In 2004, I worked for a free bi-weekly magazine in Richmond, VA called Wadi. I was one of two music journalists, and I mainly covered the history of rockabilly and country music in my hometown. The following is an article I wrote from April 5, 2004 on one of the first female rockabillies, Virginia’s own Janis Martin. Some information has been updated. Enjoy!
Janis Martin was a unique figure in the history of rockabilly. Though her career was cut short by controversy, she left behind some first rate rockabilly!
Janis Martin was born in Sutherlin, Virginia on March 27, 1940. With a stage mother and a father and uncle who were musicians, she was playing and singing before age five. By six she’d mastered all the chords on her guitar, and was singing in the style of the popular country & western stars on the radio at the time.
Martin became a fixture in local talent contests, and won all of them. She was playing and singing on the WRVA Barn Dance (out of Richmond) by age 11. By her mid-teens, she’d appeared with stars the likes of Ernest Tubb, the Carter Family, Sonny James, and Jean Shepard.
From the Barn Dance, she traveled with Glen Thompson’s band for two years, and the went on the road with Jim Eanes. In 1953 she appeared at the Tobacco Festival with Ernest Tubb and Sunshine Sue. Thanks to this appearance, Janis was invited to become a regular member of the Old Dominion Barn Dance being broadcast from Richmond.
Martin had grown bored with country music by her mid-teens, especially with the slow ballads. It was then she discovered the new sound of “rhythm & blues.”
Two staff announcers at WRVA were successful songwriters. They asked Janis to sing their new rock song Will You Willyum on the Barn Dance and cut a demo tape. When the tape arrived at Tannen Music in New York, the publisher not only accepted the song but rushed it over to Steve Sholes of RCA Victor. Sholes contacted Janis and invited her to Nashville to re-record the song for RCA.
At just fifteen, Janis became a recording artist. On the flip side of Will You Willyum was a song called Drugstore Rock & Roll that Janis wrote herself. The record sold 750,000 copies, and she was in constant demand for appearances all over the U.S.
Elvis Presley, fellow RCA recording artist, was so impressed with Janis that he gave RCA permission to promote her under the title “the female Elvis”. She once played with the King and tried to meet with him after the show and he ignored her as he was leaving the venue. Elvis felt so bad about it that at her next performance he left a bouquet of roses in her dressing room. Such was her love for Elvis, that she cut a song in September of ‘56 called My Boy Elvis. Interestingly enough, in 1958 The Rock*A*Teens (of Woo Hoo fame) had their own tribute record-Janis Will Rock!
Janis traveled all over nation, making appearances on TV, radio, and stage. She played her first road tour with Hank Snow and went on to play with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and many others.
Janis was voted the “Most Promising Female Artist of 1956” by Billboard Magazine. She formed her own band, the “Mar-Teens”, and began touring the U.S. and Canada. She even shot a screen test for MGM.
In 1958, controversy struck Janis’ career. She’d been secretly married since 1956 to man serving overseas. She met up with him while on tour in Europe in 1958. The result was a pregnant seventeen year-old rockabilly star! RCA dropped her from the label.
When her son was two, Martin tried to restart her music career and was asked to sign with both King and Decca Records. Eventually she decided to sign with a Belgian label called Palette, for which she cut four records in 1960. She was on her second marriage by then, and husband No. 2 didn’t respect her career. She left music with the exception of occasional appearances near her home in Virginia. In the 1970’s, after divorcing husband No. 2 she formed a new band called the “Variations” and toured Europe. She went over very well, and the crowd excepted her like it was 1956 all over again.
For all of her early success however, Martin was never able to sustain a music career. This most likely had to do with her gender. Her stage moves and lusty delivery were considered unseemly for a teenage girl. Additionally Martin found herself caught between conflicting interests. Her record company and management wanted her to play rock music, while concert promoters preferred that she sing country music. For the last few years of her life she ran a golf course in Danville, Virginia, and occasionally toured with the “Variations”. Janis Martin died on September 3, 2007 at 67 years old after battling cancer. Cheers, to a true Rock & Roll trailblazer! One that I’m proud to say comes from my home state…