Cordell Jackson Interview
Just mention the name "Cordell Jackson" to most folks and you'll draw a blank. Mention the fact that's she was "the old lady with the guitar in the beer commercial who blew the socks offa that guy from the Stray Cats" and sure enough you'll get a better response. Simply put, 80-year old Cordell Jackson is not the Clara Peller (of Wendy's "Where's The Beef" fame) of the Nineties. She's the real thing, and over these past few years she's been the subject of a mini media blitz, appearing on David Letterman, MTV and the aforementioned Budweiser beer ad.
The tale began in Pontotoc, Mississippi, where she was raised in a musical family, and soon she started to show some talent on guitar, piano and bass, performing on her uncle's radio show. She continued to woodshed when she moved to Memphis in 1943, and in '56 released her first single, "Beboppers Christmas" b/w "Rock and Roll Christmas" on her own Moon label. The Moon label became notorious among Rockabilly fans for releasing 45's by legends like Joe Wallace, Earl Patterson and Allen Page. who did the original version of the much -covered "Dateless Night" (written by Jackson). An article in Kicks (a brilliant magazine devoted to pre-psychedelic Rockabilly and Garage Punk stompers that Roctober heartily recommends...you'll never want to hear another Peter Gabriel record again!!!!) finally brought her tale to light in 1987, along with a brief article in Spin that followed a few months later. She's been making appearances with the A-Bones and Tav Falco's Panther Burns, and it's plain to see the woman just can't do wrong.
Earlier this year we went to see her in action at the Cubby Bear lounge in Chicago, opening for the New Duncan Imperials, Chicago's own whacked out take on Southern culture. My God, it was surreal. Firstly, the beer commercial did a lot to bring Ms. Jackson to the masses, and more power to her. Naturally, not everyone can be expected to know that the lady has a background and it wasn't just the beer ad...she really can play that guitar (Link Wray fans might wanna take note if you haven't already). The audience response, as Cordell rocked out amongst the stage saturated with the New Duncan Imperial props (chicken wire, Christmas lights, stuffed animals, etc.) was frantic, but many frat boy beer ad fans were surprised by her intensity ("Oh, you mean she actually plays songs, c'mon, Muffy lets hit the bar.). Before and during the show about six or seven attractive ladies in tight black jeans, even tighter black leotard style '70's body shirts and cowboy boots (which, by the way, are a cliché amongst nightclubbing women on the North side of the city, but I don't get tired of looking at them SO I HOPE THEY DON'T GET TIRED OF WEARING THEM!) paraded around selling Jagermeister shots on a one on one basis to the drinking men of the club. With scenes like this I felt like I was in a singles bar on Rush and Division! (for all you out-of-towners, that's where big haired babes dance to Gloria Estefan and "Whoop, There It Is"). Yeah, it was sort of a circus atmosphere, but through it all, Cordell, in her long white gown and her electric guitar turned up to 10, stood out from everything and gave a powerhouse show! Did I mention she did all this alone and unaccompanied? I'll just leave the last word to Jake , who said after the show, "We just saw the greatest all girl Punk band in America." What follows is our telephone interview with the lady, a few days later, direct from Chicago to Memphis:
Roctober: Can you tell me why and how you started Moon Records back in the day?
Cordell Jackson: Well I had been making some demos down at Memphis Recording Services, and that is owned by Sam Phillips at the time. And he heard a couple of little songs "Rock and Roll Christmas" and "Beboppers Christmas"-and they're on my compilation -The Fifties Rock on Moon- and he told me he didn't have enough time that particular year to do some promoting on it before Christmas, so he tells me to come back the next August and well get started on it. Well at that time Jerry Lee Lewis' "Crazy Arms" just took off and, uh, them (Phillips' Sun records) being an independent , first hit record, they were having to follow through with it, so he tells me that he's not going to have the time. So I come home and tell my husband "Hey, I'm gonna start at the top!" and he says "What do you mean?" I said "I'm fixing to call RCA Victor and tell them what I want." And I did, and Chet Atkins answered the phone...
Roctober: Wow! Was he a polite fellow?
