Listening to Wanda Jackson’s searing new Jack White-produced album, The Party Ain’t Over, you’d never imagine she ever had any issues with confidence. The 73-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer effortlessly rips through cuts ranging from classics like “Busted” and “Dust on the Bible” to covers of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” and Bob Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountain.” Even when Jackson burst onto the scene as a teenager 55 years ago, she did so with bravado, belting out hits like 1960’s “Let’s Have a Party” while slinking around the stage in a then-controversial spaghetti-strap fringe dress. But behind that trademark primal growl is a woman who’s always needed encouragement at the most pivotal moments of her career, including this past year.
“Well, I was—the word would be apprehensive,” she says of her initial thoughts on making a record with White. “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to work with this creative, very popular young man. I was just afraid he was going to want me to sing the contemporary rock ’n’ roll stuff, maybe more in the lines of what he does, or some of the more popish ones. That worried me, and then I thought, well, if I do these kinds of songs, will my fans accept that? [But] I found out pretty quick that I was wrong on both counts. … I saw the songs he was wanting, so I relaxed.”
Her shining moment with White, though, most likely would’ve never happened without the influence of another young rock impresario, Elvis Presley. “He’s the one that encouraged me to stretch myself,” she remembers of Presley, whom she toured with in 1955 and ’56 and dated briefly. “Just like Jack has done now—stretch yourself, keep doing challenging things and different things. Without Elvis’ encouragement, I kind of doubt that I would’ve tried [rock music], because I thought of myself as a country singer, period. But he just convinced me that there was some latent talent in there I hadn’t pulled out.”
Today, many consider Jackson the first woman to write and perform rock ’n’ roll, branding her “The Queen of Rockabilly.” But even with her accomplishments, she sounds most proud of braving her insecurities. “It’s just a matter of self-esteem,” she admits. “For many artists, after you get to know them, they’re pretty insecure in one way or another. … I just always think I can’t do that much. I can’t throw a big party, but once I jump in and get my feet wet and start doing it, I’ve thrown some nice parties, you know?”