The Sweet Lady with the Nasty Voice
Wanda Jackson was the first female to cut a rock and roll single. She dated Elvis. And she did as much to shatter mid-century female archetypes as any woman on the planet.
By Wanda Jackson with Martin Booe
On a muggy June day in 1955, Daddy let me out in front of the Oklahoma City’s municipal auditorium. It was graduation day, the day I’d been waiting for since I was a child. All through school, I’d been like a jailbird scratching marks on the cell wall, counting the days until my sentence was up.
Typically, I was late and missed the ceremony. I had a gig in Chicago, left at midnight, and Daddy floored it most of the way, but we still got back an hour late for the noon ceremony. I flung on my cap and gown in the car and ran inside, hoping I hadn’t missed the class picture, but the mob of seniors were already streaming down from the bleachers.
But something was wrong. I could almost see the sadness pressing down on the room, heavy and black as prairie funnel cloud. Among the females, I seemed to have the only pair of dry eyes in the house. Across the auditorium, three of my girlfriends threw their arms around each other and sobbed. I thought something terrible might have happened, maybe a car accident. Graduation was a time when the boys were prone to load up on beer and go wild as a pack of dogs. I went and asked what had happened.
“The best days of our lives are over,” my best girlfriend, Beverly, said between sniffles. I probably looked at her like she’d told me she’d just taken a ride in a flying saucer. “You know what you’re going to do with your life,” she said, blinking her tear-streaked eyes. “High school was the best time we’ll ever have! Our lives are over!”
What had I missed that they’d found so wonderful? Well, they went on dates and had boyfriends. I wrote songs about going on dates and having boyfriends, which to me was a lot more fun than actually doing those things. They were cheerleaders and homecoming queens, and stood in front of the bleachers, waved pom poms and tried to stir up the crowd. I went on stage and sang songs to audiences and made records, one of them an actual radio hit. I didn’t feel like I’d missed anything. I felt like I’d experienced something a lot stronger.
And Beverly was right; I did know what I was going to do with my life. I’d known it since I was five years old, and the thought never crossed my mind that I would wind up doing anything but singing.
But this was 1955, and the female mind was still in a corset, even if our bodies weren’t (though girdles were the next worst thing). If you were “lucky,” you got married right out of high school, and maybe got an Avon route. If you didn’t, you worked at the five and dime, or waitressed and waited for the right guy to come along and save you from the disfiguring disease of being single. If you went to college at all, you became a nurse or a teacher. Girl Singer? Why not brain surgeon? To my friends, one seemed about as far-fetched as the other.
Yes, I was lucky and at that moment I really felt it. Of course, I wanted a husband and family in good time, but now the road beckoned, and with it the chance to spread my wings beyond central Oklahoma.
A couple of days later, I found a Billboard magazine opened to the classifieds. Circled in blue ball point was an ad that said, “Bob Neal, Booking Agent, Memphis.” Daddy had mentioned getting a professional to take on the booking. So Daddy called Bob and gave him my bonafides, told I’m been singing with Hank Thompson, and also Merl Lindsey and the Oklahoma Night Riders, and then Daddy, for whom talking on the phone was about as painful as having his eye teeth pulled out, handed it over to me.
Bob—“Mr. Neal” to me—said it was perfect timing. He put together “package shows,” where you’d have three or maybe four acts in one evening, and a pickup band to back up most of them; that saved on expenses. “I’m booking a bunch of scruffy young fellows and I’ve been looking high and low for a gal to put on the bill,” he told me. “If Hank Thompson picked you out of a crowd, that’s all I need to hear.”
Having Hank in my camp was a real feather in my cap, but there wasn’t a lot of competition because women didn’t strike out on the road. Rosemary Clooney might go from New York to Boston, but down south, where our audience was, women didn’t do that. People (well, men) were too inclined to assume a female rambling around her own was a stray cat, well acquainted with fleshly pleasures and two and a half cocktails away from proving it. Anyway, that’s the kind of wanton endangerment everybody assumed a gal would be in for traveling alone. Looking back, I have trouble believing that there could be so many lascivious wolves in sheep’s clothing lurking around middle America in those days, but that was the assumption.
