Wanda Jackson felt like “it was time for something else” in 2010.
She just didn’t know how right she would be.
The woman known as the Queen of Rockabilly, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, had done quite a bit over her 46-year recording career, and her most recent albums included the guest-laden “Heart Trouble” in 2003 and “I Remember Elvis,” a tribute to her onetime boyfriend Elvis Presley, in 2006. But the new “The Party Ain’t Over” — a reference to Jackson’s first big hit, 1959’s “Let’s Have a Party” — found her working with Detroit native Jack White, formerly of the White Stripes and also of the bands the Raconteurs and Dead Weather. White is no stranger to diving into the studio with iconic female singers — he produced Loretta Lynn’s Grammy Award-winning 2004 release “Van Lear Rose” — but Jackson still had some apprehensions about the pairing.
“He’s a big star, as big as they come anywhere on the planet, so that was exciting,” explains Jackson, 73. “But he also is a rock star, and I don’t do this current, contemporary rock-style music. So that’s where the apprehension came in. I wasn’t sure if we’d see eye to eye.”
Jackson quickly found out they did, however.
“(White) told me, ‘I’m not changing your style. I just want to give you fresh material and a fresh sound,’ ” Jackson remembers. “He pushed me a lot, having me do songs that were out of my comfort zone. It didn’t really bother me but it was a little hard to understand what he was wanting from my performance, so it just took a little while to settle in with him.
“But as we worked together I settled down, and I realized that he had my best interest at mind and he was going to produce a really fine album.”
The 11-track “The Party Ain’t Over,” recorded at White’s Third Man Studios in Nashville with his “house band,” is actually a combination of the familiar and the fresh for Jackson. There are songs from the late ’50s and ’60s era when she made her mark, including Johnny Kidd’s “Shakin’ All Over,” the Bill Haley/Little Richard hit “Rip It Up,” Eddie Cochran’s “Nervous Breakdown” and the Presley obscurity “Like a Baby.” But White also let Jackson spin on more contemporary material, including a slinky take on British singer Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” and an energetic romp through Bob Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountain,” which was suggested for the project by Dylan himself.
“I’ve never met (Dylan),” Jackson says, “but Jack and Bob have, I think, a rather special relationship, so Jack wanted me to do a song of (Dylan’s), and he called him and asked which song would he choose? And Bob Dylan is also a fan of mine, which I wasn’t aware of, and he said, ‘Well, it has to be “Thunder on the Mountain.” There’s just no doubt about that.’ So that’s what we did.”
White and Dylan, meanwhile, are just part of a following that Jackson continues to find surprising — and enormously flattering.
“It’s very shocking to me, and a nice way to be surprised,” she says. “I found out that Elvis Costello (a guest on ‘Heart Trouble’) is a big fan. Bruce Springsteen is, also; in fact, I did a performance in his hometown and he and his wife (Patti Scialfa) came out to see me, so I got to meet him and they talked about what fans they had been through the years.
“Sometimes you’re too busy doing the work to know who’s listening to you, but I love it. It’s been a really thrilling ride.”
Born in Maud, Okla., and raised in Oklahoma City after a short stay in California, Jackson was schooled in music and guitar playing by her father. A local talent contest win as a teenager snared her own program on radio station KLPR-AM, where she was discovered by musician Hank Thompson in 1954 and recruited to perform and record with his Brazos Valley Boys.
“Music was all that I was ever passionate about,” Jackson says. “Back then, after women graduated from high school they got married and started their families. But I just knew (music) was what I was born to do, although I didn’t figure I’d be doing it all my life. I always figured I would have my career and sing until I got married, and then I would quit.
“But it didn’t work out that way.”
After dueting with Brazos bandleader Billy Gray on the Top 10 country single “You Can’t Have My Love,” Jackson sought her own deal with Capitol Records and was told by producer Ken Nelson that “girls don’t sell records.” She ultimately got a deal from a more progressive Decca Records and hit the road with another up-and-coming act — Presley, who she wound up dating, albeit by relatively puritanical ’50s standards.
