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How Elvis Presley changed the life of Wanda Jackson

Wanda Jackson made a small name for herself in the 1950s as a country singer in her home state of Oklahoma. After early success with her first hit single ‘You Can’t Have My Love’ in 1954, aged just 16-years-old, she was recognised by Elvis Presley who welcomed her on tour with him. The two dated for a short while in the mid-1950s and, during this period, Elvis encouraged her to add a rock and roll element to her style and to try singing like him; he believed her voice was perfect for the genre and could give her career a big break. 

As Jackson recalled in a 2017 interview with Fox News: “The thing that Elvis did for me was giving me the courage to sing this new music, like he was doing. I would tell him, ‘I can’t do that, Elvis, because I’m just a country singer! Besides, I’m a girl. I can’t sing that stuff.’ And he said, ‘I know you could if you try.’ He made me promise that I would try.”

Jackson described her reaction: “I kept my promise,” she said. “When I moved to Capitol Records, that’s when I recorded one of my first rock ‘n’ roll songs, ‘I Gotta Know.’ It was especially written for me. It has a little bit of a country kickoff.”

‘I Gotta Know’ wasn’t a huge success upon its release in 1956, but Jackson described the song as one of her most important releases that marked a pivotal moment in her career. “It was a transition song for me,” Jackson explained. “I recorded a lot of rock ‘n’ roll songs. They mostly had to be cover songs because nobody thought a girl’s point of view would sell … I began writing stuff and they all did well … Seems like I always had to be pushed a little bit.”

Jackson went on to pursue a career that would earn her the title of the ‘Queen of Rockabilly’. In 2019, she announced her retirement from performing after 65 years on the road which started with Elvis Presley in the 1950s and ended not long after a collaboration with Jack White

Elvis’ vision for Jackson’s success in rock ‘n’ roll appeared to be correct and was topped off in 2009 as she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for her sterling work as an early influence on rock music. During her acceptance speech, Jackson explained that she wouldn’t be there today had it not been for the help of so many friends over the years. Included was a tribute to her old flame, Elvis, who she thanked for his life-changing advice. She explained: “I feel the presence of Elvis very strongly … thank you Elvis once again for encouraging me to try it.”

Listen to Wanda Jackson’s ‘I Gotta Know’ below and see if you can hear that early influence of Elvis’ style.