Fortunately, I came equipped with a driver, chaperone and bodyguard, otherwise known as “Daddy.” That made all the difference in getting my career going.
When I said to Mr. Neal that I guessed having a gal on the bill made the girls feel more comfortable, he let out a belly laugh. “I’m not worried about the girls—they get to look at Elvis. I need a gal who’s as pretty as he is so the boys won’t get jealous and take a swing at him!” I thought he was joking. Later, I’d come to learn that indeed, on occasion, some of the guys resented the frenzy Elvis whipped their dates into, and to prove their manhood, would try to pick a fight with him. I’m fairly sure that a few gallons of Milwaulkee’s finest would have been a contributing factor.
That’s how it was: the girls got the boys to buy the tickets and the boys went along with it. If I got to be on the bill as their consolation prize, that didn’t bother me a bit.
“Who’s this Ellis?” I asked.
“Elvis. Elvis Presley. He’s a real up and comer.”
“I don’t think I’ve heard of him.”
“You’ll be hearing about him soon enough,” Mr. Neal said.
* * *
We just can’t believe that you’re gonna be on the bill with ELVIS PRESLEY!!! He’s only the cutest, most ADORABLE fellow on earth. HANDSUMMM! When Naomi and I saw your letter we both SCREAMED! You are the Luckiest girl in The World. He was here about three months ago and the girls all went crazy for him. If you could get us backstage to meet him, we’ll give you a MILLION DOLLARS. (Just kidding, we don’t have quite that much – ha ha!) You have to tell us every single thing about him, if he’s as nice as he seems, does he have a good sense of humor, etc. See you in Odessa!
I’d written my cousins in Odessa, Texas telling them I was going to be working with this guy named Elvis, whose name still didn’t mean a thing to me. Oklahoma City radio wasn’t playing him, so how much of a splash could he be making? My cousins were a little bit silly and a lot boy crazy, so I didn’t pay much mind to the fact that this Elvis set their hearts aflutter so.
Bob Neal was as good as his word, and about ten days later, Daddy and I hit the road for Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where I’d be on the bill with this Elvis Presley.
It was a considerable road trip. Cape Girardeau is about 600 miles from Oklahoma City, and for the sake of any of my younger friends who’ve grown up with the internet, we didn’t even have interstates in 1955. We did have cars, though, as you may have gathered, and we’d gotten a 1954 Plymouth Savoy, two-tone, green with a white top. It wasn’t considered all that big then, but by today’s standards, it was the size of a battleship. Plymouth advertised it as “Hy-Style,” and we thought it was quite flashy.
So we were in for an expedition of a few hundreds of miles over two-lane state roads, cutting across county roads, some of them gravel, and although our destination was a small port town on the lower Mississippi—at least it had a college—I was as excited as if we were going to Paris. I’d performed out of state before, but mostly in enclaves where people where already familiar with me. Now I had a real sense of conquering new territory, testing my mettle with audiences who hadn’t heard me before.
We hit the road about 8 p.m. the night before the show. Daddy figured we’d take about sixteen hours getting there. He loved to drive and he was a night owl, both of which were good things because we were on our way to becoming seasoned road warriors. He’d drive through the night, partly to save on a hotel room, but more than anything, he just liked it. “It’s peaceful,” he’d say. It was, too. When I got sleepy, I’d curl up in the back seat, and since I was just five-two and petite at that, it was as good as a queen-sized bed.
I spent the first few hours on the road with my nose in a magazine until it got dark, humming along to the radio with Daddy until I got sleepy and climbed into the back seat. Now when I listened to the radio, it was like being sung to by chorus of family members. So many of the hits were by people I’d gotten to know well from working on Ozark Jubilee. Red Foley had a big hit with Hearts of Stone. My beloved mentor Hank Thompson was doing well with Don’t Take It Out On Me, and Faron Young, another Jubilee acquaintance, had scored his first hit with Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young. Eddie Arnold, with his silky vocal style and a yodel as smooth as fresh cream, was still a huge star, seemed like he’d been one since the time I first tumbled out of my crib. I remember hearing Sixteen Tons, by Tennessee Ernie Ford, who stayed roosted at the top of the charts all that year.
