First Lady and the King

The legendary Wanda Jackson hits Tucson in remembrance of Elvis

It's not clear whether Wanda Jackson--a legend of rockabilly, gospel and country--is a feminist or not, but she's pretty clear about one thing.

"I guess I am just one of those women who has to have a man around," she said in a recent phone interview from her home in Oklahoma City.

Known as "the first lady of rockabilly" and "America's first female rock 'n' roll singer," Jackson is perhaps best known for the 1959 hit "Fujiyama Mama," but she has sung many a tune about heated romance and chastity, heartbreak, tears and the joy of a reliable companion. In fact, one of her albums was titled A Woman Lives for Love.

During a recent interview, Jackson told me that when she began touring and performing in her early teenage years during the 1950s, her father always traveled on the road with her. Even when she met, dated and performed with Elvis Presley in the mid-'50s, Jackson's dad was there.

And she's had husband Wendell Goodman by her side for 45 years. He's also her manager and booking agent, as well as father to her two kids and grandfather to four grandchildren.

Goodman will no doubt accompany Jackson when she returns to Tucson to perform at Plush on Wednesday, Jan. 17, backed up by the Cadillac Angels. Jackson will be on the road promoting her latest album, the year-old I Remember Elvis, on which she covers songs by her onetime mentor and, for a short time, boyfriend.

The Elvis Presley thing dogged Jackson for years. Although she says the King was the first person to suggest to the country-crooning teen that she try rock 'n' roll, and she even wore his ring on a chain around her neck for a year, she has often played down her connection to rock's original rebel and sex symbol.

She and Goodman became Christians in 1971, and for many years afterward, she only performed gospel in church settings. She always has remembered Elvis fondly, though.

"I was right out of high school when I went on the road with him. I was 17. He was 20," she says today.

"He had his career just opening up. He was quite popular in the South and Southwest. We played concerts together in Missouri and Arkansas and West Texas. We played Colorado. Of course, he was really big down in Mississippi.

"It was such an exciting time. He was so different than everyone else playing music. Those of us who knew and loved him knew that he was something special, and we were always kind of wondering when the general public was going to accept him, when he was going to get airtime nationally. We wondered, 'Is this really going to happen for him nationwide?' And it did.

"We met in 1955, and I worked with him up until January 1957, and that's when he went to Hollywood. He was quite busy, and my career was starting to get busy. We didn't see each other again for a long time."

Jackson says she saw Elvis once more, in 1964, when he was playing in Las Vegas. "Wanda Talks About Elvis," the final track on I Remember Elvis, a spoken-word reminiscence, recounts this episode, among other stories.

Jackson was reluctant at first to do an album of Elvis' tunes, she said. "It was a thought in my head for a long time. I just kind of shied away from it for a long time, actually. Mostly, it was because when the King does a song, it's been done, you know?

"Then I thought of all these new, younger rockabilly fans. They love Elvis, and they love me, I hear. He was instrumental in getting me to sing rockabilly, so I thought I should show my appreciation and maybe introduce some younger fans to his music. That's really what I was aiming for, and they really do seem to like it."

During the 1980s, European audiences rediscovered Jackson, and she spent much of that decade playing festivals there and recording. She had several German rock 'n' roll hits, sung in German, in fact. She has many album and single releases to her credit in England and Scandinavia, as well.

In 1995, alternative-country singer Rosie Flores invited Jackson, one of her all-time heroes, to perform a duet with her. She ended up doing two tunes on Flores' album Rockabilly Filly, and the partnership was successful enough that they were soon doing a five-week concert tour together.

"I used to play four or five times a year in Europe, but in the past few years, it's been totally changing. Now, I only got over there once last year, which is OK, because it is so tiring to travel there," Jackson said.

Staying in this country more allows Jackson to spend more time with her grandchildren. To take my call for an interview, she interrupted an impromptu guitar-playing session with her 14-year-old granddaughter.

"She saved her money and bought her own guitar and amplifier," Jackson said admiringly. "Now that she's playing, my two older granddaughters have started playing, too."

Since her re-emergence on American stages, Jackson has reached out further to the rockabilly faithful, and to contemporary rock and pop fans, by recording with such artists as The Cramps, Lee Rocker of the Stray Cats and Dave Alvin, as well as with Elvis Costello, who also wrote the liner notes on I Remember Elvis.

When Jackson plays Tucson, she'll be accompanied by the younger, leather-clad retro-rockers the Cadillac Angels, who will also play an opening set. Jackson's set list includes most of I Remember Elvis--such classics as "Heartbreak Hotel," "Good Rockin' Tonight," "Blue Moon of Kentucky," "Baby, Let's Play House," etc., but she also promised a few country and gospel tunes.

Jackson will further solidify her reputation as musical royalty with a new recurring gig. She'll appear regularly--for a week at a time--in a revue titled "The Great Ladies of Country Music" in Branson, Mo.