Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine

Rosie Flores rescues Janis Martin

Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

1995 was a milestone year for Rosie Flores.

Rockabilly Filly traced her journey of roots reinvigoration from San Antonio to San Diego, Los Angeles, Nashville, and finally Austin, while also kickstarting the resurgence of Fifties singer Wanda Jackson. Filly's other duet teaming also lured a second rockabilly songbird out of obscurity: Janis Martin.

Jackson still enjoys the benefits of that mid-Nineties boost, which peaked last year when Jack White produced her comeback, The Party Ain't Over. Thanks to a lengthy career on Capitol Records, her firecracker repertoire of twang and country remains remembered and preserved. Almost without fail, you can find her firing up the Continental Club on an annual basis.

Janis Martin's story contrasts vividly.

As a teenager nicknamed "The Female Elvis," she signed to Presley's home label, RCA Records, in the Fifties under the watchful eye of Colonel Tom Parker. At 17, her secret came out: She'd been married for two years, and was pregnant. Despite her talent and potential, Martin was unceremoniously dropped by RCA and slipped from the spotlight for nearly 30 years.

Spurred by Rockabilly Filly, Flores also moved on, touring and recording, including 2009's acclaimed Girl of the Century for Chicago's Bloodshot Records (see "Gypsy Rose," Aug. 10, 2007). Yet her experience with Martin lingered. In 2011, she contacted her for a recording session.

Flores' instincts were sharp, as they've always been for a pioneer of the alt.country movement. She brought Janis Martin to Blan­co for what became known as The Blanco Sessions. Flores' own Working Girl's Guitar was recorded in tandem, and she planned to go out on the road with both this fall.

Four months after completing The Blanco Sessions, Janis Martin died. That might have been the final chapter in a project for most musicians, but not Rosie Flores. She was determined to rewrite the ending her way.

Infinite Radio

Rosie Flores' office offers a cramped but organized room in the Southeast Austin duplex where she resides. A large desk and chair layered with cushions and flattened pillows lift the petite Flores to the right height to work. Behind that, there are dark wooden bookshelves teeming with scrapbooks preserving brittle yellow newspaper clippings, faded photographs, gig posters, and assorted memorabilia just as at home in a teenage girl's room as that of a professional musician.

Family and history are close to Flores' heart, evident in her conversation and the mosaic of images and objects that decorate her home, some of it dating back to the singer's youth. She treasures these as she does the memories of growing up in San Antonio, with parents who encouraged her and her brother to sing and play. A track her father recorded of her as a child appeared on Rockabilly Filly.

"My parents were fans of jazz, Mills Brothers, Peggy Lee, and I heard American Bandstand," explains Flores, "My father was a freak for Rodgers and Hammerstein. We saw all the musicals. Not so much conjunto."

From home consoles to cars, radio filled the ether of her childhood – a vast, infinite universe of faraway stations and local shows. The stations of San Antonio and South Texas in the Fifties were a Pandora's box of farm reports, syndicated variety shows, and country or pop programs by day, often turning to R&B at night, as on KMAC, or simply playing popular hits around the clock like KONO.

Elvis and Fats Domino dominated the South Texas charts, bolstered by a rich array of local and regional acts – Doug Sahm & the Markays, Publio & the Valiants, Sunny & the Sunglows – all clamoring for attention from teen audiences. Threaded through it all was a heavy bottom of slap bass, back beat, and the crooning voices of rockabilly, a sound that lingered in Flores' young memory.

When her parents Oscar and Irene moved their young family to San Diego, a new musical landscape unfolded for Rosie. Dick Dale, Beach Boys, and surf music filled her high school ears and redirected her interests.

"I had to go through the falling in love with the Beatles thing, falling in love with the Yardbirds and Jeff Beck and Stephen Stills and Jimi Hendrix and all these guitar players. I got enamored of guitar through my brother Roger, who taught me rhythm so he could practice Hendrix solos.

"Then I'd learn a few licks and knock on his door. He'd be like, 'Wow! You got that really fast!' It was easy. My fingers were already tough from playing rhythm, so it was just getting the licks. I was hungry to play guitar, and that's when Penelope's Children happened."