Overall, country music hadn’t changed all that much since I was a child tagging along with my parents to those dances. Honky Tonk and Western Swing were still the jewels in the crown, and you could still draw pretty much of a straight line from Jimmie Rodgers to Hank Williams, then from Hank to just about anything else that was happening. Dual fiddles humming in the background, steel guitars dripping with reverb, an acoustic guitar or two strumming, alternating bass line… that was the sound. About this time, there was one noteworthy new ingredient slipping into the mix, and that was the unmistakable slip note piano style of Floyd Cramer, who’d arrived in Nashville that year.
It was a comfortable sound that I didn’t expect to change much any time soon, and I was happy to have a place in it. We were rolling east on US 60, and leaning back on a pillow propped up against the car door, I drifted to sleep gazing out the window at the endless patchwork of cornfields illuminated by a silvery summer moon.
Hours later, about ten miles outside of Cape Girardeau, we began to see rose bushes at both sides of the road, and as we drove along they grew ever more abundant until the highway was flanked by bright blots of scarlet and pink flowers, enchanting the southern summer air with their fragrance. Daddy said he’d heard people call Cape Girardeau the “City of Roses,” and now we knew why. I heaved a contented sigh. I felt like all those roses had rolled out their cheerful welcome mat just for me.
We got into town mid-afternoon and checked into the hotel Bob Neal had recommended. As always, when we were going to be staying in a place overnight, I went inside to sign for our room. Daddy was a funny one, in that respect. He’d performed publicly, playing the fiddle and guitar, and singing at small-town dances and the occasional bar. Her could play for an audience, but was shy as a possum with strangers.
We went to our room and I changed into a tight black pencil skirt and a yellow cotton sweater with a black velvet rose pinned onto the shoulder. I was expected at the local radio station in a couple of hours to do a promotional spot for the show that evening. That would become a familiar routine on the road. In those days, we’d pop unannounced into every little radio station within 50 miles of the show we were doing. Usually, they’d welcome us in, play one of our records, and sit us down at the microphone to talk a little bit. It was all so informal then, and while I’d get tired of answering the same questions over and over, it was a lot of fun, and very necessary. Radio play was the lifeline to our audiences.
We had a little time to kill and there was a diner just a block from the radio station. I ordered a hamburger and Daddy had a cup of coffee and a cigarette. “Congratulations, Wanda,” he said with a sleepy smile. “You’re a full-time, professional singer now. But if you’d rather go back home and look for a steady job, I’m sure your mother could find you something¾”
“No!” I cried, drowsy and not alert to the fact that he was teasing me. “I like this just fine!”
* * *
“He’s here!” the young receptionist said in a loud whisper. Who’s here? I wondered. It must have been somebody important. It was a few minutes before 3 p.m. and Daddy and I were sitting in the waiting area outside the radio station control room.
A purple elephant walking into that station couldn’t have startled people any more than Elvis did when he appeared in a canary yellow sport coat, a black shirt, and black pants. He had long sideburns and his hair was… curly. I looked closer and saw that his hair was permed. Men in 1955 did not wear canary yellow blazers. They did not have long sideburns. They did not have their hair permed.
Startling. That was the only word for him. I think we’d all have been only somewhat less amazed if he’d walked in buck naked.
But Elvis had a way about him and he wore those clothes like he was born in them. I could tell right off by the way he carried himself that he was bashful, but at the same time he seemed completely comfortable in his own skin. He was chewing gum, and he had a way of slouching and letting his head loll off to the side like he was a little sleepy and bored with it all. What I sensed about him then, and what became clearer as I got to know him, was that he was extremely aware of the impression he made on people. What made Elvis such a powerful presence was that he could was be completely himself, but at the same time, playing the part of Elvis being completely himself. He was genuinely shy, but he was completely aware that his shyness disarmed people, calmed them down, so he played it up. And that stirred everyone up all the more.
And, of course, he was handsome as a million dollars, which sure didn’t escape my notice, though I made a determination not to let that distract me from the bigger issue of his bizarre fashion sense. He reminded me of Rudolph Valentino wearing a rodeo clown outfit. I was agitated before he even said hello.
