Janis Martin passed away last fall to little fanfare and re-action by the American music buying public. However, fifty years ago she was publicized and recognized as the female Elvis Presley.
The RCA label signed Janis Martin to a recording contract a couple of months after Elvis. She was just shy of her 16th birthday. One similarity she bore to the king was that she same out of the country rockabilly tradition, but it was her stage act that inspired RCA to crown her with the title of the female Elvis Presley. This would prove an impossible moniker for Janis Martin to live up too. Later in life, she would always say that Carl Perkins was her favorite artist.
She issued the single “Will You Willyum” in 1956 and it became a hit, reaching the American top forty charts and ultimately selling close to a million copies. The flip side, “Drugstore Rock ‘N’ Roll” was written by Martin, proving that she could produce a well constructed song. Her second single, “My Boy Elvis,” was an attempt to cash in on the Presley legacy and it did not sell well. Her first full album featured many of the musicians that were playing for Elvis at the time. Guitar players Chet Atkins and Grady Martin, piano player Floyd Cramer and bassist Bob Moore all provided instrumental support for Janis. Her first album was even produced by Steve Sholes, who would go on to produce many of Elvis’ releases.
Janis Martin’s success would be short lived. Musically, she was a rockabilly artist. She was never able to move over to true rock ‘n’ roll nor was she able to produce a classic country sound. She remained stuck in the middle. Personally I like rockabilly but it has always been a niche sound. Elvis quickly moved to rock and then to pop while Martin did not have that flexibility. Also, she got married at 16 and had a child. This soured the RCA label on her commercial possibilities and she was dropped from their roster by the end of the decade. She recorded for a couple of minor labels for a few years but disappeared from the music scene until 1975. She spent the last 30 years of her life performing in small clubs and overseas.
The best CD retrospective of her career is The Female Elvis: Complete Recordings 1956-1960. This CD combines her RCA tracks and some from a few small labels. If you are a rockabilly aficionado, a student of the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, or just like good music, this CD and Janis Martin are a must. Janis had a powerful, classic voice with no twang. She produced slick music that was approachable and exciting. Her three single releases are included as are such rockabilly gems as “Ooby Dooby,” “Love and Kisses” and the classic “Let’s Elope Baby.” Thirty tracks are presented here which just about covers her entire output during this period of her life.
Janis Martin died of breast cancer on September 3, 2007. She really never received her due as she was a pioneer in American country and rock music at the time. She, Patsy Cline, and Wanda Jackson were some of the very few women making an impact in these fields of music. While I have been presenting a series on Elvis Presley, Janis Martin is a worthy stop along the way, given the comparison. Give her music a listen, you won’t be disappointed.