I was wanting to do it his way, but it seemed I couldn’t make it happen. He says, ‘We’re rolling,’ and I say, ‘I always have to push,’ because he had just told me for about the 10th time, ‘That last take was great. Now let’s get one more and just push it a little bit more for me.’ So that’s when I said, ‘I always have to push.’ Well, I pushed and went through it and that’s the take that everyone hears. I just had to get a little angry — and that’s exactly what the song was calling for. I did same thing on ‘Fujiyama Mama.’ My daddy just came up to me and said, ‘You rear back and sing that thing the way you want to sing it.’ It’s like, ‘I’m gonna do it!’ And that’s the version you hear on ‘Fujiyama Mama.’ So it’s worked before. Maybe it will work this time.”
Jackson first hit the country chart in 1954 with a duet with Hank Thompson‘s bandleader, Billy Gray. Within a few years, she left Decca Records for Capitol Nashville and recorded several albums while still in high school, balancing hard country (“In the Middle of a Heartache”) with raucous rock ‘n’ roll (“Let’s Have a Party”). Her peers included Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley — yet she was the only gal out there. Thus she’s perfectly satisfied to be inducted in the Rock Hall’s “early influences” category. Indeed, the vanity plate on her shiny new, red Cadillac reads “ROC HAL 9.”
Jackson first visited Nashville as a teenager to perform on the Grand Ole Opry. However, her self-designed gown, complete with fringe and rhinestones, didn’t cover her shoulders, so she was forced to comply with the Opry’s dress code and wear her white leather jacket over it. She remembers that she couldn’t keep from crying during her song. To this day, she isn’t particularly eager to accept their invitations. Music fans can see just what they missed with a vintage video of her rousing rendition of “Hard Headed Woman,” which plays in rotation on an overhead TV screen at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s not uncommon for visitors to pile up near the exhibit of rockabilly artists, waiting for the clip to come back on. During a private tour of the museum a few years ago, Jackson was told that she’s a perennial bestseller in their gift shop because tourists will walk in and say, “Whoever that girl is, I want her record!”
During her induction into the Rock Hall, Jackson told the audience she could feel Presley’s presence in the room. Early in their careers, they had toured together and even dated for a while. His influence on her life remains indelible, she says, as he encouraged her to forge her own musical path rather than choosing between country and rock ‘n’ roll.
“Once again I had to have a push,” she says now. “He was the one who pushed me and challenged me and made me promise to try it. He cared that much. I thought, ‘Without being a friend of his and without his concern for my career, I wouldn’t be here.’”
After she and her husband-manager, Wendell Goodman, became Christians in 1971, Jackson settled into gospel music. But a decade later, she accepted offers to play rockabilly shows in Europe. She reacquainted herself with the American audience in the 1990s, released a few new albums and toured extensively throughout the 2000s. With a heavy summer tour ahead, she’s asked who she sees in her audience now.
“That is interesting,” Jackson replies with a giggle. “I’ll have from the teenagers to a few people my age. The main body is the young adults and they are into this retro stuff. It’s their whole lifestyle. They love our ’50s rock music. They know all of my songs. They’ve got my box sets. They know more about my career than I do. I’ve had to do some studying up to stay up with them! I’ve had to go back and relearn some songs to put in my show. That was a good challenge for me, too. It’s a pretty heady trip, and I’m just trying to keep my feet on the ground and make sure I can get a hat to fit me.”