In the late '50s, Wanda Jackson recorded "I Gotta Know," her first true rock 'n roll song. More than five decades later, Jackson's still singing it, along with signature songs like "Rock Your Baby," "There's a Party Going On" and "Funnel of Love."
But the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer isn't just doing an oldies act. In fact, she's put out the two best-selling records of her career in just the last two years: 2011's Jack White-produced The Party Ain't Over, and last year's Justin Townes Earle-produced Unfinished Business.
Onstage, the 76-year-old Jackson screams, growls and purrs like she's a teenager. Backed by the Trilliums, a four-piece Canadian outfit, she tears into "Riot in Cell Block No. 9," driving the audience wild.
"It turned out I was the first woman to sing rock 'n' roll," she tells me. "America wasn't ready for a teenage girl singing rock 'n' roll. They didn't even want Elvis."
Elvis Presley meant plenty to Jackson, who was a young aspiring country singer when she met him in 1955.
"The first person I happened to tour with was Elvis Presley," she says. "Elvis took an interest in my career. He kept telling me, 'You need to do this new stuff.' We called it Elvis stuff. We didn't have a name for it yet. Rockabilly hadn't come along."
Presley turned into more than just a rock 'n' roll peer. "Elvis and I dated when we could," recalls Jackson. "We were on the road. We could slip off and get a hamburger, go to a matinee movie if one was showing. He asked me to be his girl and he gave me a ring and asked me to wear it around my neck. I've kept the ring."
Because not many songwriters wanted to write for women, Jackson began penning her own songs. Her catalog includes classics like "Mean Mean Man," "Let's Have a Party" "Riot in Cell Block No. 9" and her first No. 1, "Fujiyama Mama."
By the mid-1960s, rockabilly had run its course and Jackson moved on to a respectable career as a country singer before shifting in the 1970s to Christian music. Decades later, she was on the comeback trail — touring, recording, and gradually reclaiming the throne as the "Queen of Rockabilly." Jackson says she was flattered that White wanted to produce her.
"He called out of the blue and asked me. I said, 'Let me think about it ... yes!' He sent me some songs and I sent some to him, which he probably threw away."
Jackson did manage to get three of her own songs onto what would become the best-selling record of her career.
"He pushed me," says Jackson. "Every song he'd say, 'Push, push.' I didn't know what he meant. I said 'I'm not in labor, Jack. I'm just singing this song.' I think what he did was push me into the 21st century."
Her subsequent album with Earle, she says, brought her more back to her roots. "Justin is a sweetheart and he really understood me. We've made a record that is what music really is all about."
A confirmed road warrior to this day, Jackson has no intention of slowing down. "I'll keep going as long as people will have me," she said. "If you're ready to rock 'n roll, so am I."