The Other Janis

Saying goodbye to Janis Martin.

During the summer of 1981, I shared a big house on Baylor Street with roommates, including Alice Berry. Alice would go on to play with El Vez, Hillbilly Frankenstein, and Clouseaux before she started teaching Spanish at a Houston school but back then she was into rockabilly.

Boy howdy, was she into rockabilly. Every day the needle would be dropped on vinyl and the sounds of Wanda Jackson, Lori Collins, JoAnn Campbell, and Janis Martin echoed through the old house, bouncing off the stairs and sliding along wood floors. It wasn’t long before Alice herself started singing with the Trouble Boys (and landed that much-sought-after opening slot with the Clash on their “Know Your Rights” tour after Stevie Ray Vaughan was booed offstage in 1982) but that summer we were just in record heaven.

I already knew Wanda Jackson’s material so Janis Martin’s records were the most interesting to me, filled with songs like “Will You, Willyum,” “My Boy Elvis,” and “Ooby Dooby,” but I was impressed she had been signed to RCA, Elvis’ label, at age 15. A native of Virginia, Martin was groomed at an early age for stardom, incorporating R&B influences like Ruth Brown into otherwise white hillbilly rock. RCA jumped on her like a duck on a Junebug and billed her as “The Female Elvis.”

Martin sizzled onstage. Possessed of an edgy alto that easily matched Wanda Jackson and Brenda Lee for Southern sass, she sold over 750,000 copies of her first record and appeared on the Grand Ole Opry and American Bandstand, while Billboard called her its “Most Promising Female Vocalist for 1956.” But America wasn’t ready for a pregnant teenage female Elvis.

Secretly married to a soldier, Janis withdrew from the industry to raise her family. A few attempts to present a more mature image tanked and she fell into that bulging where-are-they-now file until the rockabilly revival of the late Seventies and early Eighties. She played her first date in England on her 42nd birthday and finally began to receive a modicum of the respect she was long due as a genuine pioneer of rock & roll.

As early as 1998, Rosie Flores spoke publicly of wanting to produce Martin and drafted her for the Rockabilly Filly album. Earlier this year, Flores’ dream came true and the two went into the studio together. On August 27, Flores sent out the email announcing that the cancer Martin knew she had was fatal:

“As some of you know, Janis recently agreed to let me produce, with Bobby Trimble, a brand new CD of 10 rock & roll songs of her choice. Backed by an amazing lineup of musicians, including Bobby, from Austin, Texas, we all gathered at a friend’s home studio in Blanco, and in three days finished a body of work that she is very proud of and excited about. Only three months prior to recording in Texas she had to endure the loss of her son who passed away in January from a brain aneurysm. With all her heart and soul she sang with as much energy and intensity as she ever had. We all feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to share many great moments with such an amazing artist and beautiful person.”

On Monday, September 3, Janis Martin died in Durham, North Carolina at age 67. What might have been her comeback album will now be her epitaph.

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Janis Martin, Rosie Flores

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