There's only a handful of women who can claim to be the "Queen of Rock," and of that select few, Wanda Jackson might be the most royal. Her bona fides are undisputed: Wearing glamorous fringe dresses and sporting big hair, she electrified audiences with ramped-up rockabilly songs like "Mean, Mean Man," "Funnel of Love," and "Fujiyama Mama" in the mid-1950s and '60s.
She smoothly transitioned into mainstream country as the radio dials taste for "hillbilly" music waned, but her impact lived on in the bizarro hick jive of The Cramps and rockabilly revivalists in the '80s. Last year found her return to the spotlight with The Party Ain't Over, produced by Jack White. Covering tunes by her one-time-flame Elvis, Bob Dylan, and Amy Winehouse, the record sounds effortless, a grooving blend of Memphis soul, hammering rock 'n' roll, and elegant country shuffles.
White doesn't treat Jackson like an artist past her prime, pushing her trademark yelp in interesting directions. Fault the guy for looking like he escaped from a Tim Burton movie if you must (or at least fault him for that ICP collab), but White's approach works beautifully paired with Wanda's soulful grit.
Jackson chatted with me from her home, having just finished up an acupuncture session and some grocery shopping. We discussed Jack White's recent SNL performance, her thoughts on Amy Winehouse, and her time dating Elvis Presley.
Wanda Jackson is scheduled to perform Friday, March 9, at the Compound Grill.
Up on the Sun: I saw you in an upcoming film called Queens of Country. Your performance in that film is really fantastic.
Wanda Jackson: It was flattering to have been chosen. It seems like the last several years, the last 15 at least, I've been known mostly for rock 'n' roll or early rock. But I had a long career of country music. I think I was the third woman to record for a major company in country music. I didn't have a lot of hits, but I made a lot of impact.
That early rock 'n' roll stuff still have a strong country feel, too.
Right, because the first word that they used was "rockabilly," so that's where it comes from, the country music influence on it. Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins -- all had country music roots like I did, and whoever else followed, like Johnny Cash. All of us had that background. We played guitars, so that made you a "hillbilly," and in those days that was the name for you. You were a "hillbilly singer." Gosh, I hated that. I thought that made me sound like I was going to be out there in overalls with a straw in my mouth and pigtails. I didn't like that word. So when they finally changed it to rock 'n' roll I thought, "Yeah, this is better [laughs]."
Jack White produced your latest, The Party Ain't Over. Did you catch his performance on Saturday Night Live over the weekend?
I certainly did [laughs]. He's got two new bands, a girl band and a guy band. That floors me, but he's got the money to do it and it makes a great performance and a great show. The first one was toned down, with Ruby [Amanfu], the black girl that sang with him. She toured with me when I was with Jack on that short tour that we did. I thought that was good, and then the next song was totally Jack White, all wild. And it was good too, I just can't understand his lyrics but I liked it anyway.
He seemed like he was having a lot of fun. Listening to the record, it sounds like it was fun too. You really are partying on that record.
It does sound like it. We had a great time. I even got to record with the band. I got to sing with the live band live, right there. That's always fun, so I just did a recording where I did the scratch vocals but I did it with the band. I always like that.
Do you find it's easier when you're playing with everybody there in the room?
Well, you know, it's the way we started out. I'm not saying it's better than the new way, because it probably isn't, but even the fans of the music say there's just a feeling of all y'all being in the room together. It comes across on the record.
There's a real southern soul feel to the record, too.
Yeah, you're right. You know, with an Amy Winehouse song of course, and "Like a Baby," the Elvis song. These were all cover songs that Jack chose, but I certain enjoyed singing 'em. "I'm No Good" was a bit of a challenge [laughs]. He didn't want me singing it like [Winehouse] did, he wanted it to be all Wanda Jackson you know? He pushed me pretty hard on that one, but he got what he was hearing in his head. I pulled it through for him.
Were you familiar with Amy's version before you recorded it?
No, I really wasn't. I knew her by name and infamous [pauses] doings and things, but I had never met her. I tell the people when I perform, before I do that song, "I was hoping to meet her, and now I'll never have that chance, but I will continue to do her song." I want to do my part to keep her music alive. It stands out, too. I enjoyed that one driving home, it came on the CD player in the car, so it stays right there in the number one spot so I can listen occasionally.
You listen to your record some times?
Oh, yeah. Sure.
Do you ever get sick of people asking you about Elvis and the short time that you dated?
You know, I really don't. I'm just always glad to sing his praise. Because when I knew him he was young, just getting started. Thrilled to death at what was happening, and I was right there with him during all this time, when the girls began pulling at his clothes. You know, screaming and crying, and all the hijinks. It was funny to see, because that was so new to everybody. No one had ever seen a performer do that to an audience. I learned from him to have fun on stage, because he always had fun. He never took himself or anything real serious. You couldn't hardly get a serious sentence out of him. One time I told him that, I said "You don't take anything serious," and he just laughed. But yeah, my time with him was very special in my memories. And he helped me so much, because without his push for me to try to do this music I may never have tried. I have so much gratitude for that.
I'm looking forward to seeing you perform this weekend.
Well, I'm sure looking forward to coming to my favorite city.
Is Phoenix one of your favorite cities?
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I used to say one day I'm going to live there. Now it's gotten so big, I've kinda veering toward Tucson.
Tucson is beautiful, too.
It's a little smaller, but Phoenix was my first choice when I was young, I said "When I retire, you know?" And here I am at 74, still not retired. But that's okay. I still like it.