I wanted to share with you this week one of my favorite (and I mean favorite) female Rockabilly singers, that you may or may not of heard of – Janis Martin-the Female Elvis.
Janice was one of the few women working in the male-dominated rock and roll music field during the 1950s and one of country music’s early female innovators.
The Early Days:
Born March 27th, 1940 in Sutherlin, Virginia into a musical family (her father and uncle were both musicians and her mother a stage mother), Janis quickly became a hard-working performer. Even at the tender age of 4 she was playing the guitar by standing it up like a fiddle as she was too small to hold it on her lap and by age six, had mastered the basic chords and began singing. Although she was small her voice was loud and strong.
At age 8, she entered her first talent contest and placed second. For the next two years, she entered eleven contests over a three-state area, winning first place in each one, and winning over 200 or more contestants in a statewide talent show that took four days of elimination (Source).
At age 11, she began her career as a member of the WDVA Barndance in Danville, Virginia. The show was on every Saturday night and was broadcast from an actual barn and after the show was done all the chairs would be pushed back and actual dance would take place. Hence how it got its name “WDVA Barndance”.
Janice continued to focus on Country music in her early days, moving from MDVA onto the road with Glen Thompson (mentioned in the image above) and then eventually being invited to be a regular member at the 3rd largest Barndance in the nation – the Old Dominion Barndance in Richmond, Virginia, ranking only behind the Grand Old Opry and the Wheeling, West Virginia Barndance (source).
Eventually though by her mid-teens Janice was growing tired of the slow ballads of country music and wanted to get into Rock n Roll. She was about to get lucky….
Janis becomes a recording artist at the age of 15
Two staff announcers at WRVA (the station that carried the Barndance over the CBS network) were successful songwriters and wrote the song “Will You, Willyum”. They asked Janis to sing it on the Barndance for audience reaction, where they would cut a demo tape to send to their publisher in New York. When the demo tape arrived at Tannen Music in New York, the publisher not only accepted the song but sent the song to Steve Sholes, producer at RCA Victor and asked whether Sholes had an artist to record “Will You Willyum”. Apparently Sholes replied, “Well, who’s the girl doin’ the demo?”
At age 15, Martin signed with RCA Victor in March 1956, just two months after Elvis Presley joined the label. She recorded “Will You Willyum” on March 8, 1956, backed by her own composition, “Drugstore Rock ‘n Roll“.
The song became the biggest hit of her career, selling 750,000 records and hitting the country and pop charts. Soon Martin was performing on American Bandstand, The Today Show and Tonight Starring Steve Allen. She also appeared on Jubilee USA, and the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, becoming one of the younger performers to ever appear. In 1957 Billboard named her Most Promising Female Vocalist of that year (source).
Elvis Presley and RCA were so impressed with her stage presence, they dubbed her the Female Elvis. A nickname that would come to haunt her.
Ironically, “The Female Elvis” only had two brief encounters with her male counterpart. “I said hello to him backstage at a show in Danville, Va., once,” she recalls, “and later I ran into him in New York at RCA’s studio. He said, ‘How’s it goin’?’ I said, ‘Fine, how about you?’ He said, ‘It’s rough!’ That’s about all the words we ever exchanged. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t all that impressed with Elvis at first. I’ve always liked Carl Perkins better.”
In fact, Martin says, she was never all that keen on being cast in Presley’s mold. “I think ‘The Female Elvis’ bit was a hindrance–the audience expected a lot of hip gyrations like he did, and I got kind of tired of being called vulgar. It put a lot of pressure on me (source).”
Janis was chosen by RCA to tour as a member of the Jim Reeves show and continued recording rock and roll and country material that ended up being successful on both charts, including “My Boy Elvis“, “Let’s Elope Baby“, her cover of Roy Orbison’s song “Ooby Dooby”, and “Love Me to Pieces” (source).
In 1957 after a USO tour in Europe it was reveled that Janis Martin at the age of 15 (2 years earlier) had secretly married a young US paratrooper who was stationed in Germany. They kept their marriage secret (only their parents knew) until the USO tour where she met up with her husband and ended up conceiving. RCA discovered the pregnancy and dropped their “Teenage Star” from the label in 1958.
Fall from Stardom and a Career Resurgence
For all of her early success, Martin was never able to sustain a rock & roll career, her gender and changing times hindered her success. Her stage moves and lusty delivery appeared unseemly appeared vulgar to a lot of people. Additionally, the country shows on which she was booked usually put her on bills and in front of audiences that weren’t overly enamored of rock & roll to begin with, and Martin found herself caught between conflicting currents. Her record company and management wanted her to keep pushing rockabilly in her stage act, while promoters doing the bookings preferred that she do straight country.
By 1960 she was now on her 2nd marriage to a man who did not approve of her being in the music business, so she faded out of sight until 1970. After divorcing her husband she formed the band ‘The Variation’ and began performing again in the Southern Virginia area where she has always resided.
Then, in 1979, European tour offers started coming in, after Bear Family Records had reissued her complete 1956-60 recordings on two LP’s. Martin then would go onto perform in Europe and at major rockabilly shows across the United States for some time after that.
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 (source).
Sadly Janis died of cancer in 2007, leaving a powerful legacy of recordings and fans worldwide (source).
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, Janis is absolutely one of my all time favorite female singers. Her music is always in my mix of music, I tell anybody who would listen about her (it’s true!) and after I saw Rosie Flores (who actually did a duet with Janis in 1997) and Marti Brom perform her music at VIVA I have been incredibly hooked. If I had any sort of musical ability, Janis would be my inspiration.
I will now leave you with one of the performances from VIVA 16 that Rosie and Marti performed. Enjoy!