Janis Martin was born in 1940 in southern Virginia. She had a precocious start in music: by the time she was a preteen, she could be heard on WDVA’s Barndance in Danville, Virginia, and on Old Dominion Barndance out of Richmond. Although she found her earliest performing opportunities in country music, she harbored a love for R&B. “Ruth Brown,” she told the Washginton Post in 1990 “was my favorite. … I don’t know what it was—the rhythm, the feeling—it was just my kind of music.”
For a brief period during the heyday of rockabilly, it seemed almost unquestioned in the music business that King Elvis should have a queen. Steve Sholes of RCA Victor, the producer who purchased Presley’s contract from Sam Phillips, seemed particularly determined to add a “female Elvis” to his roster. RCA promoted at least two artists under that epithet: Janis Martin became the second in 1956, following Jean Chapel. Martin received heavy promotion. In 1958, RCA even released a 10” LP entitled Janis and Elvis, which featured four songs by each singer. While she was honored by the comparison to Presley, Janis also felt that the description “female Elvis” deprived her of her own identity.
Although her musical style may have been comparable to Presley’s, RCA crafted an extremely wholesome, “girl next door” image for Martin. In publicity photos, she wore her hair long and curly; often sported a calf-length dress with puffy sleeves and a full skirt; and is often seen posed casually with an acoustic guitar—and extremely good posture.
Her songs, however, were not always congruous with cherubic image. While her most successful songs, “Drugstore Rock ’n’ Roll” (which Martin wrote) and “Will You, Willyum” are fairly innocuous and typical of teenybopper pop, some of the other sides she was given to record push the envelope for a young, white female singer in the 1950s. “Cracker Jack,” recorded in 1958, features a bridge section that begins: “No one can make love compared to the way you do / Your swell technique can’t be beat.” After pronouncing this, Martin pauses—leaving us to wonder what she is up to while not singing—and the space is filled with a euphemistic guitar gesture that distinctly gives the impression of pushing forward and then pulling back. “Bang Bang,” which was released in 1958 as the work of “Janis and Her Boyfriends,” is even less subtle. Each verse ends with the tag “So if you feel you’d like to make a deal / cock your pistol and root toot toot,” and the chorus that follows is nothing but the word “bang” repeated sixteen times. In “Let’s Elope Baby” (1956) she sings about a desire to flout paternal authority: “The man in the car said, how about a ride / I’ll give you a lift, she’ll be your bride / What you say baby, let’s go right now / Who gives a hoot what pa don’t allow.”
Martin admits that the image RCA crafted for her—that “girl next door” look—was removed from not only her music, but some of the realities of her private life: she was secretly married at the age of fifteen and pregnant with her first child within three years. She recalls that RCA suggested an abortion; when she refused, the label dropped her for, as she told documentarian Beth Harrinton: “[bursting] the whole teenage image that they had created.” Given some of the material they gave her to record, this seemed hypocritical to Martin: she was encouraged to sing about elopement, but not forgiven for actually eloping. Her 1958 sides, the last she cut for the label, were made while she was pregnant. She briefly recorded for Palette records before largely retiring from the music business.
In the late 1970s, Martin’s music made a comeback in compilations and boxed sets put together by European reissue labels including Bear Family Records. All of Janis Martin’s thirty or so sides have been reissued at least once, while her original 1950s discs became prized as collector’s items. Martin soon found herself once again fielding invitations to perform live, and she was also coaxed back into the recording studio by second-generation rockabilly Rosie Flores: Martin contributed vocals to Flores’s 1995 album Rockabilly Filly. Flores also produced Martin’s first—and last—full-length studio album. The two recorded the album in Blanco, Texas, in 2007, shortly before Martin’s death of lung cancer. Flores couldn’t find a label that wanted to put out the recording, so she used Kickstarter to raise enough funds to finish and distribute the album. The Blanco Sessions was finally released in 2012.
“Drug Store Rock and Roll” / “Will You Willyum.” RCA Victor 47-6491 (1956).
“Ooby Dooby” / “One More Year to Go.” RCA Victor 47-6560 (1956).
“My Boy Elvis” / “Little Bit.” RCA Victor 47-6652 (1956).
“Barefoot Baby” / “Let’s Elope Baby.” RCA Victor 47-6744 (1956).
“Two Long Years” / “Love Me to Pieces.” RCA Victor 47-6832 (1957).
“Love and Kisses” / “I’ll Never Be Free.” RCA Victor 47-6983 (1957).
“All Right Baby” / “Billy Boy, Billy Boy.” RCA Victor 47-7104 (1957).
“Cracker Jack” / “Good Love.” RCA Victor 47-7184 (1958).
“Bang Bang” / “Please Be My Love.” RCA Victor 47-7318 (1958).
“Hard Times Ahead” / “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow.” Pallete PZ5058 (1960).
“Teen Street” / “Cry Guitar.” Palette PZ5071 (1961).
Mike Joyce, “Long Live Queen ‘Elvis’,” Washington Post, 23 February 1990.
Steve Appleford, “Rockabilly Redux,” Los Angles Times, 18 February 1994.
David Sanjek, “Can a Fujiyama Mama Be the Female Elvis? The Wild, Wild Women of Rockabilly,” in Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender, edited by Sheila Whiteley (New York: Routledge, 1997), 141.
Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K Oermann, Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music, 1800–2000 (Nashville, TN: The Country Music Foundation Press / Vanderbilt University Press, 2003)
Beth Harrington, “Janis Martin,” in The Women of Rockabilly: Welcome to the Club (M2k, 2004), DVD.
Jacki Lynn Della Rosa, “Hard Rockin’ Mamas: Female Rockabilly Artists of Rock’n’Roll’s First Generation, 1953-1960” (M.A. thesis, The Ohio State University, 2005), 86–92.
“Janis Martin, Singer Billed as the Female Elvis, Dies at 67,” Associated Press, 5 September 2007.
Rosie Flores, interview with the author, 13 July 2013.