Born Janis Darlene Martin, Sutherlin, Virginia, 27 March 1940
Alongside Wanda Jackson and Brenda Lee, Janis Martin must rank as the most important female artist in 1950s rock n roll / rockabilly. Perhaps not so much in commercial terms (she had only one chart hit), but from a purely musical point of view. She had a natural affinity for rocking music and, like Elvis Presley, she combined a solid grounding in country music with a genuine respect for black R and B.
Born into a musical family, Janis was groomed for stardom from an early age by her ambitious mother. At the age of five she was already singing and playing the guitar and by the time she was eleven she was a regular feature on the Old Dominion Barn Dance on WRVA in Richmond, Virginia (the third largest such show in the US at the time). Not much later Janis was appearing with prominent country singers like Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow and Jim Reeves. But she soon got bored with slow country songs. In 1953 she discovered black rhythm and blues, with Ruth Brown as a particular favourite and starting singing that kind of material on country shows. In late 1955, two staff announcers at WRVA, Carl Stutz and Carl Barefoot, wrote a rockabilly-styled song called "Will You, Willyum" and asked Janis to sing it on the Old Dominion Barndance. When audience reaction was good, they sent a demo of her performance to Tannen Music Publishers in New York, who in turn forwarded it to Steve Sholes at RCA. The end result was that, at age 15, Janis was signed to RCA and went into their Nashville studio on March 8, 1956 to record four songs. "Will You, Willyum" became her first single, coupled with her own composition "Drugstore Rock 'n' Roll", allegedly written in less than 15 minutes. By the time the record was released, Elvis Presley was the hottest singer in the country and RCA billed Janis as "The Female Elvis" (with Colonel Parker's permission). The single sold well, some 750,000 copies, and peaked at # 35 on the Billboard pop charts.
RCA gave her the song "My Boy Elvis" to record at her second session, this time in New York City. Like Elvis, she split her sessions between Nashville and NYC. The Nashville recordings were more spontaneous ; the New York session people were used to working with written arrangements. The difference shows on the records. The NYC sides contain a few classics like "Barefoot Baby", but Martin really shines on the sides she cut in Nashville, like "Love Me To Pieces", "Bang Bang", "Blues Keep Calling" and "Two Long Years". Best of all, in my opinion, was Buck Griffin's "Let's Elope Baby", from her first session. The producer, Chet Atkins, had chosen the song and said to her : "This will be perfect for you, because you're young and kids run off and get married." Little did Atkins know how right he was. Janis had eloped and got married on January 2, 1956, aged 15. She managed to keep her marriage secret (even for her parents), which wasn't too hard as her husband was stationed in Germany as a GI. But after a European tour in the autumn of 1957 - and a brief reunion with her spouse - she found herself pregnant. Her teenage pregnancy was incompatible with the sweet little teen idol image that RCA had created and the company dropped her.
In spite of being voted "Most Promising Female Vocalist" of 1956 by Billboard, Martin was unable to sustain a rock n roll career. Apart from the pregnancy issue, her gender turned out to be a handicap. Her stage moves (which she had already developed before she'd even heard of Elvis) and lusty delivery appeared vulgar to a lot of people. Many young girls resented the fact that she was billed as "The Female Elvis" (a tag that she never liked herself), because everybody was in love with Elvis then. Futhermore, the country shows on which she was booked put her in front of audiences that weren't particularly fond of rock n roll. In the following years, Janis balanced the demands of raising a family with sporadic attempts at reviving her recording and performing career. After turning down offers from King and Decca, she signed with the Belgian-owned Palette label in 1960. She did only one (Nashville) session for the label, resulting in two singles. Highlight for me is "Hard Times Ahead", with Floyd Cramer and Hank Garland in fine form. By that time she was married for the second time. Her new husband travelled the road with her for about six months, but he hated it and forced Janis to choose between him and the music business. She gave it up for the 13 more years that she stayed with him, a decision she later regretted.
In the 1970s she put together a band called the Variations and began performing again in the Southern Virginia area where she has always resided, apart from a few years in Akron, Ohio. Then, in 1979, European tour offers started coming in, after Bear Family Records had reissued her complete 1956-60 recordings on two LP's. At first Martin could hardly believe it and it took her a few years to gather her nerve and return to the road. But in 1982, on her 42nd birthday, she played her first date in England and was stunned. "I wasn't prepared for what I found there! I looked down and saw kids with crew cuts and leather jackets and the big 'poodle' skirts. It was really weird. Like stepping back twenty-five years in my own life!" After that, she became a regular visitor to Europe.
Rockhouse in Holland and Hydra in Germany have recorded and released some of her live performances. But, apart from two singles on the Big Dutch label in 1977 and a duet with Rosie Flores in 1995, there were no new studio recordings. Janis Martin died of cancer in 2007, aged 67. A unique figure in the history of rockabilly had gone. She was good and she left behind the records to prove it.
More info :
Discography : http://koti.mbnet.fi/wdd/janismartin.htm (by Pete Hoppula)
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