“Miss Wanda Jackson,” he said with a forward slouch that seemed halfway intended as a bow. I looked at him in his yellow blazer and black shirt. He looked at me in my yellow sweater, black skirt and black velvet rose. Together, we looked like an all too cutesy couple who’d been going steady for a year and had taken to coordinating their wardrobes—the kind of couple who’d be publicly praised for their cuteness and privately despised for their preciousness.
I wondered if the same thought had come over him. I remembered to smile.
“Been hearing a lot about you, Elvin—”
“Elvis,” he corrected me. “But you can call me Elvin if it’s easier for you.” He flashed a little smile and cast his eyes downward. “…if it’s easier for you.” I couldn’t decide whether he was being good-natured or just a garden variety smart aleck, so for the moment I graciously suspended judgment.
I introduced Elvis to Daddy.
“Pleased to meet you sir,” Elvis said, straightening his posture. “It’s awful nice of you to bring Wanda down all this way so she could join the show.” He was suddenly respectful, and I could already see that Daddy was taking a liking to him, which irked me.
A few minutes later, we were in the control room, plugging the show.
The deejay, whose name I can’t recall, was an amiable, portly fellow with thick glasses and thicker chins that cascaded down his neck. He asked us a few questions about ourselves. “Wanda, I understand Hank Thompson helped you get your start. What’s he like?” “What’s your favorite song? What songs are you going to sing tonight?” Then he played my record, my first hit, “You Can’t Have My Love,” pure country.
Now it was Elvis’ turn. He muttered and mumbled his answers and kept on chewing his gum. A couple of times, he had to ask the deejay to repeat the question because he obviously hadn’t been paying attention. I was a little put out by that, and was starting to think, “Well, he’s good looking all right, but I don’t see what the big deal is about this Elvis Presley.” I didn’t know what kind of impression he thought he was making, but I figured one day somebody would probably slap that curl right out of his lip. Something about that boy put my nose out of joint.
Then the deejay spun Elvis’ new single, Baby Let’s Play House. I don’t think anybody much had heard it yet. It would be his first big hit. It started with Elvis hiccupping “Whoa bay-bee, bay-bee, bay-bee” to a syncopated slap bass line that was underpinned by drumsticks pattering against the rim of the snare. It had a country twang, an itchy beat, a bluesy swing, and it seemed driven by a pulse that could only come from the very heart of rhythm itself.
At the moment, I wasn’t analyzing it, just listening to it. I guess I liked it, but I had no frame of reference for it. I squinted at the turntable, as if I expected that vinyl disk spinning at 45 rpms to jump up and explain itself to me. I looked at Elvis whose gaze was adrift as the song played.
Now listen and I’ll tell you baby
What I’m talking about
Come on back to me, little girl
So we can play some house
Now, my darlings, it is most likely quite obvious to you that these lyrics are fairly dripping with sexual innuendo, and while it may be hard for my younger fans to believe it possible, the real meaning of the lyrics went clear over my head. Yes, back in the fifties, we were really that naïve. “Baby, Let’s Play House”—to me that meant maybe a boy comes over one afternoon when your parents aren’t around and you get out the tea service and talk about your preferences in wall paper. Maybe you even bake him some cookies. Elvis, however, had grown up among blacks in Memphis, bought their records, listened to their radio stations, so in retrospect I’m pretty sure he knew what those lyrics were getting at. He definitely got it on a subconscious level, because he’d completely internalized black rhythm and blues, both in his singing and his body language. But it’s also possible that it was all coming from instinct, that on a conscious level, the words “let’s play house” didn’t suggest anything more to him than it did to me. So there was this kind of innocence underlying his delivery that kept it from being too shocking.
After the spot, we said our goodbyes to the folks at the station, and Elvis walked me outside. Daddy was in the car, where he’d been listening to the interview.
Then another astonishing sight caught my eye.
A pink Cadillac.
“Mercy!” I exclaimed.
Elvis grinned sheepishly.
“Is that yours?” I asked, though the answer was obvious.
At that moment, it was probably only pink Cadillac on earth.
