Janis Martin was an anomaly during the 1950s. A girl-next-door type who could sing with the fury of a 30-year-old divorcee, she was dubbed the "Female Elvis." Recording for RCA during the same era as Presley's rise to national prominence, the rockabilly tracks she laid down put her in the same league, artistically speaking, with Wanda Jackson and Brenda Lee, although she never sold as many records. A seasoned pro by the age of 15, she was a has-been by the age of 20, and her career languished in obscurity until a resourceful record collector rediscovered her.
A Child Performer
Born March 27, 1940, in Southerlin, Virginia, Janis Martin spent the first eight years of her life in Akron, Ohio, before moving back to Virginia. Her mother and father were amateur musicians, as was a live-in uncle who played guitar and sang country music. She could play guitar by the age of six and began performing on an amateur basis when she was eight. "I had a typical show-business mother who put me in the music business when I was eight years old," she recalled to Randy Fox of Nashville Scene. "I was never allowed to play with other children my age. She was grooming me."
This grooming entailed making the rounds of all the amateur contests. Martin recalled winning 200 of them. The money was non-existent and the prizes worthless to anyone but a child, but all the hard work eventually paid off. "That built up until I was in statewide contests," she told Greg Milewski of Cat Tales.
Radio was still king when Martin became a member of the Old Dominion Barndance, which was broadcast over the CBS network every Saturday night. The exposure created a great demand for the youngster, but her parents wisely kept young Janis from touring too early. When not playing local gigs with the likes of Sonny James, Jean Shepard, Hawkshaw Hawkins and the Carter Sisters, she hosted her own radio program on WHEE in Martinsville, Virginia. These early broadcast experiences helped the singer develop professional poise and confidence, but it was a new trend in popular music called rock 'n' roll that would change the course of her life.
The Female Elvis
Martin usually sang a lot of country and bluegrass songs during her live shows. As a small child she had liked Eddy Arnold, Patti Page, and up-tempo numbers by Hank Williams. However, like many teenagers of the era, she began to discover rhythm and blues. She told Howard A. DeWitt of Blue Suede News, "By the time I joined the Old Dominion Barndance and was starting to get up into my teens, I didn't feel comfortable singing those old bluegrass and traditional country tunes. I wanted to sing some Ruth Brown or Lavern Baker songs."
Once Martin began to belt out rhythm and blues with a country beat, she achieved the same rockabilly groove that Elvis Presley had hit at Sun records. Suddenly, she was a sock act stealing the show from established stars with her renditions of Dinah Washington hits and a crowd pleasing romp through Ruth Brown's "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean."
Record labels had been courting Martin for years prior to her stylistic breakthrough. All were summarily rejected by her protective parents. Yet once her new style began to catch on, they relented and allowed RCA to sign the 15-year-old sensation.
Elvis Presley had already topped the national charts with "Heartbreak Hotel," so Sholes decided to set Martin up with many of the same musicians. These included such Nashville legends as Floyd Cramer, Grady Martin, Hank Garland, Bob Moore Buddy Harman, and producer/guitarist Chet Atkins. For her first session the singer wrote a Bill Haley-meets-rockabilly bopper titled "Drugstore Rock 'n' Roll." Loaded with teen observations and malt shop jive, the lyrics fueled a first-rate dance record. But RCA felt stronger about "Willya William," a song that featured a cutesy, almost pre-teen lyric. Martin's brassy rockabilly phrasing made it sound less a coy suggestion than a brassy command. The recording became the singer's only national Top 40 hit, reaching number 35 on the charts.
From the start, RCA billed Martin as the "Female Elvis Presley." The singer accepted the decision but didn't like it. "I think the 'Female Elvis' bit was a hindrance," she told Nashville Scene. "The audience expected a lot of the hip gyrations like he did, and I got kind of tired of being called vulgar. It put a lot of pressure on me." Nonetheless, the appellation stuck until RCA released an album titled Janis and Elvis, at which time Presley's manager Col. Tom Parker pulled the plug on the campaign. Ironically, the rare album would be a key factor in Martin's rediscovery.
Rockabilly music was controversial in its day. Pop music stars didn't know what to make of the beat or the audiences that dug it, and established country stars like Porter Wagoner tried to dissuade performers like Martin from doing it at all. Once, after Martin upstaged Wagoner at a country show, he refused to let her ride with his group to the next town. Yet, whether she sang on TV programs like the Ozark Jubilee and American Bandstand, toured on package shows headlined by country singer Jim Reeves, opened for Pat Boone, or gigged with her group the Marteens, the young belter thrilled audiences with her youthful barefoot dancing on stage and spirited vocalizing. Unfortunately, none of her on stage popularity translated into national radio airplay.
From both Nashville and New York, Martin recorded the songs that became the backbone of her legend. These included "All Right Baby," Roy Orbison's "Ooby Dooby," and "Barefoot Baby." Yet, it was her tribute to Presley, a star she met briefly only twice, that remains her chief claim to fame with rockabilly afficionados. Boasting a raw stop-time rhythm and a panting sexual declaration, "My Boy Elvis" was a tribute record nearly on a par with Presley's own sensational work. It did not become a national hit. Like most of her releases, the disc sold well in the three-state region around Virginia and was popular on personal appearance tours, but radio wouldn't touch it. As a result, when she became pregnant, the young star hadn't accumulated enough commercial clout to keep RCA's support.
Martin had been secretly married to her childhood sweetheart, Tommy Cundiff, since she was 15 years old. The singer's family knew, but neither RCA nor her managers knew about the nuptials. The secret was safe until she became pregnant in 1957. RCA continued to record her and release singles, but with little promotional fanfare. Quickly, even her regional sales dissipated. In early 1958 the label booked a final session, which resulted in the remarkable pop-rocker "Bang Bang," before canceling her contract. She was only 18.
