Wanda Jackson has been performing for nearly 60 years. One of rock n' roll's original bad girls — who once stole Elvis Presley's heart — she recognizes a good year when it comes around. “It's been a good ride, I'll tell ya,” says the 74-year-old rockabilly legend, who's in the rock hall of fame and is oft-dubbed the Queen of Rock.
Her year has included a critically-acclaimed, Jack White-produced covers album, The Party Ain't Over, a handful of dates performing with him, and even opening for Adele. Oh, and she played 86 freaking shows in 2011. We rang up the Oklahoma native ahead of her New Year's Eve show at the Nokia Theater with Best Coast.
2011 has been quite a year for you.
It's been extremely busy, but one of the best of my career. It's been challenging in some ways but we've had wonderful crowds and some great venues, worked with some great people.
Is a bit surprising that nearly 60 years after rising to fame this was one of your most successful years?
It's been kind of mind-boggling…. this whole year. It all began I guess in 2010 when Jack White first called and let us know that he was interested in recording an album with me — or at least a couple of singles and possibly an album. But we got along and worked together well so we extended it and made it into an album. It caused so much talk in the industry and I guess among his fans and mine, as well as the media and people in the record business and my friends and all. It's been exciting.
What was the experience like?
It was fun working with him. It was challenging also. He pushed me real hard. He wanted more of that 18-year-old Wanda Jackson [laughs]. And I said “Jack, you're pushing me awful hard.” And he said “Yeah, but you can do it.” And he just kept pushing. And after the album was all finished, and I was very proud of the product that we had and he was too, and I said “Jack, I think you've just pushed me into the 21st century.”
Was it a challenge taking on cover songs?
I thought Jack did a marvelous job of making these songs all fresh and new. Songs like “Rum and Coca Cola” that goes back to the late '40s and “Teach Me Tonight” which is kind of a '50s song. I had fun doing it. It was quite a variety of material.
Rockabilly has had waves of popularity. Yet somehow it remains of interest in 2011.
It's gone through its periods of being dormant for a few years and then it'll spring up somewhere. I always just say, “Well the cream comes to the top.” The people eventually find it. It's everlasting songs. There's really nothing about those songs that are dated. And it's just very simple and pure rock n' roll. It was the first rock n' roll but then it began changing. It was a pretty small window of time that you just got that pure, raw young sound that was so fresh and different. I think that's what people still admire about it and like about it.
It's pure, untouched rock n' roll.
That's it. You can feel the freshness of it and how it must have impacted our nation at the time. It truly did. Elvis single-handedly turned the music business upside down; just had everybody going every direction, nobody knew what to record and how to market it. And then of course, with his encouragement, I jumped in, got in on the mix too. And I finally am reaping the benefits of all of that recorded material I did. It didn't do a lot for me at that time. [People] weren't ready to accept a girl, especially a teenage girl, singing this new music that the adults felt was so wild.
Is it important for you to see female musicians continuing your frontwoman legacy?
Yah, it truly is. I carried my own band in the '50s, all through the '60s. I know the difficulties of all that. I also know the benefits of being able to do the best show that you can do. To see the women still knocking down these barriers, not only in music but in business and all the arts, I'm quite proud of them. I don't care for everything that's happening in every respect but I'm very proud of the strong women — the way they've come to the forefront.
Your cover of Amy Winehouse's “You Know I'm No Good” was a standout track on The Party Ain't Over.
That's the one people talk about the most on the album. And that's the one that when I heard, I said “Jack, I can't record that song.” And he said “Oh, but I think that you should though. It was popular just awhile back. It's just so different from anything of yours. I think it would be great.” And so with his leadership and his help in getting me to sing it my style and not trying to do it like Amy, but making it my own song [it became successful]. And he helped me do that. It was the song of the album. It did sound like something of mine.
I can't imagine the line: “Upstairs in bed with my ex-boy” in one of your songs in the '50s.
[laughs] No. It never would have. Not at all. I told Jack “Well, now I can't sing that second verse that's in here. We'll just skip that verse.” He said, “No. Let me just see what I can do with it.” He softened those words up and didn't change the feel for it, but softened it up where I said “OK, now I can sing it.”
What are some of your fondest memories of L.A. over the years?
My parents moved to L.A. — and took me — when I was five years old. And I lived in California only four years. But they were the real formative years for me. And it was Los Angeles where I heard these girls in the big Western swing bands, girls like Rose Maddox. My dad was a musician and he's the one who taught me to play guitar and that's where I get my love from music and singing from.
But he and mother loved to dance, so on the weekends in Los Angles they'd go out to the dances and it'd be the big Western swing bands of the day. And I'd watch the girl singers all night and that's where I got my desire. And from the time I was about six, they remember me saying I was gonna be a girl singer like those girls up on the stage. So that's all I aspired to be. And it's all that I ever even worked towards. I didn't take classes or have any other job in mind. I was always just gonna be a singer. I had to make it because I didn't know how to do anything else.
And your parents were supportive?
I was an only child and mother and daddy were all for my career and I didn't have to stay home and work. My daddy traveled with me so therefore he had a salary to what I made and we worked together on that. But I lived at home until I was married and I helped them with expenses of course. My mother made my clothes, saved me tons of money that way. She was a great seamstress. We were the ones who came up with the silk fringe dresses way back in the early 50's. So my wardrobe also helped my whole appearance, the whole persona. That kind of wild singing for those days it was. Dressing kind of very different and sexy. I stirred things up a little bit anyway.
It must be tiring to be touring so frequently at 74.
I still enjoy it thoroughly and my husband travels with me and he always has so we've always done this together which makes it so much more enjoyable. As travel gets harder, I've gotten bigger and the airplane seats get smaller. But these days rather than having to drive all across the nation, back and forth, I get to fly. But the airports have gotten so big, sometimes I don't think I can make it. But then I go to the show that night, and get this wonderful ovation from my fans and all this love that they shower on me and I think, “Yeah, it's worth it. I can keep going awhile.”
And you plan to keep touring in 2012?
This past year in 11 months I did 86 shows. For 74 years old to do 86 shows that's pretty good, I figure. Next year we're going to try and slow down a little bit and see how it works. I'm happiest when I'm out on the road so I'll see how I do being a bit more of a homebody.
I have to ask about your relationship with Elvis. I also imagine every interview includes this question.
I never do mind it. I really don't. I enjoy being able to tell people what a nice relationship we had. And that we did like each other, we did date, I did wear his ring. We were very good friends. He was so important to my career.