Janis Martin

Singer known as 'the female Elvis'
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The Independent Online

Janis Darlene Martin, rockabilly singer: born Sutherlin, Virginia 27 March 1940; three times married (one son deceased); died Danville, Virginia 3 September 2007.

The fact that Janis Martin was once called "the female Elvis" shows that, for a few months at least, she was regarded as a contender. Martin was a fine performer, every bit as good as Wanda Jackson and Brenda Lee: she used top-flight Nashville musicians such as Chet Atkins and Floyd Cramer: and she was on RCA, the same label as Presley.

Martin blamed herself for her lack of commercial success, although stronger songs would have helped. "If I had been more dedicated, it might have happened," she told me in 2004.

I was anxious to get back home and go to the prom and do normal things. I wasn't into music as a career, but I loved to perform. I don't think I could have matched Wanda Jackson because she was so gorgeous and such a sex bomb. I was a little skinny teenage girl and I was more jealous of her looks than her hits.

Janis Darlene Martin was born in Sutherlin, Virginia in 1940, but the family soon moved to Danville, Virginia. She played guitar from the age of four, and won several talent contests. In 1953, she became a regular at the Old Dominion Barndance in Richmond, Virginia, which was broadcast on the radio station WRVA. Many country stars appeared on the show – Jean Shepard, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Sonny James – and they encouraged her to become fully professional when she left school. It happened faster than that.

"I heard Elvis when he was still recording for Sun and that was my kind of music," she remembered.

I wasn't that keen on the country music of the day as most of it was slow ballads. I had discovered the R&B singer Ruth Brown, and I started singing her songs on the country stages where the only rock instruments were a snare drum and a cymbal.

Martin described how distinctive she seemed. "I was so different to what everybody else was doing," she said.

I was a little country girl, and my mother thought I should wear big dresses with four or five crinolines under them. I would keep my high heels on until I got on stage and then I would kick them off. You have to understand the innocence of those times: that was like someone stripping today. Some people thought I was vulgar.

An announcer at WRVA, Carl Stutz, had written the million-selling "Little Things Mean a Lot". Martin recorded a demonstration record of his rockabilly song, "Will You Willyum", which impressed Steve Sholes at RCA, who had just signed Presley. Her first session in Nashville in March 1956 featured Chet Atkins (lead guitar), Grady Martin (rhythm guitar), Floyd Cramer (piano), Bob Moore (bass) and Buddy Harman (drums). Not daunted by this talent, the 15-year-old Martin gave four fine performances including her own song, "Drugstore Rock'*'Roll".

RCA then dubbed Martin "the female Elvis". "I wasn't unhappy with that," she said. "A publicity agent told Steve Sholes that I moved like Elvis Presley. I had never seen Elvis perform and he said, 'She has the same rhythm.' "

Sholes contacted Elvis's manager "Colonel" Tom Parker and secured his permission to use Elvis's name. "They sent me to an RCA convention in Miami to introduce me to the reps," Martin said, "and when I got off the plane, I found that Elvis had sent me two dozen red roses. He always sent me a Christmas card, but I only met him twice."

To further the link, Janis recorded "My Boy Elvis", and Janis and Elvis, a 10-inch LP released in South Africa that now fetches thousands of pounds. "Colonel Parker was not happy as nobody was allowed top billing over Elvis."

Martin received a Billboard award as the Most Promising Artist of 1956, but there were problems. "I had married in January 1956, I was only 15 years old, but I kept it secret when I signed with RCA," she said.

I went overseas on a tour of US bases in 1957 and my husband was stationed over there as a paratrooper. He got a 30-day leave and my son was the result of that. RCA did not know I was married until my husband wanted to travel with us. I had my son when I was 17. I stayed on the road after he was born, but I needed to be a mother. I retired when I was 21.

By the time Janis settled down to a family life, she had divorced and remarried. Her second husband did not approve of her musical career, and she did nothing further until after they were divorced in 1973. Martin became the manager of a golf and country club in Danville and she used her holidays to play rockabilly shows and festivals. She said, "I love the fact that I can lead a normal life and do a normal job and come out and be Janis Martin once in a while."

In April, she completed recording on a new album, co-produced by Rosie Flores, but she cancelled a projected appearance at the Americana Festival in Newark, Nottinghamshire because of illness.

Spencer Leigh