Oh the things a young artist can learn over burgers with Elvis Presley.
Last week, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Wanda Jackson shared her favorite Elvis memories and more during an AmericanaFest panel with Change the Conversation, a Nashville non-profit coalition that started in 2014 to support women in music.
The event marked Jackson’s first appearance at the famed Bluebird Café and wrapped with an acoustic songwriter round featuring Arielle, Ella Mae Bowen and Kree Harrison. Other rising artists in the audience were Kelleigh Bannen, Angaleena Presley, Natalie Stovall and Nashville songstress Ruby Amanfu.
Wearing signature fringe and sparkle, Jackson chronicled her rise to prominence after Hank Thompson discovered her through her daily radio show in Oklahoma. She opened up about balancing family with a career in the spotlight and talked about being the only teenage girl performing on major tours with legends like Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.
“I had never seen anybody like Elvis,” she shared of her first tour mate, “not back home in Oklahoma. He was a sharp dresser and had on a yellow sport coat, which in 1955, I had never seen anybody with a yellow coat of any sort on a man. And he was drop dead gorgeous.”
He also drove a fancy pink Cadillac. “Y’all,” she said. “Those were the days before Mary Kay. I’d never seen a pink car.”
She described their relationship as, “a very sweet one,” but it wasn’t meant to last. Oklahoma was home for Jackson while he lived in Memphis, and the only time they saw each other was on tour. At the time, Jackson’s father Tom was on the road with his daughter to help oversee the business of her music career.
“My dad liked him by the way,” she added. “Daddy would let me go out with him after a job to have a burger or whatever. Dad’s are so nice aren’t they? He really trusted Elvis. He was worthy of his trust.”
She also talked how Presley initially convinced her to transition from country to rock.
“I said, ‘Well gosh Elvis,’” she recalled. “‘I’d love to sing it.’ It was my generation’s music. I was a teenager. ‘But I can’t sing that kind of music. I’m just a country singer. Besides that, I’m a girl.’ He was ahead of his time. He said, ‘I know you can do it and you need to be doing it. If you want to sell a lot of records, you need to aim your music at the young people. And always before, no matter what age you are.’”
Her dad agreed. When she moved to Capitol Records, she released “I Gotta Know,” which mixed her country roots with rock ‘n’ roll. Success in country, pop, rock and Gospel soon followed with hits like “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad,” “Mean, Mean Man” and “Fujiyama Mama,” which was went on to become a No. 1 smash in Japan.
When conversation turned to her 55-year marriage with her husband Wendell Goodman, she was very candid about the decision they made as a married couple on who’s career they would choose to support.
“He had a very promising career with computers with IBM programming,” she said. “He said, ‘We got married to be together and so my staying home working this job and you going on the road, that isn’t going to work. Your parents and you have worked real hard to get you where you are and we can’t just let that go.’”
She agreed and he took over overseeing her business on the road.
“These marriages in our business,” she added, “if they’re both entertainers, especially if they’re both singers or musicians, you’re buttin’ heads. We didn’t have that problem. He’s a pretty amazing guy.”
As the queen of rockabilly and the first lady of rock ‘n’ roll, her biggest piece of advice for women interested in a career in music is never give up.
“Just stay right in there,” she said. “If you can do anything else and be happy, you probably should. But if you can’t, then just stay with it and make it happen.
“I’ll try to listen to the radio in the car and if the third song comes on and it’s another guy, they’re not as interesting. They’re not as exciting as the girls. That’s the way I feel about it. And I’m proud of all these gals. Country music is in good hands.”
Jackson revealed she is working on a new album of original music produced by Joan Jett. Her 31st studio album, Unfinished Business, was released in 2012, and the year prior, she released the Jack White-produced The Party Ain’t Over.