By Jon Waterhouse
If they gave badges for making mistakes in life, mine would be the biggest and shiniest. Yes, I slipped, I stumbled, I fell. Repeatedly.
Yet, when you look down at your phone and see a text image of your 13-year-old son rocking the Elvis Presley Snapchat lens, you know you’ve done something right.
Due to the proper exposure, our boy Levi was loving the king before he could walk. And while I was attending yesterday’s Official Graceland Insiders Conference at Elvis Presley’s Memphis, inspiration struck. Now I know what to bring home to him: CD copies of Elvis’s albums with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
While watching Priscilla Presley’s acceptance of a pair of gold and platinum record awards for “If I Can Dream” and “The Wonder of You,” respectively, I realized Levi didn’t have those in his collection. And he needs them. A gazillion Elvis fans can’t be wrong.
Backstage after the acceptance, Priscilla, Jerry Schilling, Elvis Presley Enterprises’ CEO Jack Soden, and others mingled with record label staff. The framed awards sat nearby, propped up on chairs and shining beneath florescent lights. When Priscilla and the record company team posed around the awards for pics, I suppressed the urge to photobomb.
The crowd began to disperse, and I noticed a familiar face entering backstage. Wanda Jackson, the queen of rockabilly and a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, made her way toward the dressing room. My inner fan boy threatening to explode from within, I managed to keep it at bay while smiling and shaking her hand. Wanda’s catalog —from 1958’s blistering single “Fujiyama Mama” to her contemporary albums such as 2011’s “The Party Ain’t Over”— stays in heavy rotation on my iPod.
Wanda’s Elvis connection remains the stuff of legend. Her country music career began in 1952 while Wanda was in her teens. After graduating high school in 1955, she began touring with her father, Tom Jackson, who managed her career. She soon found herself on a bill with Elvis, and the pair became fast friends. They even dated briefly in 1955 and 1956. In fact, she cites Elvis as someone who pushed her to venture into rock ‘n’ roll.
Today Wanda’s musical significance continues. An endless array of artists call her an influence, including Adele and Jack White, the latter producing “The Party Ain’t Over.” At the moment, Wanda is collaborating with producer and fellow Rock Hall of Famer, Joan Jett on a new album.
After chatting with Wanda, and hearing her wonderful interview with Elvis Week host Tom Brown, inspiration struck again. Wanda Jackson deserves her rightful spot in my son’s record collection, too. Levi, make room for Wanda.
WANDA JACKSON Q&A
Q.: You’ve been to Elvis Week before. What was your first impression? There really isn’t anything like it in the world.
A.: No, there isn’t. He was a good friend of mine. We worked together for quite a bit for a couple of years. We did get to date a little bit. He gave me his ring to wear around my neck. We were close. So, to see his fans continue to honor him in such a beautiful fashion is thrilling. The last time I was at Elvis Week I was able to sit on the grounds of Graceland and watch the Candlelight Vigil. It was very touching. Everyone was so reverent and thoughtful as they walked along with their candles burning.
Q.: You met Elvis before his star exploded. What was your first impression of Elvis as a performer and as a person?
A.: As a person, I could tell he was a real gentleman. We met for the first time at a radio station where the disc jockey interviewed both of us together, and we invited people to come out to our show that evening. That was in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. And I was very impressed with him. I wanted a picture with him. So my dad took the picture. That night at the show, I had been on first, and he closed down the show. After my show, I went backstage. My dad was with me, and we heard all of this screaming and hollering. We thought the building was on fire. My dad said, “I’ll go check and see what it is.” He ran out and in a minute he came back. He said, “Wanda, you’re going to have to see this for yourself. You’re not going to believe it.” Elvis was so fresh and different, and so young and energetic, and he had that beautiful voice. I was 17-years-old, so I was a big fan immediately.
Q.: You had a hit single with “Let's Have A Party” in 1960. Elvis released his version three years earlier. How did you feel about tackling a song that Elvis had done?
