Yakking with Wanda:
Colin Davies Chats with Wanda Jackson
You’re on the short list of nine nominees to be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. As you probably know, a lot of rock n roll fans have mixed feelings about it, because some of the people who’ve been inducted in the past have had nothing or very little to do with rock n roll…
Right. That’s for sure. (This current crop of nominees include Metallica, Chic and RunDMC! -Ed.)
…and then, of course, there are fabulous rock n rollers like you who haven’t yet been inducted. So what’s going to happen this year?
Well, it’s anybody’s guess at this point. You’re always happy if you get on the final ballot. I’m nominated every year, but this is only my second time to get on the final ballot. I don’t know what their criteria is and how I’ve been overlooked for this many years — it’s kind of a mystery.
Yes, and I don’t know what they mean by ‘rock and roll’…
Yes. Someone said they ought to change the name to Rock Hall of Fame or Pop Hall of Fame. At any rate, we’ve done a lot of promoting this year on my website, telling fans who to write in to. That goes a long way, and the fans have already risen to the occasion. I’ve never worried much or thought much about whether I was in the Hall of Fame or not, but it was pointed out to me that it is important in my career and for the future of the music.
The classic rockabilly sides you cut for Capitol in the 1950s are still very popular today…
Oh yeah. They’re still popular, I’m happy to say. They are still…what’s the word? — pertinent ˆ to society today.
Your producer on those sides was Ken Nelson who was an older guy. Did he like the kind of music you were doing?
Well, I think he did. He didn’t say much one way or the other, but he eventually got the hang of it.
Well he worked with Gene Vincent also, and of course he was a pretty hard rocker…
Right. And so he knew it was the new wave of music. The only thing I think that got him was he didn’t exactly know how to help you with the sounds you were wanting and some things, until he got used to it.
You had some great musicians playing with you. Who was it that chose them?
Well, in the late ’50s and early ’60s I used mostly recording musicians on the West Coast, and of course he knew the best ones and so I always let him take care of that.
For example, you had Joe Maphis playing guitar on some tracks…
Yes, Joe. He was very popular at the time. After I formed my band, the band that toured with me, I’d bring the band in and then we would pad it sometimes if we needed extra things. Sometimes band members are very good in their own right, but when you put them up next to these type of musicians that record, they don’t quite come through. So once in a while we’d use a different drummer maybe, or a different bass player. My guitar and keyboards, they always played right up front.
You used Big AI Downing on piano…
Yes, on quite a few of those early things.
And the guitarist was…?
Did Roy Clark play on some sessions?
Yes, that was a little later That would have been 1960.
Buck played on the early ones, but he only played rhythm guitar as I remember.
And Merrill Moore played on some?
Yes, he played piano.
You wrote a lot of your own songs, but who picked the other material you did?
I always selected, especially those rock n roll things, because Ken didn’t really have the connections for the songwriters. I would write them or we’d do cover songs, like ‘Fujiyama Mama’.
That was original. ‘I Gotta Know’, that was written by a personal friend of mine [Thelma Blakmon) who lived here in Oklahoma City. She wrote that as my transition, going from stone country to this new rockabilly.
They didn’t call it ‘rockabilly’ at the time, did they?
No, not right at the beginning. We picked that up because Elvis was called The Hillbilly Cat’, and he was the one, the leader of the pack, and it kind of became ‘rockabilly’.
‘Hard Headed Woman’ was a cover of an Elvis song…
Yes. I’ve put it back in my show recently. I’m going to try it because that clip that they’re showing at the Country Music Hall of Fame and on all of these award shows, if I’m mentioned they’ll show that clip from Town Hall Party’, so I’ve decided I’m going to put that back in for a while.
Did you ever meet Claude Demetrius who wrote it?
He wrote two great songs — ‘Mean Woman Blues’ and ‘Hard Headed Woman’, I always wondered what his attitude to women was…
(Laughing) Probably just a good writer.
You did shows with Elvis out on the road…
He was just so important to my career in those years. He came along at such an opportune time for me, by encouraging me and talking me into doing this music. He really put me on the cutting edge of everything.
I believe you also toured with Buddy Holly…
Well, he was on some of the package tours we did. Those guys weren’t huge stars then. I could be on a show and Elvis, maybe, would always headline, maybe I’d get second or third billing, and Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly… Buddy opened for a show in Lubbock, and that’s how Elvis just slipped over into his style of singing and everything.
But you don’t have any particular memories of Buddy Holly?
Not so much. I didn’t get to hang out with the boys backstage. I didn’t get to ride from job to job with any of them. You know, if you didn’t go out to eat with them afterwards, you didn’t get to know them very well. And like Johnny Cash, I think Buddy Holly was kind of shy, especially around me, maybe ’cause my dad was always standing right by me, you know (Laughs). I was just a teenager back then.
How old were you when you made your first recordings for Decca?
And how much of an influence was Hank Thompson on you?
He was the first, most influential person in my career and in my life. He became my mentor for sure. I toured with him, I picked his brain, I watched him perform, I got to sing in front of that fabulous band of his … I learned so much from him. I never planned on doing anything else in my life. I just never dreamed of not being a singer.
And you’re still singing today…
Yes, I’m still traveling the world, singing ‘Let’s Have A Party’ and ‘Fujiyama Mama’ to this young generation of rockabilly music fans. I’m having the time of my life. That kind of music is just so good and it always has appealed to everybody. For instance, my daddy, he liked that music so well when we were touring with those guys, he just loved it. And so he was all for me getting in there and singing it. My parents were very modern, I guess, yet they were conservative people and all I ever talked about was being a success. Ali I ever wanted to do was be a singer. So I had to make it! (Laughs).