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New Hall of Fame member chose rock over rocking chair



When rock 'n' roll legend and longtime Oklahoma City resident Wanda Jackson dated and toured with Elvis Presley in 1955 and 1956, she said she saw nothing of the reputation he gained later in Hollywood of being an hyper-enthusiastic skirt-chaser.


Jackson, who will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 4 as an early influence, said she and The King went on dates that were very casual and served as polite breaks from their working routine while on tour together.

"Our dates didn't amount to a lot, because we were on a working tour," Jackson said. "If we got to town early and they had a matinee movie, we might go to a movie and afterwards go out and get a hamburger and a Coke, and drive around the town and just talk like teenagers do.

"Elvis was an absolute gentleman in every respect of the word," she said. "That's the part of him that I saw. I didn't ever see him any other way."

Jackson, dubbed the "Queen of Rock" by fans, was born in Oklahoma and said some of her earliest memories are of attending dances with her parents, where the entertainment was provided by large Western swing bands.

"They said I would stand at the bandstand and nearly break my neck looking straight up all night long, and I didn't ever want to leave," she said. "The girls in those bands were an early influence, because they dressed real sparkly and pretty, and they yodeled.

"So one of the first things I learned to do was yodel, so I could sing in one of those bands."

Jackson's musical ambitions always received enthusiastic support from her mother and father, who himself was a musician before he got married.

"Dad had a little band and they played dances around Oklahoma, but shortly after my parents were married, he had to get a real job, because it was Depression days," she said. "Dad played a lot of Jimmie Rodgers " he had quite a collection of his records, and that was his idol, so naturally, I grew up listening to Jimmie Rodgers.

"Dad began teaching me guitar and we'd sing, ... he'd play fiddle, and I'd accompany him on the guitar."

Performing for large audiences began when she was 15, after friends bet she didn't have the nerve to try out for the brief amateur-guest portion of a popular Oklahoma City radio show.

"Jay Davis, who called himself Cousin Jay, had a one-hour spot on KLPR, every day, Monday through Friday, and the last 15 minutes of his hour every day, he allowed local talent to come and sing," Jackson said. "He let me on, and I was on several times there."

She became a local radio personality after she won an amateur talent contest conducted by KLPR. As the winner, she received her own 15-minute daily show.

The station management was so impressed with Jackson that, at the end of her three-month stint as the contest winner, they made a formal offer to let her continue on the air.

"They said I was getting a good response and it was going over well, so if I could keep that little spot sponsored, they'd allow me to keep it," she said. "So I worked real hard at keeping it sponsored ... and I learned how to do the commercials."

Little did Jackson know that her show attracted the attention of Hank Thompson, leader of Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys, one of the leading Western swing bands.

"Someone told Hank Thompson to tune in to my show and said, 'She's pretty good.' So he did," Jackson said. "He called me right after my show one day, and invited me to come to the Trianon Ballroom where he was going to be working that Saturday.

"Hank Thompson was my favorite singer, and I had every record he put out, and sang them all on the show. It was one of the biggest thrills I ever had when he called. What I said to him was, 'Well, Mr. Thompson, I would love nothing better than to be there and sing with your band, but I've got to ask my mother first.'"

Shortly after her first appearances with Thompson, Jackson signed a recording contract with Decca Records.

"My first record was a duet with one of the guys in Hank's band " his name was Billy Gray " and it got in the Top 10 in the Billboard charts, and then our next one was in the Top 20, so I was getting airplay all over the nation," she said.

At her parents' insistence, Jackson finished high school before she went on her first tour. Her father then traveled with her, while her mother stayed home, designing and making Jackson's eye-catching stage apparel.

"I got tired of wearing cowboy boots and hats " I didn't like it, y'know " I was becoming a young woman," she said. So instead of wearing standard-issue cowgirl outfits with stiff leather fringe, and cowboy boots, she began appearing in high heels and closely fitted dresses with silk fringe.

"I brought some glamour and sex appeal to the girls in country music," she said, with a chuckle.

While Jackson started as a country singer, it was with Presley's encouragement that she began to bring a tougher rock edge to her music.

"Elvis talked me into trying that kind of music, and I kept saying, 'Well, I can't do it, Elvis, because I'm just a country singer,' and he said, 'Well, I am, too, basically. That's what I grew up listening to, but you can see how the young people love this kind of music, and you need to be recording it, and they're buying the records now.'"

Taking that tip, Jackson consciously took her music in a new direction when she got a new recording contract with Capitol Records.

"I was adventurous. I wasn't afraid to jump in and be different," she said. "So when I went to Capitol Records in 1956, I thought, 'This would be a good time to start fresh with some different type of music,' so that's when I started recording rockabilly, or what became rock 'n' roll."

When reminded of it today, Jackson laughs about the distinctive feline growl in her voice.