“That’s my second one,” he said, laughing. “The first burned up last month.”
“It’s pink!” I exclaimed in about the same tone I’d have used for a two-headed puppy.
“Oh, it’s a gimmick. Probably paid for itself ten times over in publicity.” Elvis gave me a pat on the shoulder. “We’re in show business, Wanda. We’ve got to do whatever gets us attention.”
“I don’t know if I want that kind of attention! People must stop in their tracks when you drive by.”
“That’s the point,” Elvis said, grinning.
“See you at the show, Miss Wanda Jackson,” Elvis said, slipping in behind the wheel and scratching off out of his parking space.
Elvis was 20 and I was 18 and the summer was very hot.
I still have a copy of the original show bill from that night.
Cape Girardeau, Mo.
Scotty and Bill
Daddy kept the poster from that night, and I was always curious why. I mean, neither of us knew what was coming, and we had no premonition that Elvis would be anything more than another hard-working entertainer. He must have been tuned into something.
“Scotty and Bill,” of course, referred to Scotty Moore, Elvis’ original guitar player, and Bill Black, his bassist. (Combos rarely brought drummers along in those days because they usually travelled together in one car, instruments on their laps, the double bass strapped to the roof, and they’re sitting on their sandwiches; nobody could afford a tour bus yet, even if there was such a thing.
I’d liked what I’d heard of Bud Deckelman. He had a good string of honky tonk hits, including Day Dreaming, which I later recorded; talented man, but I heard he walked away from the music life not after that and went into upholstery, something like that. A lot of people did that, and you couldn’t blame them. It can wear you out. I guess it was always in the back of my mind that I’d probably wind up doing something “normal” one day (though as you’ll see, I gave “normal” a shot, and it shot back). There were a whole lot of really talented people who made a couple of records and then got a steady job, people who made great music but that nobody much remembers. Bud, for instance: you can’t even find any of his music on iTunes, even though he’s in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
The whole thing about who’s remembered and who’s not brings up some strange feelings for me. The only time I really worried about it was when I needed to go back to work after a 15-year hiatus from the mainstream. I didn’t think about being remembered, least of all as somebody who’d really planted a flag on the musical landscape. Didn’t think about it because it didn’t seem possible. But my point is, music lives on, and that’s true whether or not it stays connected to the name of the person who made it.
In the meantime, it was “the pirate’s life for me.”
Except for Elvis, we were all country acts, which says a lot about the ground Elvis sprang from. Although the term “rock ’n’ roll” had supposedly been coined by then, I don’t think any of us had heard it yet. For that matter, the rest of us weren’t yet dignified with anything so genteel as “country singer.” We were still being called “hillbilly singers.” Elvis was given the special distinction of being called “the hillbilly cat.” The word “cat” was a neutral way of acknowledging that Elvis was conjuring up some jungle sounds to go along with his country music. And that made him cool—or threatening, depending on your personal nervous disposition. Anyway, at that point we weren’t rock ’n’ roll, or country acts. We were all “hillbillies” of one designation or another. What a relief it was when the term rockabilly came along and thumped the word hillbilly out of usage.
This being my first performance on a real-life tour, you’d think I’d remember it clear as day. I remember it going well, feeling warmly received by the audience… pretty relaxed, really. They always put the girl in the middle of the show, so first it was Bud, then me, then Elvis. After I’d done my set, I went back to my dressing room to freshen up. Daddy came in a couple of minutes later, spread out his arms, and gave me a hug. “They really liked you,” he told me, clasping my shoulders. “You were great.” That I do remember vividly, because Daddy was not one to lavish praise. He held me to a high standard, so if he demonstrated his approval, it really meant something.
Now that I think about it, Daddy’s spare use of praise said a lot about our relationship and my formation as a singer. It wasn’t because he was cold; he was anything but that. No, he made a real separation between Wanda, his daughter, and Wanda, the entertainer. He respected me enough to be completely honest. He really took me seriously, groomed me to be a pro. “Don’t rear back from the mike so much when you go for that high note.” “Don’t say a word about government or religion.” That was mostly the kind of advice he gave me, little things that make a lot of difference. The big thing he taught me was to always be myself.