Cordell: Always. And he says, "Let me switch you over to E.J. Himes, the man who handles our custom record sales here at RCA." And that was fine. So E.J. Himes comes on the phone. I tell him I want to start my label and he said "You and your husband come here and well sit down and get you started." So how come it it's been nicknamed Moon was not anything off of the Sun. In fact that was something I never thought of until someone brought it to my attention in 19 and 79. Mr. Himes told us to go home and come up with ten names and list them in preference until he could clear a label. Moon label came from #5.
Roctober: What was #1?
Cordell: #1 was Dana, that was my young son's name. I had Flame and Fire and I cant remember. That's how it was born. In fact I don't think I came up with the word Moon myself anyways.
Roctober: Were there pressures on you being a woman doing something so independent?
Cordell: Well there always is. There still is. You know, they still don't take me seriously, but they watch me like a hawk.
Roctober: Who does?
Cordell: The major labels. I think everyone watches what I do. They always have. I'm told they do.
Roctober: You're still running an independent label. How are you competing?
Cordell: I'm my own manager, I'm my own business agent, I dream the songs up, I do everything, I write my own liner notes, I put the packaging together and I go to the bank. I don't go outside of myself to produce my records or anything.
Roctober: By your own choice? Would you work with a major if they asked?
Cordell: Not particularly, with myself unless they could pretty well do it like I have to do it. I'm not hard to get along with. I think Anheuser-Busch and that crew has found me especially good to work with. Uh, the only thing, my age, I'm not going to burn the candle at both ends. I believe in protecting by all means my personal health because by all means money can't buy that.
Roctober: That's right.
Cordell: So why should I try to get money and burn it down. If I would go with a major label instantly I would make more money. But I would not want to hinder them from making the money they deserve to make. So it weighs both ways. I've thought about it. Now I've got a new artist coming out Susan St. John. I've written her whole Country album. I've never written Country before and I've never produced a female before beside myself. I'll be looking for a major label for her because I don't have time to take care of her with any decency and with my career spiraling like it is.
Roctober: Any statements to make about being one of the original female rockers? Cordell: The only statement I know is that I don't necessarily term what I do Rockabilly or Rock and Roll. Coming up I was always playing what I'm playing when Elvis was one years old.
Roctober: O.K.. Was that dress you were wearing typical of your wardrobe or was that a stage costume?
Cordell: That is one of my T.V. dresses. Someone told me I better dress warm up there and they sure were right. I had my guitar sitting by a heater to get warm enough to play. I usually wear more of a Southern Belle attire but I wore that solely because they told me to go warm. So I had a jacket I could shed or put on.
Roctober: You play awfully loud.
Cordell: Now that's all I guarantee, a pretty dress and a loud button.
Roctober: Were there many female guitar players playing when you came along?
Cordell: There were not any. In fact, I don't remember if you all recall...do you remember that bar chord instrumental that I played maybe next to last?
Roctober: I do.
Cordell: I played that when Billy Bird, and all lead guitar players (were) just playing on one string. That was what I was playing back then. In fact no man would let me get in close to a microphone ever. I'm not bragging here. And I was fought madly to keep me away from a microphone. I went around to everything when I got on these talk shows and situations was the only way I could get on T.V. with what I do. That's how hard it was for a woman. I don't know if I'm good, bad or indifferent but if people enjoy what I do it's good for me and it's good for them.
Roctober: I honestly like that. I can look past the obvious beer commercial novelty and older lady yadda yadda and I really like it on it's own terms...hello?
Cordell: Were you asking me a question?
Roctober: Oh no, I was just saying something. What or who influenced the music that you do?
Cordell: Well my father had a band. Just his pickers and uh...Now this was like I was doing this anyways and all these other guitar pickers came along and I liked, now listen carefully: I like Chuck Berry, just for his sound he'd tune on his guitar and his energy, because I play energy music.
Roctober: Yeah! I can tell...It's very obvious! And I like that a lot.
Cordell: (laughs) Well what does it sound like? Is it a bunch of mixture of just noise out there or do you detect the different things that I'm picking out there?
Roctober: Well, what I heard it was mostly, since you were by yourself I heard a bunch of really hard power chords, right, and when you had something to say then you'd solo and jump back to the main melody with the chords, and it sounded rough, but in a good way. Like, I'm sure you recall a guy by the name of Link Wray, right? "Rumble"?
