When Wanda first started out, she and Elvis Presley became very close. Wanda to this day still wears a ring Elvis gave her around her neck. Elvis was instrumental in persuading Wanda to record her now trademark Rockabilly music, and in particular her signature song "Let's Have A Party". "The King" had even recorded "Let's Have a Party" himself (known then simply as "Party"), for the soundtrack of his film "Lovin' You". Forty years later Sir Paul McCartney would record versions of "(Let's Have A) Party" for his studio CD "Run Devil Run" and his roots DVD "Live At The Cavern Club".
These days, another Elvis - Mr. Elvis Costello - is one of her biggest fans. Elvis C. and Wanda have recently recorded together and he is championing her for a long overdue spot in the "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame". Another icon of Rock and Roll - "The Boss" Mr. Bruce Springsteen - has also taken up Wanda's cause.
As Jim Halsey had so accurately predicted, Wanda Jackson's career exploded and she truly did become the "Queen of Rockabilly". In early 1958, we worked our way across the country to Hollywood and notably The Capitol Tower for Wanda to do a recording session. Wanda used the Poe Kat Band. To get a fuller sound, Ken Nelson her A&R Director brought in Buck Owens on rhythm guitar (Buck was just starting his career) and Skeets McDonald on bass. Since I didn't play an instrument, I had free time to hang out at The Brown Derby for lunch and the lobby of The Ambassador Hotel. I met many movie stars there including my favorite actress Gail Russell, as well as Rex Allen, Thelma Ritter, Henry Hull, Mike Mazurki, Spike Jones, Robert Fuller and Tennessee Ernie Ford.
At this session at The Capitol Tower, Wanda recorded with my band her signature hit, the aforementioned "Let's Have a Party". When we arrived back home in 1958 from Wanda's Hollywood tour, I got a phone call from a disk jockey named Jim Lowe of WRR Radio in Dallas, Texas. He had a famous radio show called "Kat's Caravan". He told me he had seen one of our shows in Oklahoma and said he had a record label called White Rock Records. He asked us to sign with his label, both Big Al Downing and me, as individual artists. Big Al's first single "Down On The Farm", was originally going to be put out under the name of Bobby Poe and The Poe Kats, but since Big Al sang lead vocals, I didn't want that. "Down On The Farm" became a #1 record in the state of Texas and was bought by Gene Autry's new label Challenge Records. Just last year - or almost 50 years later - Rhino Records put "Down On The Farm" on their extensive CD box set "Rockin' Bones: 1950s Punk and Rockabilly". The track can also be found (along with the later Big Al solo single "Touch Me") on the CD box set "From Where I Stand: The Black Experience In Country Music".
My first record "Rock and Roll Record Girl" was also a #1 record in Texas. Sam Phillips of Sun Records was going to buy the master for release on his red hot label which included Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, and Carl Perkins. I thought we were on our way to stardom, but our hopes were dashed when the publisher, Wesley Rose of Acuff-Rose, would not give permission to release the song because I had written my own lyrics to the tune of their well known standard "Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy". The record was squashed and thus no big hit. The only good news is that to this day "Rock and Roll Record Girl" is one of the most sought after Rockabilly collectors items in the music world.
Our last gig with Wanda was on New Year's Eve 1958 in Montrose, Colorado. Headlining that show was Marty Robbins, who had just exploded on the Pop and Country music scene. Everyone knows Marty went on to become a legendary Superstar, but even at this early time in his career we were thrilled to be working with him.
In January of 1959 I sat down with my band and we did some soul searching. Had it not been for our wives trying to work and also raise babies, we would have folded. At that time, Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" TV show had become a phenomenon and could make anyone a star overnight. I told the band, "Let's give the music business one more shot", because Wanda Jackson was making it big time, yet we were nothing but a backup band.
So we loaded up and headed to Dick Clark's city, Philadelphia. On our way east, we stopped and played a gig at the Fort Leonardwood, Missouri Army Base. It was the third time we had played the base and each time we played to larger and larger crowds. After this performance, we were thrilled when it was reported that Bobby Poe and The Poe Kats had broken the attendance record of Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra. That was pretty heady accolades for a four piece band to break the long standing record of a legendary orchestra.
This gave us added confidence on our way to Philadelphia. When we arrived in Philly, we got an audition with Norman Joyce of the Jolly Joyce Agency. He loved our band and took us for first class photos and sent us to what we learned was The Combat Zone in Boston, Massachusetts. It was called The Combat Zone because it was the toughest part of the city. We ended up playing in a club owned by a bunch of "Wise Guys". Being naive redneck hillbilly's, we got a rude awakening to the Big City Life.
Our first day on the Boston gig, the opening act's guitar player Kenny Paulson - who had played on many of Chuck Berry's recording sessions - wanted to quit the club and move up the street to another band for more money. They took him in the kitchen and broke his hands with a baseball bat. We were scared to death. Just our luck, the "Wise Guy" club owners loved our band and wanted us to stay for a year. After one month, I told them my mother was gravely ill and we had to go, but that we'd be back in one week. Needless to say we never went near Boston again...