"I don't know where that came from " my toes, I guess," she said. "Once I started singing that type of song, I realized what it needed and I just reached down and pulled out something I didn't know was there."

But despite her best efforts, which have earned her plaudits today, the people of the late '50s showed an indifference to her rock 'n' roll early work. Songs like "Cash on the Barrelhead," "Hard Headed Woman" and "Mean Mean Man" caused barely a ripple among the record-buying public.

"They weren't hardly accepting Elvis and Jerry Lee (Lewis) ... and they sure weren't playing a teen girl up there singing like the guys," she said.

But in 1958, Jackson found success with "Fujiyama Mama," which became a huge hit for an entire summer ... in Japan. She booked a tour there, little knowing the tumultuous reception she'd receive upon her arrival.

"Dad and I were looking out the plane window, and I said, 'Boy, there are a lot of people standing on the roof,' and they had banners," she said. "Then when the plane pulled up at the gate and parked, here came people out with a red carpet, and there were photographers on both sides and some dignitaries of some sort. We were looking around trying to find a celebrity or somebody.

"We started down the stairs off the plane, and Dad was behind me, and he tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Baby, I think you oughta start smiling " all this is for you.'"

Back in the U.S., Jackson's career melded country with rockabilly, getting airtime and gaining hits on the early '60s, but it was soon trumped by the British Invasion, and Jackson left rock 'n' roll to get back to recording country.

"It was out of necessity," she said. "Of course, I love country music, but my aim was to be a star, and sell a lot of records. I had my own band and I wanted to make a living doing this, which I've been able to do for 54 years now. Capitol was releasing these rockabilly songs, but I could get no airplay."

Through the rest of the '60s and into the early '70s, Jackson recorded country music. Then, as a result of a renewed commitment to Christianity and in the wake of sparring with her record label over including gospel songs on her albums, she left Capitol Records.

"I didn't want to divorce country music " that wasn't my intention " I just wanted to add some gospel, because I'd always done that," she said. "But Capitol wouldn't hear of it. My producer said, 'If this is that important to you, you need to pursue a company that will allow you to do that.' So that's what we did.

"I recorded a lot of gospel material during the next 15 years."

But in 1985, Jackson received an invitation to record a new country and rockabilly album in Sweden. The decision to accept the invitation led to a renewal of her career that has continued to the present day.

She began touring in Europe, performing country songs, but it soon morphed into a full-blown revival.

"We were noticing all the people were requesting 'Mean Mean Man' and some of the other rock songs, so it wasn't too long before I was working rockabilly shows," she said. 

Those tours led to appearances at music festivals all over Europe, where her mixture of light-handed religious testimony and roots rock and rockabilly met with tremendous positive response.

"The kids just love it, and they listen to what I'm saying," Jackson said. "I found I missed singing my country and rockabilly songs all those years. I loved the ministry we had, and it was very satisfying and fulfilling, but I had missed being on a stage with a live band. The entertainer in me had really missed having a live band and a big spotlight and a nice big stage to work on."

In recent years, younger performers have paid respect to Jackson by citing her influence and flocking to not only record cover versions of her songs, but also record with her. In 2003, Jackson recorded the album "Heart Trouble," which includes duets with Elvis Costello and Rosie Flores, as well as musical contributions from Dave Alvin of The Blasters, and Lux Interior and Poison Ivy of the psychobilly band The Cramps.

When asked if she ever plans to retire, Jackson just laughed.

"I'm having too good a time," she said. "Most people, when they retire, they want to be together and to travel. Wendell (her husband and long-time manager) and I have been together our whole married life, and we've traveled the whole world.

"What would I retire to? Just sitting home in a rocking chair?"

Wanda Jackson, arguably the first woman to sing rock songs, will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 4 as an early influence, reportedly in no small part at the insistence of Bruce Springsteen.

Jackson has a very fond memory of having Springsteen in the audience at one of her shows:

"About three or four years ago," she said, "I was working in a small town in Jersey " where Bruce lives " there's a bowling alley where they bring people in to do performances. They set a stage up that covers two or three of the lanes, and people just stand or sit around.

"When we got there, I went into the office to take my coat off and get ready, and the bowling alley manager said, 'Bruce and Patti Springsteen are here and they'd love to come back and meet you, if you have time before you go on.'

"And I thought, 'Oh, yeah, sure " this is a big joke " someone like him coming to see me perform in a bowling alley.'

"So I said, 'Oh, yeah, bring him on back, and when the president gets here, he can come back, too.'

"In about five minutes, here's Bruce and Patti hugging me and telling me what big fans they are, and they were so sweet. And in my documentary ("The Sweet Lady with the Nasty Voice"), there's a shot of Bruce sitting on a ball return through the whole concert." "C.G. Niebank

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