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Wanda Jackson Remembers Elvis and the Early Days of Rock

If Wanda Jackson’s 1960 Capitol Records release “Let’s Have a Party” is not the greatest female vocal performance in the history of rock ’n’ roll, the contender for that crown had better be able to peel the paint off a barn, melt the spindle arm off a John Deere tractor and lift listeners up at least three feet out of their blue suede shoes. Jackson, the future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honoree, began her career years earlier as country music act, which explains her additional inclusions in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and on the CMT “40 Greatest Women of Country Music” list. After decades on the charts and on the road, Jackson found new fans who were tipped off to her unique, fiery style by worshippers such as Cyndi Lauper, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan. She has continued into the 21st century, opening shows for Adele and penning her autobiography, “Every Night Is Saturday,” which will be released by BMG Publishing on Nov. 14. Variety first noted Jackson in 1954 when the then-16-year-old Oklahoma-born singing sensation scored a recording contract and cut her first hit in Hollywood.

You were discovered by a great Capitol records star, Hank Thompson, while you were still quite young. Where did he first hear you?

Hank Thompson’s home base was the Trianon Ballroom in Oklahoma City. I had a radio show on the air in Oklahoma and he was listening on his car radio and pulled over and called in. He asked if I could join one of his shows and I said, “I’d love to but I have to ask my parents.” He said “How old are you, girl?” And I said, “15.”

What did your parents think about your career?

Daddy was a musician. When I was 7, I played guitar and he played fiddle. When my folks went out dancing on Friday and Saturday nights, they didn’t have to worry about where I was, I was parked right by the stage listening.

What music from that era influenced you?

Kitty Wells opened the door for all of us. Hank Thompson had the No. 1 Western swing band in the nation. Tex Williams was great. And I loved Rose Maddox. She really got my attention with her feisty attitude.

Within a year, you were in Hollywood but you wound up on Decca, not Capitol.

Hank took my records to [Capitol Records producer] Ken Nelson, who told him that girls don’t sell country records. If he had told me that I would said, “I’ll tell you why. It’s because there’s not many of us getting the chance!”

It sounds like the rock ’n’ roll attitude came to you naturally.

I was kind of a rebel. I was raised by my daddy to not copy anybody. He always said, “Don’t do things the way someone tells you, do it the way you want to do it.”

It wasn’t long before you were touring with Elvis Presley.

I met Elvis the first time in 1955 when we were doing a radio show in Cape Girardeau, Mo., the afternoon before the first show where I would be opening for him.

First impression?

I had never seen him perform and after I did my set and was sitting in the dressing room, I heard the sound of screaming girls. My daddy ran in and said, “Wanda, you have to see this.” I went out and watched and he was incredible.

So you fell in love with Elvis along with the rest of America.

Well, yes, but he gave me his ring and asked me to be his girl.

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