For the Record …
Born Janis Darlene Martin on March 27, 1940, in Southerlin, VA; daughter of Lucas and Jewel Martin; married three times; husbands' names, Tommy Cundiff, Ken Parton, Dwayne Whitt; children: Kevin (with Cundiff).
Rockabilly and country singer, 1954–; began career as cast member of the WDVA Barndance radio program in Danville, VA, 1951; became member of the Old Dominion Barndance on WRVA in Richmond, VA, 1953; recorded for RCA records, 1956–59; appeared on various network television shows, including American Bandstand, Ozark Jubilee, The Today Show, and The Tonight Show, 1956–60; appeared on The Big "D" Jamboree and Grand Ole Opry radio shows, 1956; recorded for Belgium-based Pallette label, 1960; rediscovered by record collector Ed Bayes and toured overseas, 1974; reissued old recordings on Bear Family, 1987–2006; recorded a mix of live and new material for Hydra Records, mid-1990s, appeared in Beth Harrington's documentary The Women of Rockabilly—Welcome to the Club, 2001.
Awards: Billboard Magazine, Most Promising Female Artist, 1956; inducted into Roctober Magazine's Hall of Dynamic Greatness, 1996; inducted into Rockabilly Hall of Fame, 2001.
Addresses: Record company—Bear Family, P.O. Box 1154, Hambergen, Germany D-27727, website: http://www.bear-family.de; e-mail: [email protected] Website—Janis Martin Official Website: http://www.myspace.com/femaleelvis.
Rediscovered By A Record Collector
Despite a fairly popular tribute song by the Rock-a-Teens called "Janis Will Rock," Martin had a tough time finding a new label. Finally, in 1960, she recorded four songs for the Belgium-based Pallette label in Nashville. "By the time I went into the studio for the Pallette sessions," she told Blue Suede News, "I was divorced and married for a second time." Initially thrilled by his wife's career, second husband Ken Parton eventually demanded that she stay home and raise a family. She told Cat Tales, "I really didn't miss it until I was 26."
While raising her family, Martin worked as the assistant manager of a local country club in Danville, Virginia. As a hobby, she would perform at local pubs and parties around the area. The singer divorced Parton in 1970 and made a half-hearted stab at resuming her singing career in Nashville, but despite encouragement from performers such as Chet Atkins, her heart wasn't in it, and she soon returned home. She might have stayed forgotten had it not been for a record collector named Ed Bayes, who had loved her music since the moment he had purchased a copy of "Willya William." Learning that the singer was living in the Danville, Virginia, area, Bayes decided to call the local sheriff's office and ask if they knew Martin's whereabouts. "A young woman answered the phone and took my call," Bayes recalled. "I explained what I was trying to do and then gave her the name of the person I was searching for. To my surprise, the young lady I was talking to happened to be Janis Darlene Parton, better known as Janis Martin."
Peppering her with questions, Bayes told Martin about the resurgence of rockabilly music—a term the singer never heard during the 1950s—and wrote an article about her for Goldmine that reintroduced the singer to curious fans all across the world. While he was visiting the singer at her home, she picked up a guitar and began strumming out her old RCA and Palette material. "I was taken aback because she sounded like the recordings," admired Bayes. "Her voice was as crystal clear as the barefoot girl who performed on stage in the '50s."
In 1977 Martin recorded a rocked up version of "I'm Movin' On" for her own Big Dutch label, and a couple of sides from her aborted Nashville return were released on the Hydra label. They weren't hits, but fans and collectors snapped them up. The best development was the Germany-based Bear Family's re-release of all her RCA material, which precipitated Martin's first wildly successful overseas tour.
Despite constant demand from fans, there is very little new recorded material from Martin. She recorded a live concert and a few studio tunes for the 1994 Hydra album Here I Am, including an impressive new song, "Hard Rockin' Mama," and made a guest appearance on Rosie Flores's Rockabilly Filly Album. But, disappointed by the reaction of collector/fans who prefer the old tunes and original style, she has become ambivalent about recording at all. "She never wanted to make music her career," reported Bayes. "The couple of tours each year in Europe is all she wanted."
Buoyed by the success of her association with Beth Harrington's critically acclaimed documentary Welcome to the Club, Martin is better known now than she has been anytime since the 1950s, but she is making no plans to capitalize on her newfound fame. "I could probably make a living [touring]," she told Nashville Scene. "But I have the best of both worlds. I've got a career, I've got a happy life, and I realize that whatever I do now is gravy."
"Willya William," RCA, 1956.
The Female Elvis—Complete Recordings 1955–60, Bear Family, 1987.
(With Rosie Flores) Rockabilly Filly, Hightone, 1995.
The Sensitive Sound of Dionne Warwick, Scepter, 1965.
Here I Am, Scepter, 1965.
(With various artists) The Gals of the Big "D" Jamboree, Dragon Street, 2001.
Here I Am, Hydra, 2001.
Outtakes Plus, Bear Family, 2006.
The Women of Rockabilly: Welcome to the Club, M2k, 2004.
Morrison, Craig, Go Cat Go! Rockabilly Music and Its Makers, University of Illinois Press, 1996; new rev. edition, 1995.
Poore, Billy, Rockabilly—A Forty-Year Journey, Hal Leonard, 1998.
Blue Suede News, Winter 1997/1998.
Nashville Scene, December 3, 1998.
"Janis Martin," Black Cat Rockabilly, http://www.rockabilly.nl (July 28, 2006).
"Janis Martin Interview—Swiped from Cat Tales #20, 1993," Welcome to the Club, http://www.pbs.org/itvs/welcometotheclub/rock.html (July 28, 2006).
Additional information for this profile was provided through an e-mail interview with Martin's discoverer and former manager, Ed Bayes.