Holding Court for the King

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"One thing that was different about Elvis," Wanda Jackson drawled one recent night between songs at Hollywood's Bar Deluxe, "is that he never did warm up his voice before a show. He warmed up his body."

With that, she wiggled her torso as if a shiver had run down her spine. "At first, it looked strange, him loosening up, but once I saw him play, I understood. He'd start with his head, then his sneer. Then he'd do his arm," she explained, shaking her own, "his right leg, then his pelvis, just to see if it was working. And that's when he hit the stage."

In the early days of rock 'n' roll, Jackson had plenty of opportunity to observe Presley in action, as his touring mate and, for a time, girlfriend. He exposed the Oklahoma teen to blues and rockabilly, persuading her to expand her repertoire beyond country. She demurred, he persisted, and a Queen was born.

Jackson's reckless performance style was on par with Little Richard's; her suggestiveness rivaled that of Jerry Lee Lewis, and on a good day, her raspy voice could out-growl, -snarl, -whoop and -holler Elvis himself. Yet only one of her songs became a hit ("Let's Have a Party"), relegating her to little more than footnote status as the first female rock singer.

"What I did was take the songs the guys were singing, and I sang 'em too," Jackson said in an interview. "They weren't ready for it, a girl with that much freedom. I never did demand anything or make any statements. All I did was growl."

The statements Jackson made were fashion ones. She designed her own clothes and took offense when Ernest Tubb, at the Grand Ole Opry in the late '50s, demanded that she put something over her rhinestone spaghetti straps. Jackson reluctantly donned an old jacket. (No chance of that happening tonight when she plays at the Foothill in Signal Hill, an old honky-tonk where Elvis is rumored to have played.)

"They never did really accept me," Jackson said of the record industry and music establishment. "But [my act] wasn't that raunchy. There were no gyrations. I just wore a silk fringe, high heels, long earrings--nothing overboard or too low-cut. I set my own standards, made my own look. But I was the only one doing it."

The young fans who now try to emulate the original rockabilly look--hair cut a la Betty Page, eyebrows plucked pencil-thin, lips painted blood-red--seem to strive for an image Jackson never had. Their most glaring mistake? Low-cut tops. "They're more like punk, and there was no such thing then," Jackson said.

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Still, she's thrilled to be remembered. Though a rockabilly revival in the United States (in Europe, it never died) helped bring the 60-year-old Jackson out of retirement in Oklahoma City a few years ago, the festivities surrounding Elvis' birthday on Jan. 8 give her mileage. In '95, she and Rosie Flores collaborated on a pair of duets ("Rock Your Baby," "Rockin' Little Angel") on a U.S. tour that culminated with a tribute to the King at the House of Blues in Los Angeles.

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This time, Jackson's tour amounts to only six California dates, with Santa Barbara's Cadillac Angels as her backing band. The shows include more covers and mentions of the King (including a blues rendition of "Happy Birthday") than she might like.

"I wouldn't have talked about him quite so much," she said, "but people are so hungry to know anything about Elvis that they haven't heard before, and from someone who actually knew him, dated him. That's why I bring out the ring he gave me when he asked me to be his girl, to show something sweet and personal that was his. And I talk about him when I knew him, which is before the drugs, before it got all ruined."

But Jackson says she keeps most of her memories private. "I can skirt around most questions," she said. "And there's so much I don't remember. I was so young."

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A teenager when she started recording in front of the big country guitars of Roy Clark, Buck Owens and Merle Travis, Jackson did her first rock record, "I Gotta Know," at 19 and started a tradition of pairing rockabilly with country on her singles. Her songs celebrated youth, talking about teasing boys by dating their best friends ("Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad") and causing drunken destruction ("Fujiyama Mama"). She boasted of drinking, loving and fighting, all in a gleeful, sassy tone.

By '71, as her recording career waned, Jackson announced she had become a born-again Christian and turned to gospel. She has since reconciled her beliefs with her lyrics. Singing about a rowdy lifestyle isn't the same as living it, she says, though viewers might never know it from her Elvis the Pelvis impersonations. "On him, it's sexy," she said with a laugh. "On me, it's stupid."

* Wanda Jackson performs with opening act Pappa Stuckey & His Hired Hands tonight at the Foothill, 1922 Cherry Ave., Signal Hill. 9 p.m. $13. (562) 494-5196.

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