Music » Music Features

Let's Have A Party

Wanda Jackson, the first lady of rockabilly, comes to Memphis.


In 1955, when the sounds of Memphis rock-and-roll were first starting to reverberate around the nation, Wanda Jackson was in the middle of it all. The throaty singer and guitar picker had been discovered by country star Hank Thompson as a teenager and was making hits before she'd graduated high school. But everything changed in the summer of '55 when she first met Elvis Presley, whom she would briefly date. Presley persuaded the singer to get with the youth revolution and "get real, real gone."

"So when I put out new records, one side would be country, one side would be rock-and-roll," Jackson says from her home in Oklahoma.

Jackson was young and innocent, but her voice was mature, worldly, and wild. If Elvis' songs were suggestive, Jackson's "Let's Have a Party" and the atomic rocker "Fujiyama Mama" were downright lascivious. "Riot in Cell Block # 9" made "Jailhouse Rock" sound like a showtune, and "Funnel of Love" is the single best recording made by a female recording artist from rockabilly's first wave. Of course, it helps that Jackson is really the only female artist from rockabilly's first wave.

When the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line was released in 2005, Jackson was portrayed by Memphis roots rocker Amy LaVere, a dead ringer for a young Wanda. The two will meet and play together for the first time at the Hi Tone Cafe on Saturday, August 12th.

Flyer: So why isn't the first female rocker in the [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame?

Wanda Jackson: Well, from what I'm told, getting into the Hall of Fame is a very complicated process. But I understand that I'm always nominated, and I've made the final ballot. But there are so many young people who just haven't been exposed to rockabilly or "'50's rock,'" as I prefer to call it. They're not as familiar with my body of work. ... But I do think [my connection with Elvis] has helped. ... Besides, last year I received the National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship and that's the highest award an artist can receive from the country.

There weren't a lot of female honky-tonk stars when you were growing up. Kitty Wells and nobody else. Where did you find your role models?

Kitty really opened up the doors. I guess I was the third female. It was Kitty, Jean Shepard, and me. My dad had a little band, but then the Depression came and World War II. He married my mother, and then I came along. He was never really able to pursue his dream, so I guess -- like a lot of parents -- he wanted to live through me.

So your dad was the inspiration.

Yes, mostly. Daddy put a guitar in my hand when I was six or seven. He showed me some chords, and it didn't take long before I was playing along. Daddy played the fiddle, and he'd take Mama and me to all the big dances in the Los Angeles area, in all of the big beautiful ballrooms, and we'd watch groups like Spade Cooley, Bob Wills, Hank Penny. My parents said they never had to worry about me when we were at the dances because they always knew exactly where I'd be -- standing right in front of the bandstand.

And I always especially liked the girl singers they would have because they always got to wear pretty outfits, and they all knew how to yodel. I wanted to learn how to yodel.

You started learning early, and you started gigging early as well.

When I got my first Decca contract I was still a junior in high school. In '55 I was touring and had a couple of songs on the Billboard Top 10. Mom kept working, but Daddy quit his job and started booking me. The first time we played with Elvis was 1955.

Most parents were afraid of Elvis. Was your dad?

Elvis explained to me how it used to be our parents who bought all the records. He told us kids were buying records now. He was the first person to explain that, and he suggested that I try playing in a more rock-and-roll style. He was so nice and encouraging, and my dad thought he was nice too.

Early rock-and-roll was a boy's club. Were you intimidated by Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis?

Those guys were just my buddies. Amazingly enough, I led a pretty sheltered life, even on the road. Daddy was there to make sure my reputation remained intact. And let me tell you, he kept me on a pretty short leash.

Wanda Jackson & Amy LaVere

Hi Tone Cafe

Saturday, August 12th

Doors open at 9 p.m, tickets are $15

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