Died: October 14, 2004
Jackson was born in 1923 in Pontotoc, Mississippi. The daughter of a violinist, Jackson learned to play several instruments as a child, including guitar, piano, harmonica, mandolin, and banjo. She recalled in an interview given to the Christian Science Monitor in 1991 that she had always been told growing up that “girls don’t play guitar”—but she did.
There are no known recordings of Jackson prior to the 1950s, but she always liked to state that she was playing rock and roll “before Elvis was born,” even if she didn’t have a name for the style. During World War II, she played stand-up bass in the band at the airplane factory where she worked in Memphis. She bought recording equipment in the 1940s and took to experimenting in her home studio.
In the 1950s, reportedly after being rejected by Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis, Jackson started her own record label: Moon Records. She stayed in the business until her death in 2004, writing, arranging, performing, engineering, and producing music.
Jackson’s ability to play the guitar virtuosically well into her seventies—usually while clad in a floor-length formal gown with puff sleeves—earned her a reputation as a “rockin’ Granny” when that phrase was still almost universally understood as an oxymoron. Possibly as the result of a music video she made in in 1989 with director Dan Rose, Jackson found the spotlight in the last two decades of her life. She made appearances on late-night television, including Late Night with David Letterman. Spin magazine named her a “Guitar God” in 1990 on a list that also included Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.
In 1991, Jackson was cast alongside swing/rockabilly revivalist Brian Setzer in a Budweiser commercial in which she outdoes him in a guitar showdown, much to his apparent disbelief. “You’re pretty good,” she taunts him. “NOT.” The popularity of that commercial landed her in the footnotes of rock and roll history for a time, though it has perhaps also tended to overshadow her other many earlier accomplishments. Jackson reportedly wrote a book about her life and “the women record producers of Memphis,” but the whereabouts of the manuscript or any copies are currently unknown. Fortunately, she did a number of interviews during her brief fame in the 1990s that give us a brief glimpse into her earlier career.
Jackon’s 1950s rock and roll records were often novelty records such as “Rock and Roll Christmas” (Moon, 1956). Her playing and singing tended to be blazing fast and highly energetic—though not always pristine. “That’s my thing. My whole act is kinda spasmodic,” she told the Christian Science Monitor. “Makin’ mistakes doesn’t bother me at all.”
“Rock and Roll Christmas” / “Beboppers’ Christmas.” Moon Records G80W-6407/8, 1956.
Live in Chicago. Bughouse Records, 1997.
Kirsten A. Conover, “Before Elvis, Cordell Jackson Rock-and-Rolled ‘Em in Memphis,” Christian Science Monitor, 20 August 1991 (https://www.csmonitor.com/1991/0820/20131.html).
John Bordsen [Knight-Ridder], “Guitar Granny: Cordell Jackson Has Been Playing Since Elvis Was in Diapers,” Post-Star (Glens Falls, NY), 22 June 1992.
“Guitar Granny: Cordell Jackson Was Playing Rockabilly When Elvis Was a Babe,” Tulsa World, 3 June 1992 (https://www.tulsaworld.com/archives/guitar-granny-cordell-jackson-was-playing-rockabilly-when-elvis-was/article_a20f8f66-5c14-5322-a75b-50eb3fb79d7c.html)
James Porter and Jake Austen, “Cordell Jackson Interview,” Rocktober Magazine #6, 1993.
“Guitar Gods” Spin, August 1990.