About ten seconds after Daddy came into the dressing room, the building literally started shaking, and there were screams. Pandemonium. We both froze and listened.
“There must be a fire,” Daddy said calmly. He told me to stay put until he got back. I looked out the second story window and wondered if I’d survive jumping.
Daddy came back laughing. “Come on out here,” he said. “You have got to see this!”
I followed him down to the side of the stage, behind the security ropes, looked out up to the stage where Elvis was singing That’s All Right Mama to a churning sea of girls in saddle shoes, bobby socks, poodle skirts and pony tails. The auditorium was on fire all right, but this wasn’t one you could put out with a hose. They’d shed so many tears they looked like they’d been standing in the rain. I’ll never forget their faces, lit from within—their eyes literally had stars in them as they beheld Elvis, haloed in the spotlight, his “perm” a bit withered from the southern humidity, his face dripping sweat in the stifling auditorium.
He sang with his whole body, hips-a-swiveling, leg shaking, guitar whipping up and down, around his back. He’d brought the fervor of a Holy Roller to popular music, and mixed it in with something that seemed like a tribal fertility dance. Bill Black whooped it up along with him, twirling his bass, rolling around on the floor with it, dancing with it like it was a girl, while the much more serious Scotty Moore stood fixed in one place, playing understated but brilliant fills on his gold hollow-bodied Gibson electric. (His solo I Forgot to Remember to Forget still gives me chills).
Daddy looked on appreciatively, tapping his toe to the music and grinning less at Elvis than at the frenzy he’d created. Show business was religion to him and he was very much in favor of what worked.
That I shared with him, but while Daddy seem to enjoy Elvis, I observed him clinically. He had the audience in the palm of his hand, that was for sure, but I kind of told myself he was a novelty act.
“That young man is going places,” Daddy said after the show. “What’d you think?”
“So that’s what the girls in Odessa like,” I said, and I’m sure I flared my nostrils.
It turned out that Elvis, Scotty and Bill were staying in the same hotel as Daddy and me. The next stop for all of us was Newport, Arkansas, for the second date of the same bill. We got up around ten, coinciding with Elvis, Scotty and Bill—and a there was a photographer from the local paper who’d been awaiting an opportunity to shoot Elvis. So they photographed him leaning jauntily against his pink Cadillac, and then they me called in for a shot of us together. Well, no entertainer minds free publicity, and fortunately Elvis and I weren’t wearing matching outfits. I think he was wearing a pair of khakis instead of jeans. That was unusual because everbody was wearing blue jeans now. Not Elvis, though. Seems like he had on a shirt with a loud print.
I felt myself smiling. This was just the kind of fun, relaxed attention I liked. I never minded having my picture taken. Standing next to Elvis made me feel pretty, which made me a little put out with myself, but not enough to spoil the moment. They took a picture with his arm draped around me, and another with the two of us holding the poster for last night’s show. He smelled of fresh witch hazel.
When the photographer finished, Elvis, Scotty and Bill, started tying the bass onto the roof of Elvis’ Pink Cadillac. “I like your hat!” Elvis called out to Daddy.
Daddy grinned and yelled back at him, “Well, why don’t you try it on!”
He did, the photographer turned around, and Elvis gave the camera a completely convincing but very funny movie gangster glower. Elvis and Daddy were laughing together. Elvis got a Captain’s Hat he wore sometimes and put it on Daddy’s head and some more pictures were taken of the two of them.
Elvis was a country boy, not that different from Daddy in a lot of ways. Both were country people, and when country people got around each other, they let loose. I think Daddy had that natural bond with Elvis, that I didn’t appreciate at that moment. I still couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.
I was asleep when we got to Newport, and Daddy whispered me awake. He’d pulled into a motel. It was my job to go inside and book a room for us. That was one of those citified activities he wasn’t comfortable with. Daddy was brave as a lion and shy as a possum.
I heaved the door open and stepped out into the syrupy Arkansas [Newport] air and looked up at the hazy, chalk white sky. It made me think of a blank sheet of paper, and I could write anything I wanted on it. And for some reason, I found myself wondering how long it would be before Elvis got into town.