Roctober: That's sort of what it reminded me of, and since I'm a big Link Wray fan, I mean that as a compliment.
Cordell: Well, thank you. It's hard for me to determine, because I'm cutting and clipping and picking with a left handed note and all at the same time and I really don't know how all of that sounds out there to an audience.
Roctober: Sounded pretty good to me. I mean, I know everybody's got their own way of doing it, I mean you just can't look in a book and say "Yes, this is the accepted way of doing it."
Cordell: I don't know of any other woman that comes close to what I actually execute. I think I'm a lot of fun to people.. I think my music gives a person a lot of good feelings. Most of all I think I exert the energy and I think they pick up on that. And I do have some pretty hot licks.
Roctober: I tell you, you do. There was a lady, you know who Bo Diddley is?
Roctober: There used to be this lady named the Duchess who used to play with him on his records and in concert. She was around in the 50s and early 60s, and I'm curious, you never heard of her, have you?
Roctober: So between her, Sylvia from Mickey and Sylvia and you that's pretty much...
Cordell: Now I've heard of Mickey and Sylvia.
Roctober: What about the girl from the Collins Kids, she played guitar. Lorrie Collins, have you ever heard of the Collins Kids?
Cordell: Seems that I have.
Roctober: Yeah, she was really prominent in the '50s. Did a lot of T.V..
Cordell: Now there's a female guitar player there in New York. Uhh...I think the guys name that headed the band was Axel something. Pretty good picker for a female [perhaps she's thinking of Slash from Guns n Roses -ed.].
Roctober: You appeared on MTV with a female drummer, Miriam Linna from the A-Bones.
Cordell: That's Billy Miller's wife. He owns that-oh heck-Kicks magazine and whutchucall the A-Bones. They're real good friends and I really like them a lot. They play my "Dateless Night". Have you heard that?
Roctober: Yeah, sure. I've heard another version, Tav Falco, you know about that?
Cordell: Yeah...Tav cut it twice. Susan St. John, the girl that I told the other guy about, my first female artist, it's Country, but I've got two Rock and Rolls on there and she's doing the first female version of "Dateless Night".
Roctober: I can see that. Do you drink Budweiser yourself?
Cordell: I don't drink anything but milk or water. I don't even drink Coke or Pepsi.
Roctober: In Memphis in the 50s and 60s you had a whole bunch of labels out there like Hi and Stax and of course Sun...
Cordell: I've got a collection on my wall here that would blow your mind. I've got over a hundred, a lot of them I don't even have a place to put 'em.
Roctober: What, like all Memphis records?
Cordell: Yeah, all Memphis singles. We've had 700 labels here.
Roctober: Have you kept Moon going all through these years?
Cordell: I'm the only company that formed in the 19 and 50s, that was 1956, I didn't sell out nor quit. I'm the only one. I've sold every record I've ever pressed and I'm still selling everything I ever pressed.
Roctober: Go on, Girl!
Cordell: Not getting rich, but as long as people enjoy the music. Some labels just put out one record and quit. Some put out two and quit. Some put out three and quit. I'm writing The Estelle Axton story. I'm writing the book right now and it will be the brighter side. I'm writing about the women record producers of Memphis and that's the first time you'll ever see that in print. I've already got Estelle Axton, Jeannie Carter, Juanita Tullis and Evelyn Grays. Those are the only ladies that have ever produced records here besides myself. How she (Axton) discovered Otis Redding has never been printed before, I think.
Roctober: She was behind that 70s hit "Disco Duck".
Cordell: Yeah, that's been recorded on 28 or 30 versions of it.
Roctober: Anything you listen to these days?
Cordell: Uh...Mark Collie, have you heard of him?
Roctober: Yeah sure, the Country singer. "Born and Raised in Black and White".
Cordell: We might get together and write something. I don't know yet. He asked me. 'Course I like Travis Tritt. They've got some good artists out. Of course, I like Lorrie Morgan. She's my pick of the females.
Roctober: As a long time fan it's been nice talking to you. It's been a gas. Cordell: Thanks a bunch. I'm real glad you came to see me. Bye.