Wanda Jackson Gets Down to ‘Unfinished Business’
Wanda Jackson is the undisputed queen of rockabilly, a pioneering artist in the genre — and a member of both the Rockabilly and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Oklahoma native also enjoyed a long career in country music and with her more recent recording projects has deftly blended rockabilly, country, gospel and blues music. Celebrating her 75th birthday on Oct. 20, Wanda has also kept herself busy (not to mention completely relevant to fans of all genres of popular music) by continuing to tour around the globe and to record with producers who have helped find exceptional material to match the distinctively aggressive growl in her voice. In 2011, the singer paired with Jack White for The Party Ain’t Over on his Third Man Records label. That collection featured Wanda’s fiery versions of tunes by Bob Dylan, Kitty Wells and Amy Winehouse, to name just a few. For this year’s Unfinished Business, she teamed with Justin Townes Earle, further establishing a foothold in the all-encompassing Americana format. The new album spotlights songs first popularized by Etta James, Bobby Womack and Delbert McClinton, among others, and Wanda also duets with Justin on the pleading “Am I Even a Memory.” Though Wanda admits to believing that some of the raw, forceful quality is missing from her voice on this new record, the singer Dylan once labeled an “atomic fireball of a lady,” clearly still has it. She also has a great sense of humor and loves to laugh, as we witnessed when The Boot sat down to talk [and laugh] with her about memories of boyfriend Elvis Presley, hearing — or not hearing — her songs on the big screen and the movie version of her life story that’s now in the works.
You went from working with Jack White to recording with Justin Townes Earle. Was there a difference in how they produced your record?
The difference between night and day. [laughs] They were both wonderful but just totally different. Justin was just very relaxed and he’d make a suggestion to the band or to me, maybe he’d say, “Let’s try doing this on the ending and see if you like it.” But it was never, “You have to do it this way” or “you’ve got to do it faster.”
Was Jack more of a slave driver?
Yeah, in the sense that it was a bigger production. He had the tracks done to most of [the songs] and had apparently already heard, in his head, the performance he wanted from me. He said he’d been a fan of mine since he was 15. He’d say, “Wanda, push a little bit more, give me more oomph.” He kept saying that. I said, “Jack, if nothing else happens you’re going to push me into the 21st century with what you’re doing.” He liked that. I called him a velvet-covered brick. He said, “That’s the best compliment I’ve ever gotten. In fact, I’m thinking about putting in my will to have my tombstone covered in velvet.” [laughs]
So then, how would you describe Justin?
Like a real comfortable house shoe. Just laid back. One time, I guess he was listening and I tapped him on the shoulder and said “Justin, I hate to wake you …” [laughs] He was pretty cool.
One of the songs that might be familiar to country fans is “Old Weakness (Comin’ on Strong),” which has been covered by Patty Loveless, among others. Who found that one for you?
We were at a Buddy Holly event and I heard [the song's writer] Delbert McClinton doing that song. It just stopped me. Later, I found it on a Tanya Tucker album. She does a bang-up job. Another one of mine that we chose was “It’s All Over Now.” Bobby Womack‘s record of that just blew me away. I didn’t know what I could do with it.
Stephen King, in the liner notes of your album said your version of that song blew the Rolling Stones‘ version away. That’s pretty cool to have Stephen King write the liner notes for your album.
Yeah, it’s pretty wordy, but it’s not scary. [laughs]
You’ve been able to mix musical genres pretty well, but was that hard to do when you first started — to go from country to rockabilly and back to country?
I like all kinds of music. If you like something and you enjoy singing in that style, it becomes part of your repertoire. The only thing I had difficulty with was rockabilly. It was only in the ’50s where I couldn’t get a hit. I recorded three or four years before “Let’s Have a Party” ever hit in America. “Fujiama Mama” was a big hit in Japan. [It reached No. 1 there in 1957.] I started recording rockabilly after I started working with Elvis. He thought I should. I thought, “Man, I love singing the stuff.” Because I had done nothing but country.
When you started doing rockabilly, did the singing voice come naturally to you? It was so different from your “country” voice.
I guess it did. I’ve never heard a singer be able to explain what happens, but to me it was the song that brought it out. I didn’t know I could do it. I have to kind of get mad sometimes in the studio to get a song down right. With “You Know I’m No Good” [her Amy Winehouse cover] I was getting kind of irritated singing that one, so we got a good take out of that one. [laughs]
Do you think that the way people were treating you was because you were younger or because you were a woman, or both?
I think it was both, especially just being a girl. The radio stations weren’t accepting Elvis. You’ve read about all the stir Elvis’ records caused. They were breaking his records. At least they didn’t break mine, they just didn’t play them.
Last year, you toured with Adele. Did the audiences welcome you?
It was definitely her crowd, so I think a lot of them were looking at me like, “Who is this?” But I was able to win them over in my 30- to 35-minute show. I could see I got their attention. Also, I was happy that a lot of my fans that would like Adele were there, too. They encouraged me. It was a little bit hard, people were still coming in because they knew there would be an opening act and they probably haven’t heard of me so they weren’t in any hurry to come in. I’m not used to that! [laughs]
What is it like for you when women tell you that you’ve been an influence on them, musically?
