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Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Rise and Fall of the Female Elvis, Janis Martin

Dreamtime originally published this piece on Janis Martin back in September of 2007 as part of a longer article/podcast on women musicians/singers who never received the attention they deserved.

With Mr. D. playing Martin's My Boy Elvis during the recent "Famous People" show, it seems like the right time to revisit it. Check out the original podcast of And the Angels Sing (link above) to hear Martin performing Drugstore Rock-'n-Roll.

Janis Martin - The Rise & Fall of the Female Elvis

Billed as "the female Elvis," a title that Presley himself reportedly approved, Janis Martin had a short but memorable rockabilly career during the mid-'50s. Born in 1940 in Sutherlin, Virginia, Martin began playing guitar at age four, having to hold it upright like a bass fiddle because it was too large to get her hands around.

By age 11, she was a regular on the Old Dominion Barn Dance radio show, second only to the Grand Ol' Opry in popularity among country music listeners. Still performing on the Barn Dance into her teens, Martin began to tire of country and move towards a r&b sound, sometimes confounding an audience still expecting the old, slow ballads with songs like Ruth Brown's (Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean.

At the age of 15, Martin cut her first record. Two announcers at WRVA - the Virginia radio station home of the Barn Dance - asked Martin to sing a song they had written, a rockabilly ditty called Will You, Willyum, on the show. The two songwriters taped the performance and sent the demo off to New York, which resulted in a recording gig for Martin with RCA. Will You, Willyum turned into Martin's biggest hit, selling three-quarters of a million copies, and charting into the Top Forty on the 1956 Pop Singles chart.

On the B side of Will You, Willyum was a song that Janis Martin herself had written, Drugstore Rock-n-'Roll.

"I wrote that song in about 10 minutes," Martin later said in an interview. "Everything in that song is actually the scene that was happening for us as teenagers."

With a hit single, appearances on American Bandstand, The Today and Tonight Shows and voted "Most Promising Female Artist of 1956," it looked like the 16-year-old had nowhere to go but up. But Martin had secretly married her boyfriend that same year, and became pregnant at age 17 after visiting her soldier husband during a USO tour. Unable to do live performances in her obvious delicate condition, Janis Martin recorded her last songs for RCA in 1958, in her eighth month of pregnancy, and RCA dropped her like a very pregnant hot potato as soon as the last notes faded away.

The female Elvis' career was over less than two years after it had started. But Martin's story would eventually have a happier ending. In the late `80s, now in her mid-40s, with two failed marriages behind her and on her own, Janis Martin formed a new band and struck out on a European tour, where she was greeted by enthusiastic neo-rockabilly audiences. She became a regular at rockabilly conventions, still belting out the old songs, saw her complete recordings compiled and re-released by the respected Bear Family label, and married for a third time to a man who had first seen her perform as a teen at the old Barn Dance show in Virginia. This time the marriage stuck, and they remained together until her death in 2007.

"She was a cute little old gal in a ponytail just belting out that music that nobody else was doing," her husband told the papers.


Janis Martin: My sources on the "female Elvis" include Janis' page at the Rockabilly Hall of Fame; her MySpace page maintained by her granddaughter; and her obituary from The Boston Globe.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I received a free CD from Bear Family, by a certain "Janis Martin". I have never heard of her before (I'm old enough that I could). I was not interested in her and her music, and I tried to find someone who wants the nicely packed CD as a gift. It took me half a year... until some kind sould took it from me.