Last week, a lady passed away at age 67 in a hospital not too far from her lifelong home in Virginia. Her death, along with a little of her history, was reported in the national media but didn’t make much of a ripple in the music world, and that’s a cryin’ shame. Her name was Janis Martin, and she was a powerhouse — an early rockabilly singer who is still remembered as “the female Elvis”.
The history of women in rockabilly is a subject that has started to draw some attention, and that’s reflected by a PBS special that aired not too long ago. Janis was featured in that show, as were a few other early female country/rock singers, such as Wanda Jackson and Brenda Lee, who had similar sounds. But Janis also had the on-stage moves and style that earned her the Elvis comparison, although the nickname was probably both a blessing and a curse. It was tough to live up to, but there’s little doubt that it gave her something that set her apart from her contemporaries and made her a budding star — until she ran into problems with the moral codes of the 1950’s.
Growing up in rural Virginia as part of a musical family, Janis was a natural. She was so talented that she regularly won amateur contests while still in grade school, and began appearing on the radio as a pre-teen. By the time she was in her teens, she’d appeared with Ernest Tubb, Sonny James, and the Carter Family.
She not only played the guitar and sang, but she composed too, and after hearing a demo of one of her compositions, RCA signed her to a recording contract. That led to her first hit, “Drugstore Rock ‘N Roll,” which was a perfect fit for teenagers’ tastes in music at that time. It was about then that she began to be compared to another young RCA star, Elvis Presley, and press agents began using her new nickname, the female Elvis. It’s been said that Elvis (or Colonel Parker) gave his approval, although RCA might have helped a little.
Ironically, Janis always said that she’d developed her own singing style before she ever saw Elvis perform, but she certainly did have similarities, including the strong, soulful voice and on-stage presence. In any case, Janis got a lot of publicity and had several best-selling records, including the obvious tie-in “My Boy Elvis,” and “Will You, Willyum.” She seemed to be on her way to super-stardom, with appearances on TV and the Grand Ole Opry, and was voted Billboard’s Most Promising Female Vocalist.
Unfortunately, two pitfalls appeared in her path to stardom. First, she was a little too modern for the conservative country music audiences attending the shows she mostly performed in — her bouncing moves and lusty singing made them a little uneasy. On the other hand, she couldn’t easily find spots in rock and roll shows, which were mostly interested in the male performers. She found herself in a sort of musical limbo. Although that was a problem, there was a second pitfall creating an obstacle to Janis’ future. In the 1950’s even the appearance of impropriety could damage an entertainer’s career, and when the 16 year-old singer got married in 1956 she knew that it needed to be kept a secret. As time passed, her husband went into the service and was stationed in Europe, but he and Janis still found time to get together and she later realized she was pregnant.
Even though she was almost eighteen by then and legally married, it still created a stir and RCA fired her. It was unfair but that’s how things were done at that time, and it marked the beginning of the end of stardom for her. She continued singing and performing and eventually found a new record company, but never again reached stardom.
In later years, she made occasional forays into performing but with limited success. However, she remained a strong and lively voice in the history of early rock and roll, appearing in interviews and as one of the main voices of the PBS documentary. Janis Martin, the female Elvis, was pretty special even without the nickname.