It’s very flattering, of course. Even Adele said that if she hadn’t heard me sing or heard my record of “Funnel of Love,” she never would have written “Rolling in the Deep.” That was quite a compliment. But we all have people who either influence our personality or our work or something.
I know your husband of 50 years, Wendell Goodman, is sitting right over there, but I want to ask you about Elvis and what kind of boyfriend he was.
He was fun to hang out with. I never could get him to be very serious about anything. He was just always playful, horsing around. One time I even asked him about that. I said, “Don’t you take anything serious?” I was trying to get a straight answer about something and he was just sloughing it off. But he was a lot of fun, he liked to joke around a lot.
When was the last time that you saw him or talked to him?
The last time I worked with him was in ’57, right before he went to Hollywood to start the movies. But my husband and I saw him in Vegas. He came down to our room, we were in the same hotel. I had left word that if they saw him … just tell him Wanda Jackson is here and would like to say hi to him. So it would’ve been about 20 minutes, he came in right behind us. He came down to our room and met my husband. We had some friends in there and he talked a few minutes with everyone. I was glad that Wendell got to meet him. Of course, he had seen him on stage but he hadn’t met him. Because, I guess just about every day that I’m working, or every day I’m doing interviews, I talk about Elvis. So I was glad that he got to meet him.
You’ve played shows all over the world to all different types of crowds. Was there ever a situation on stage where things got scary for you?
Well, I was in a prison once for a show. That’s not scary to me, we’ve done prison work, but this particular prison, I think it was in Texas. No women allowed on the property. They slipped me in, I had a lot of men walking around me and I was in a black coat. They got me into where I was singing. I think it was a gospel performance. But nevertheless, I’m thinking, “Golly, what are they going to do to me if somebody walks in to see the show, and there I am.”
So I imagine you didn’t do “Riot in Cell Block No. 9″?
Not if it was gospel and not if it was in prison. They probably would’ve liked it though. [laughs] [Wendell: The scuttlebutt was that there was going to be a riot during her show.] They wanted to know if I wanted to cancel. But we said no. No, the Lord knows where we are and what were doing. He’ll take care of us.
What’s the secret to staying married for 50 years?
Get in show business [laughs] [Wendell, who is sitting nearby, chimes in with, "Marry a wonderful guy."] We laugh all the time. I think laughter if nothing else. He keeps me laughing all the time.
Do you do anything that makes him laugh?
I don’t know. If I knew, I probably wouldn’t tell you. [laughs] But to really answer your question, it was Christ in both of our lives that made the difference in our relationship. We were very much in love but he had chosen to go into show business. He was my manager, he took care of everything except the singing. But our lifestyle, we had a band, we had to work so much to keep the band paid. They were depending on me for their livelihood. The stress … we had children at home and our marriage was getting pretty rocky. We didn’t want a divorce, we knew that, but we knew something needed to change. I was scared to stop singing for some reason. I’ve never done anything but sing, all my life since I was 12, or before. Even now the thoughts of retiring are a little scary to me. We just didn’t know what was going to happen, we were just hanging on. But Christ came into our lives and make the difference.
Do you foresee a time when you’ll retire?
I’m sure I’ll have to. When they roll me out in my wheelchair with my oxygen and my IVs in my arm. [laughs and sings a feeble version of "Fujiama Mama"] I feel like I won’t until one or the other of us has to for health reasons. Or, if the crowds start dropping off, I’ll bow out very quickly and gracefully and pass the mantle to somebody.
What’s the status on the bio-pic that’s in the works?
It’s being written now. I’m meeting with the writer. So I’m going to have to remember a lot of things, and have a lot of photos. I’ve got to go through those. He needs to know what the house looked like. The writer of my biography, which hasn’t been done yet, but we are into it, he’s asking me for that, to describe the room so he gets a picture of that. So I’ve already been having to think like that, so that will help.
Will it encompass your whole life story?
That’s what I don’t know. It would be interesting to know and that’s what I figured it would be. I’ll let you know when I find out!
Do you feel comfortable giving your story over to someone to do with it what they will?
Well, I hadn’t thought about it until you mentioned it. But now I’ve got something to worry about. [laughs] If something is over-the-top I’ll have to tell them.
Many of your songs have been in movies and on TV shows. The first one I remember hearing was “Let’s Have a Party” in “Dead Poet’s Society.” What do you remember about hearing that song in the movie?
Actually, I missed it in the movie! I don’t know if I went out to the bathroom or for a Coke or what. I didn’t even hear it. [Wendell's] sister, they went to see it and she called up, “Wanda, Wanda! Have you seen “Dead Poets Society?” “Yeah, we saw it the other night.” “What did you think about your song being in it?” “WHAT?” I guess they hadn’t sent us any money at that time. That came a little bit later. They played a good portion. It’s always a shock.