A.: Well, that worked out good because I hadn’t heard Elvis’ record on it. I had heard it by The Collins Kids. They covered it first. I learned it from their record, not having any idea that Elvis had done it in a movie. That gave me the freedom to sing it like Wanda Jackson and not worry about sounding like Elvis.
Q.: How did you approach your first rock ‘n’ roll record? What did you draw upon?
A.: Well, it was mostly just from Elvis’ encouragement. He took me to his home one time when we were working in Memphis. He picked me up and took me to his house. He was really serious about wanting me to try rockabilly, this new music. I kept saying, “I can’t do it, because I just sing country.” He said, “Well, you don’t have to just sing country. You can do this, too.” So he’d play a record, then he’d take a guitar and show me the song. Then I got to watch him perform night after night on the longer tours. So, I had plenty of inspiration to draw from. (Laughs) I had a good teacher.
Q.: You broke ground with your musical style, your stage wear, and your vocal style. You paved the road for the female artists of today. What do you think about girl power in the music business?
A: They’re making the big bucks. (Laughs) It’s just so totally different. Country music is big business now. When I started, it wasn’t. There wasn’t that many of us. I’m proud of the women in the rock field that have stepped up and said, “If she can do it, I can do it.” And I’ve never had a problem in the business. I had it pretty easy. I had a father who traveled with me, and made it easier for me. It kept my reputation in tact. After Wendell (Goodman) and I were married, he stepped into that role and traveled with me, and managed my career. I never felt threatened by the male singers. They were just my friends, guys like Elvis, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis. We all worked so much together in the ’50s and into the ’60s a little bit. I still work with Jerry Lee on occasion. I know it’s been hard for women who don’t have all of that support and a team around them like I always have had. I admire them for wanting to do it bad enough to get out there and make it happen.
FIVE MAGIC MOMENTS AT A BAND OF LEGENDS REMEMBERS ELVIS
Last night Soundstage A at Elvis Presley’s Memphis played host to this concert starring several musicians who backed Elvis in the studio throughout his career. Norbert Putnam (bass), David Briggs (piano), Memphis Boys’ Bobby Wood (piano) and Gene Chrisman (drummer), and Mary Holladay Pederson and Ginger Holladay (back-up singers) shared music and stories with the audience. Host Andy Childs fielded questions from the crowd. Childs then took vocal lead as the band, including seasoned guitarist Kerry Marx, played select Elvis cuts.
Here are five magic moments from the evening:
Putnam and Briggs gave the audience a behind-the-scenes perspective of Elvis’ take on the Righteous Brothers classic. They told stories of performing the song with Elvis in the studio and on stage.
Memories of August 16, 1977
Several of the performers revealed their heartfelt memories of hearing the news of Elvis’ passing. You could see the emotion in Putnam’s face as he relayed his story. It took place while the bassist was on a family vacation in Hawaii. Soon after listening to a radio broadcast reporting the death of Elvis, Putnam says he looked into the Hawaiian sky and saw a shooting star.
Ginger Holladay on “Suspicious Minds”
Ginger got the call to sing on “Suspicious Minds” while still in high school. Her sister Mary was booked on the session, and the producer needed another voice. When Mary called home to ask a 17-year-old Ginger Holladay if she’d like to participate, Ginger told the audience she said, “But I have cheerleading practice.” Once she realized the session would get her out of final exams, Ginger agreed.
After Ginger’s story, the band jammed the iconic Elvis single, which the Memphis Boys originally backed at American Studios in 1969. Childs took the lead, and the Holladay sisters stood by his side with their still pristine vocals. Ginger and Mary encouraged the crowd to join in for the chorus.
“In the Ghetto”
For the final song, Childs brought singer-songwriter Mac Davis onstage as a surprise guest. Davis, who wrote “In the Ghetto,” sang lead and played acoustic guitar, providing a legendary end to a legendary show.