Wanda Jackson: Getting The 'Party' Started The Queen of Rockabilly has just released a new album with Jack White of The White Stripes. In 2003, Jackson sat down with Terry Gross to explain why she switched from country to rock.
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Wanda Jackson: Getting The 'Party' Started

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Wanda Jackson: Getting The 'Party' Started

Wanda Jackson: Getting The 'Party' Started

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(Soundbite of song, Lets Party")

Ms. WANDA JACKSON (Singer-songwriter, musician): (Singing) Some people like to rock, some people like to roll. But movin' and a groovin' gonna satisfy my soul. Let's have a party. Ooh. Let's have a party. So then I'm send it to the store. And let's buy some more. And let's have a party tonight.

I've never kissed a bear...

DAVIES: Wanda Jackson has been called the Queen of Rockabilly. But lets face it, there weren't a lot of women rockers who could compete for that crown.

Jackson toured with Elvis Presley in the '50s. And, it was The King himself who encouraged her to try and cross over from country to rock 'n' roll. "Let's Have a Party" was her only top 40 record. But she had songs on the country charts, such as, In the Middle of a Heartache" and Right or Wrong."

At age 73 wanted Jackson is still performing. A New York Times piece says she was cat growls, hip swivels and howls at a recent Brooklyn show, and she has a new novel called The Party Aint Over." It's a collaboration with producer Jack White, who plays guitar on the collection of covers recorded live with a 12-piece band. The hope is that the new CD will bring her a whole new generation of fans.

Terri spoke to Wanda Jackson in 2003. She told Terry about making the transition from country music to rockabilly.

Ms. JACKSON: Well, I started in country music and then in 1955, after I graduated from high school, the first touring that I did was with a young fellow early in his career too and it was Elvis Presley. And I worked with Elvis off and on for a couple of years and I could see that this new style of music that he was doing that, you know, I love it. And I was with him right as he was really breaking big, you know. And he's the one that encouraged me to try. He said I think you could sing this kind of music. And being this country, you, I said I don't think I could ever get the feel like you do. He said sure you can. So he encouraged me. He took me to his home and played records and then hed sing for me and say now you got to do it this way and so, you know, I had a good teacher.

GROSS: So one of the things Elvis was famous for in addition to his singing style was how he looked on stage. You know, he was very sexy and he was very sexually suggestive on stage, particularly for the period. Did you pick up on that aspect as well? Did you change what you wore? Did you change what you did on stage?

Ms. JACKSON: Well, I had already changed my stage attire, you know. I didnt want to be in full skirts and cowboy boots and cowboy hat.

GROSS: Why did you want to change the look?

Ms. JACKSON: I don't look good in those things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JACKSON: That was the main thing. I've never been able to wear a full skirt, haven't to this day. And the cowboy hats and those old clubby boots, you know, and I just didn't like it. I didn't feel like that was me. Because I was a big fan of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor and I wanted to look like them, you know. I used to go to all the musicals and with paper and pen and when I'd see a dress I liked I'd sketch it down real, you know, real fast.

And so we copied one dress off of Betty Grable and one off of Marilyn. And it's kind of funny, when I look back at the old pictures and say, oh I remember where I found that type of dress. But my mother was a professional seamstress and she did all of my customs for me.

GROSS: Lets hear a song that you wrote that was a country hit for you. It's called Right or Wrong." And this was recorded in 1960. Did you think of this as more of a country song that they rockabilly?

Ms. JACKSON: Yes, I did. I wrote the song and thought it was definitely, it really wasnt country, country. But in the 60s country music was beginning to use the violin sections and singing groups behind us, you know?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. JACKSON: And so I was really just in the trend of what people like Patsy Cline were doing and Brenda Lee and things. So that song was one of the first that lent itself to that type of an arrangement.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is Wanda Jackson, recorded in 1960, Right or Wrong."

(Soundbite of song, Right or Wrong")

Ms. JACKSON: (Singing) Right or wrong I'll be with you. I'll do what you ask me to. For I believe that I belong by your side, right or wrong. Right or wrong, it's got to be always you, always me. Won't you take me along to be with you, right or wrong?

If it's right for me to love you, it can't be wrong for me to care. If you will say you love me, my life with you I'll share. Right or wrong, day by day...

GROSS: Wanda Jackson, recorded in 1960, her song, Right or Wrong."

Now you said before that you weren't really comfortable performing rock 'n roll to teenagers over rockabilly to teenagers because you were used to performing for adults and you didn't, you just didn't relate to these teenagers. Did that affect your staying in country music, as opposed to trying to crossover more into that team rock 'n roll audience?

Ms. JACKSON: Yeah. Probably so, Terry. Right or Wrong," you know, right after Lets Have a Party," Right or Wrong," became a hit. It was a crossover song too. Meaning, it was high on the charts in country but it was also in the rock 'n roll or the I think then they called it pop and soul music. So it was in the charts and that's when I try to do these teenaged things and just, you know, didn't really care for it at all. So, yeah, I still, I considered myself country really all through my career until we get to about 1985, and I was invited to Sweden to record a rockabilly album. And it was from that point on that I realized how popular I was with the new rockabilly fans not only in Europe, all over Europe and Scandinavia, but also in America eventually.

GROSS: So you found this more specialized audience who cared a lot about your records.

Ms. JACKSON: Mm-hmm. And thats what made it so exciting to see these young adults into this 50s rock music.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. JACKSON: And I've just been having the greatest time working with bands that they sound just like our bands used to and they're really into the lifestyle and they drive the classic cars and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JACKSON: And they dress in vintage clothes.

GROSS: Now what did your father do for a living when you were growing up?

Ms. JACKSON: He was a barber for a while.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. JACKSON: And he drove a cab. And he was driving a cab when he quit that to travel with me. And my mother...

GROSS: Because you are under age when you started performing. You weren't a team yet, right?

Ms. JACKSON: Right. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: But what was it like being tutored by Elvis on how to play this kind of like sexy rebellious music when you're traveling with your father?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JACKSON: Well, I dont know. I dont if I thought of it like that. But my dad really liked Elvis. He was a big cut up and Elvis was too. And so they kept something going on all the time, laughing at various things and so it worked fine. Now my dad went along to help me with driving and things like that, but he also it was very important that my reputation stay intact and I'm sure that was probably the main reason that he traveled with me. So I wasn't able to ever go from city to city in the car with Elvis or I had to, you know, dad had to drive me. I had to be in my car. And, you know, he didn't allow me to sit on someone's lap and I couldn't lay my head on someone's shoulder if I was sleepy and they were riding with us, you know, and he was pretty strict in those things. But it did keep my reputation intact.

GROSS: And there you are singing about broken hearts and let's have a party and riot in cell block number nine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JACKSON: Yeah. It is strange.

GROSS: With a dad making sure that your head isn't on anybodys shoulder. I love that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JACKSON: Yeah. I hadn't thought of that. That's quite a contrast, isn't it?

GROSS: Well, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

Ms. JACKSON: Well, thank you and I've enjoyed all of your questions.

DAVIES: Wanda Jackson speaking with Terry Gross in 2003.

Heres a track from her new CD, The Party Aint Over." This is Busted."

(Soundbite of song, Busted")

Ms. JACKSON: (Singing) Oh my bills are all due and the babies need shoes cause I'm busted. Cotton is down to a quarter a pound but I'm busted. I got a cow that's gone dry and a hen that won't lay, a big stack of bills that gets bigger each day. The county's gonna haul my belongings away cause I'm busted.

I went to my brother to ask for a loan cause I'm busted. I hate to beg like a dog for a bone but I'm busted.

DAVIES: Wanda Jackson.

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