Saturday, June 12, 2010

Janis Martin - The Female Elvis

Janis Martin was a unique figure in the history of rockabilly. There were other women working in that male-dominated field (Lorrie Collins for one), but Martin was the one dubbed 'the Female Elvis Presley' by RCA, reportedly with the approval of Colonel Tom Parker. This was probably the kiss of death, evoking images so contradictory that no one could really hold it properly in their mind. The fact that she was signed to RCA probably didn't hurt, but as a hot-rocking female in a field where men's libidinal gyrations weren't approved, she had too many strikes against her for a lasting career. She was good, though, and she left behind the records to prove it.

Martin was born in Sutherlin, VA, in 1940 and had a stage mother on one side and a father and uncle who were amateur musicians on the other, a mix that practically made her predestined for a performing career. She was playing and singing before age five. By six, she'd mastered chords on her junior-sized guitar and was singing in a style influenced by Eddy Arnold and Hank Williams. She became a fixture in local talent contests and won all of them. Martin was playing and singing on the WDVA Barndance out of Virginia by age 11. By her mid-teens, she'd appeared alongside the likes of Ernest Tubb, the Carter Family, Sonny James, and Jean Shepard.

Her amazing amount of experience for one so young helped push her into rock & roll. It turned out that Martin had tired of country music by her mid-teens, especially the slow ballads, having been doing them for a decade. Her timing was perfect, for she discovered R&B in the mid-'50s and was soon bringing that material into her own song lists. RCA A&R chief Steve Sholes heard one of her demos and Martin was signed to the label at age 15, only two months after Elvis was signed up.

'Drugstore Rock 'n Roll,' a Martin original, was her debut record and her biggest hit, selling some 750,000 copies. By the middle of 1956, she was making the rounds of the Today Show, The Tonight Show, and other variety programs, as well as appearing on the Grand Ole Opry, and was voted Most Promising Female Vocalist in Billboard, the record industry's bible.

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