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Wanda Jackson remembers Elvis

By Ken Burke, March 2006

"I just want you all to know that without the encouragement of Elvis Presley, I may never have even recorded rock 'n' roll or rockabilly."

So proclaims Wanda Jackson in the spoken introduction to her new album for Golden Lane titled, "I Remember Elvis." Indeed, few performers can claim the personal connection that the Oklahoma-born songstress enjoyed with the King of Rock 'n' Roll. While touring together during the mid-'50s, the teen-aged singers became sweethearts.

Presley not only gave Jackson a ring - to wear on a chain around her neck - he also introduced the budding country starlet to the rough and rowdy sounds of rhythm and blues.

Their puppy love evaporated when Presley's career exploded, but his impact on Jackson's musical life continued.

During the late '50s, she recorded several torrid rockabilly growlers la "Fujiyama Mama," "Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad" and "Mean Mean Man," that probably frightened away as many country programmers as they enticed. (Today, the rock 'n' roll recordings she made for Capitol are the foundation of her worldwide appeal.)

It wasn't until her 1960 remake of Presley's "Let's Have a Party" that Jackson achieved notable pop music success. By then, rave up rockabilly was a novelty approach upon which continuing chart clout could not be built.

Subsequently, she dropped the growl and returned to country music, trilling such classic hits as "Right or Wrong," "In The Middle of a Heartache" and "Tears Will Be The Chaser for Your Wine."

Jackson found religion during the '70s, released several LPs of strictly sacred songs on the Myrrh and Word labels and hosted her own religious program. Eventually the European rockabilly revival restored the secular career initially inspired by Elvis Presley. (Jackson finds no conflict between her deeply held religious beliefs and the relatively innocent rock music that brought her fame.) Recordings for DCN and CMH - along with some fine Capitol reissues - reintroduced the rockabilly belter to modern American audiences.

However, her recent musical tribute to Presley is the centerpiece for a stateside career that has gotten conspicuously hotter.

"I had no way of imagining all that's been happening," reflects Jackson, "because I hadn't even been working in America that much. All of my work - the majority of it - was in Europe and Scandinavia and had been for 10 years, where I was doing this rock music all along. Some exciting things went on over there, but I never dreamed of America embracing me once again. It's been a shock, but a very wonderful surprise. I'm enjoying every minute of it."

A 2005 nomination for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame fell short. That said, later in the year a greater, more surprising honor was bestowed, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.

"Well, you weren't the only one that was surprised," chuckles Jackson. "Pleasantly surprised, I might add. Well, we were just contacted, and I was told that we were a recipient of this. It was nothing that we did. So, these good things happen, and you just have to kind of revel in it and enjoy it for what it is because it is the highest honor that a government can pay on an artist."

Since the NEA doesn't usually give grants to country singers or rock 'n' rollers, does Jackson feel that the artistic community is now willing to recognize roots music as authentic forms?

"Well, I don't know why it has taken them so long," opines the singer. "You know, when it's the biggest music in America, next to plain old rock music. I'm the first female country singer - Minnie Pearl was a recipient one year, but she was a comedian - so the first girl country singer, the first female rock singer - I'm the only one in there. I'm scratching my head and I'm saying, 'This is hard to believe.' But I'm glad that maybe they finally woke up and maybe many more of our very talented artists in this field of music will be recognized."

Jackson was also portrayed in the recent Johnny Cash biopic "Walk the Line" by actress Amy Kudlea. Jackson gives the film high marks. "It was done in such a super way. My recollection of Johnny Cash from the times that I worked with him, it was just very true, right down the line. Even to the point of showing Elvis in the wings watching him. Because Elvis didn't miss any of his performances if we were on a show together. And he'd usually get me by the hand and make me come watch him too. He said, 'He's going to be the greatest thing in country music.' And, so his predication came true, of course. But I thought they did a very nice job of portraying all the little small incidents."

Although she has always enjoyed telling concert audiences stories about Elvis, Jackson has never tried to capitalize on her relationship with him.

So, why do it now? "Well, I believe it was because of my fans," she explains, "the interest that they show when I mention Elvis on stage or at my autograph table. Also, my husband has been wanting me to do it. So, we were waiting for a good opportunity and when we felt the time was right."

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