“If we got to a town early we’d take in a matinee,” Jackson says, “or if we didn’t, we’d go out for hamburgers or something or drive around and talk. We became good friends. He gave me his ring; I used to wear it around my neck. I still have it in my jewelry case.”
But her father toured with her as combination manager and chaperone, and, she says, “he had a lot of rules for me.”
“He wanted to travel with me and to keep my reputation intact,” Jackson recalls. “These days that doesn’t seem to matter to anybody; in fact, the raunchier they are the more publicity they get. But in those days a woman had better be a lady and not have any stories going around about loose living and things.
“So I could never ride from city to city with Elvis or with anybody else except daddy. I couldn’t sit on anyone’s lap, couldn’t lay my head on someone’s shoulder if I was sleepy — unless it was his.”
Presley, meanwhile, encouraged Jackson, who was then primarily a country singer (and finally signed to Capitol), to turn her sound toward rock ’n’ roll.
“We didn’t have a name for it at that point,” she notes. “He was the called ‘the hillbilly cat;’ rockabilly came about a little bit later. I didn’t think I could do this music — I didn’t have a lot of confidence in those days — but he knew I could and he just kept on me and he’d play records for me and take the guitar and say, ‘Now, see, if you just give it this treatment .. .’
“My daddy said, ‘I think Elvis is right.’ Once I tried it, I loved it.”
The burgeoning rock audience loved Jackson as well. “Let’s Have a Party” was her first Top 40 hit, followed by “Right or Wrong” and “In the Middle of a Heartache” — both of which were also Top 10 country hits. “Fujiyama Mama” hit No. 1 in Japan. In 1963 she fused both of her musical pursuits, country and rock, on a set called “Two Sides of Wanda Jackson” that earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Female Country Performance.
“We’d put a country song on one side of a (single) and a rockabilly song on the other to try to make sure I got played somewhere,” remembers Jackson, who was part of ABC’s “Ozark Jubilee” from 1955-60 and married her husband, IBM staffer Wendell Goodman, in 1961. “Always the country song would come out on top, but you could see all the kids really loved the (rock) stuff I was doing.”
Being one of the first women in rock, meanwhile, made Jackson unique, but she says she was able to navigate her way through any sexism she encountered.
“I don’t remember it being so very hard,” explains the mother of two, a son and a daughter. “There just weren’t that many girls out there doing any kind of music, so girls were kind of a new thing. People were kind of checking us out and things like that. I suppose you’d say it was a little hard but not too bad.”
More challenging for Jackson was navigating changing tastes during the ’60s and beyond. After her rockabilly successes, she settled back into the country and gospel markets for hits such as “Tears Will Be the Chaser for Your Wine,” “The Box It Came In,” “My Big Iron Skillet” and “A Woman Lives For Love.” She was embraced overseas — particularly in Germany — made inroads in Las Vegas and followed Kitty Wells as the second country female singer to host a syndicated television show, “Music Village” from 1967-68.
It was, Jackson says, “a good career that kept me touring around the world” and occasionally vaulted her back into the mainstream spotlight — including the “Heart Trouble” album, which found her joined by guests such as Costello, Rosie Flores and the Cramps, and her Rock Hall induction as an Early Influence in 2009. That same year Oklahoma City’s Bricktown district christened one of its streets Wanda Jackson Way.
“The Party Ain’t Over,” meanwhile, has taken Jackson everywhere from the BBC’s “Hootenanny” to “Conan” and “The Late Show with David Letterman,” as well as a spot on the Stagecoach festival during April in Indio, Calif. Jackson, who continues to tour with her own band, isn’t sure how long this blast of attention will last, but she’ll keep going with or without it.
“Music is the only thing I know,” she notes. “It’s my only passion. It’s what I do. When I’m not on the road or not working on a music project, I kind of flounder around like a fish out of water.
“Luckily I’ve just been able to continue all this touring all over the world, and just when I think things are kind of ebbing down, they rev up again.”
Wanda Jackson and Holly Golightly perform Thursday, May 12, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $18 in advance, $20 day of show. Call 313-833-9700 or visit www.majesticdetroit.com.
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