Born in Mississippi in 1923, Cordell Jackson grew up in a musical family; her father had his own band The Pontiac Ridge Runners. Obviously playing in a band was not seen as a suitable activity for a young girl ‘When I picked up the guitar, I could see it in their eyes, ‘Little girls don’t play guitar,’ they thought. I looked right at ’em and said, ‘I do.’
By the age of 12, young Cordell was playing banjo, piano and guitar, and when her father was out of earshot, she developed her signature fast and frantic style, as she became an exceptional an innovative player, who many years later, would influence future players like The Cramps Poison Ivy Rorschach.
Moving to Memphis in 1943 she began work at Fisher Aircrafts and played upright bass in the Fisher Aircraft band. Wanting to have a record for the local radio stations to play, and rather than auditioning or just entering into a begging game with Sam Phillips at neighbouring Sun Studios, she simply bought her own recording equipment and started her own label, which she maybe slightly sarcastically, called Moon Records.
Operating from her living room, Cordell began to engineer and produce tracks for local musicians, which in 1956, was completely unheard of for a woman. Recording rockabilly and instrumental doo-wop, Cordell continued to produce tracks, and over the years Moon Records built up a back catalogue of niche but interesting releases. However, marriage, children and a career in real estate put music on the back burner and became something she could only do part time until the mid 1980s. Semi retired and in her 60s, Cordell picked up her red Hagstorm Condor guitar and started up again exactly where she left off.
‘About 1986, somebody came in and said, “Somebody has to hear you.” I had been recording on the tail ends of tape, [because] you don’t want it to go to waste.’
In 1985 writer-producer Celia McRee invited Cordell to New York for the prestigious New Music Seminar. While there, she joined Tav Falco on stage at the Lone Star Club. ‘I started playing, and they stood up in one swoop, like a gust of wind’, she is quoted as saying in her Women of Achievement bio.
Darling-ed by MTV, and featured in New York’s Interview magazine, Cordell dressed herself up and twanged into a new chapter, one in which she was recognised for her innovations and musicianship. In 1992, further notoriety came when she starred in a Budweiser commercial alongside Stray Cat, Brian Setzer. It cemented her reputation as ‘The Rock’n’Roll Granny’.
In 1997 she released her first solo LP ‘Live in Chicago’. The Weekly Wire commented in their review; ‘many a punk band would trade a tattoo or two for the frantic chops in Basketball Man or Antsy, a song she tells the crowd is from her teenage years in a wild style she calls rocket roll.’
Since then, Cordell has picked up more accolades than ‘Granny’ and her recognition includes accepting both Memphis Musician of the Year and Memphis Songwriter of the Year. Her living room endeavours are now seen as important work, and are included in the collection of Smithsonian Institution.
Cordell died in 2004 at the age of 81 but will live on in her recordings, playing style and the obvious chutzpah and influence she leaves in her wake.