MINNEAPOLIS — Elvis Presley was first. He gave Wanda Jackson his ring. Since then, she’s had lots of big-name admirers. Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen sang her praises to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Recently Jack White, the rock upstart who appreciates his elders, came calling, wanting to make an album with Ms. Jackson.
Now, at 73, rockabilly sweetheart Jackson is more popular than ever.
“It’s nice to be in your 70s and have this older body of work that you did in your prime and have it popular now,” said the female rock pioneer.
After urging her to switch from country to rockabilly, Elvis dubbed her Queen of Rockabilly. She enjoyed moderate success in the early 1960s with a remake of his “Let’s Have a Party” and her own “Right or Wrong” and “In the Middle of a Heartache.”
The mild-mannered Oklahoma teen had a growl in her voice, which contributed to her reputation that she’s described as “a good girl who was just bad in some of her songs.” Her image — a big beehive hairdo and sexy fringed dresses — probably had something to do with it, too.
“I wanted to get out of cowboy boots and cowboy hats,” she said, recalling her start in country music. “By the time I was 15 or 16, I realized — I couldn’t voice it this way then — that those clothes were covering up my assets.
“My street clothes were always straight-line skirts, but I was always kind of feisty onstage. I wanted to keep a touch of country; I didn’t want to go with an evening gown. My mother — she was a professional seamstress for a while — started with a suede fringe with rhinestones on the tip of maybe every other fringe so it swung and it sparkled. Then we found some silk fringe. I wanted to dress glamorous and sexy.”
Minutes before Jackson was to make her debut at the Grand Ole Opry, Ernest Tubb told her that her outfit violated the Opry’s dress code.
“Back in the ‘50s, the Opry had a rule that women could not show their shoulders onstage. No one thought to tell me,” said Jackson, who was recently dubbed by CMT as “the country’s first sex symbol.” “That was the only dress I brought down there. So I went and got the jacket I’d worn. It worked but I was in tears.”
In the mid-1960s, Jackson drifted back into country and, a decade later, switched to gospel. She never stopped performing — she just worked on a different circuit. In the early 1980s, Jackson started receiving invitations to perform at European rockabilly revival events and, after recording two duets with Rosie Flores in 1995, she embarked on her first U.S. rock tour in two decades. She’s been on a roll ever since.
This year, the rockabilly pioneer has been invited to open several concerts for Adele, the British pop-soul siren who has 2011’s biggest-selling album. Adele has called Jackson her new heroine.
“Wow! I hadn’t heard that,” said Jackson. “I really like that coming from a beautiful, talented young lady like her.”
Big-time momentum for Jackson started in 2009 when she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as “an early influence,” after lobbying by Costello, Springsteen and Dylan. This year, the Hall of Fame opened a major display on women in rock and Jackson was invited to perform at the exhibit-opening concert with Mavis Staples, Darlene Love and Cyndi Lauper.
“Cyndi Lauper got like overwhelmed,” Jackson recalled. “She ran over to me and took my hand and bowed her head and said ‘Thank you, thank you so much.’ I hardly knew what she was talking about. She looked up and had tears. That sure makes you feel good.”
Last year, rocker Jack White of White Stripes fame approached Jackson about producing an album for her. He didn’t want to recast her style, as he’d done with forever-country queen Loretta Lynn on the 2004 album “Van Lear Rose.” He just wanted to give Jackson a fresh batch of tunes as well as some retro favorites. Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountain” challenged Jackson because it was wordy and fast. Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” upset her with some sexually explicit lyrics so White rewrote them.
Titled “The Party Ain’t Over,” the spirited album indeed proves that Jackson isn’t done. Elvis never gave up on her. And she’s never given up on him. She still has that ring of his, with those little diamonds.
“My mother took that ring back when I got married. She didn’t want anything to happen to it,” said Jackson, who dated Elvis for about a year when she was his 17-year-old opening act. “Then I got it back. So now on anniversary shows all over the world, and if his fan club has big celebrations and they invite me, I’ll wear the ring around my neck. It’s a man’s ring. Wendell (her husband) says, ‘That’s OK. Wear the ring. Let them see it.’”