Bubblegum Guitars

Flores tenderly opens a scrapbook from the late Sixties detailing Penelope's Children. They were an all-girl band, a designation that carries more weight when you consider the years they performed. All-girl acts were a novelty by definition, while by 1968, the "girl group" trend was passé, belonging to the pre-Beatles era. No Internet connected them with sister acts like the Quatro sisters in Detroit (revisit "The Pleasure Seekers," July 29, 2011).

"I got the nerve to do a talent show at school," recalls Flores, thumbing through a decades-old mimeographed program. "It got me to do the band with the girls. I sewed every one of these Sgt. Pepper's outfits for us, sewed all those psychedelic pantsuits."

At 18, Flores had her sights set high and took advantage of family still living in San Antonio to book gigs at the Pusi-Kat Club during the World's Fair in 1968. Penelope's Children billed themselves in newspaper ads as country rock and blues, which seemed to land them more gigs.

"We went on tour, opened for Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Turtles," recounts Flores. "The Turtles wouldn't let us use their gear, but Creedence would. They were so nice to us. There's a whole story here in the book I'm writing about how the guy that hired us for this non-union concert wanted us to open because we'd started to get a name in San Diego. But we had to join the union to do it. He wanted us to do it for free, said he couldn't pay union scale.

"So we went to the union, who said no, this is why we're here. The guy wanted the union people to see him give me a check for $80, then I was supposed to hand it back. I told the union, who told me to take the check and put it in the bank, not to give it back. So I did. That chapter is called, 'Bubblegum Guitars, Worms, Dirt, and Slug Suckers.'

"Soon, I started working with a different band, playing in a strip joint. We wore hot pants. Little by little, I worked my bandmembers in, but when they asked us to go topless, I quit."

Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On

Walking out on the porch of her pale brick duplex, the capital's rockabilly filly looks out over the sloping lawn, greener this fall than during last summer's drought. Nearby sits mosquito repellent, a necessity for being outside, even at midday. She relishes her free time here on her laptop with a cup of coffee, those rare hours not spent traveling, writing, planning, practicing, or recording.

Penelope's Children wasn't Flores' only dance with an all-girl band. In the mid-Eighties, she started the Screamin' Sirens in Los Angeles, a wild-child version of the Go-Go's with no holds barred. That paved the way for her first solo album in 1987, self-titled on Warner Bros., then discs on Hightone that led to the reckoning of Rockabilly Filly in 1995. More projects followed – a reissue of her first LP, duets with Ray Campi, a live album, then 2009's Girl of the Century.

Flores' personal scrapbook began to fill with chart action in Billboard and The Gav­in Report, TV appearances on Austin City Limits, and narrating a Peabody Award-winning radio series called Whole Lotta Shak­in'. Flores' career had come full circle to reconnect with its past, like the distant crackle of a radio station coming into range.

"I love the process of producing, I just haven't had much chance," recounts Flores of the events that led to The Blanco Sessions. "When I moved here to Austin in 2006, I ran into a friend who said I could use his studio in Blanco for free. I thought, now's the time to strike. I came into a little money after my parents were gone and the house sold, so I called Janis: 'I've got the studio and money. Let's do it. Start collecting and writing songs, I'll call you after the New Year.'

"When I called her in February, I found out her son died a few weeks before, and she was so blue. In tears on the phone, she said, 'I'm going to do this for my son.' That was who she was pregnant with when she was 17 and RCA dropped her, and here she was recording again. All these years had gone by and she said, 'I'm going to do it for Kevin.'

"I got there in September [2011] and she wasn't feeling well. She said, 'Honey, I hang out in my pj's so I can take little naps.' And I said that was okay, I'd wear my pj's, too. One night in the kitchen, she broke down. She cried and said she was afraid she wasn't going to be here much longer and that this was her last record. 'I've got this lump on my back,' she told me.

"I asked her if she'd seen a doctor, and she said no. She was a heavy smoker. Two months later, she hadn't been to the doctor, but she showed up at the airport, said she didn't want to disappoint me.

"We recorded the record in two days. She sounded amazing! She started making a list of what she would do for her comeback: 'A new hairstyle; I'm gonna get my look together. I'm gonna use Big Sandy.' Just jamming on all these ideas.

"But she kept having headaches, and the next phone call was, 'I have stage four cancer.' It got her in four months."

Voices Carry

It's no coincidence Rosie Flores timed her own Working Girl's Guitar for release alongside The Blanco Sessions. All along she planned to co-promote the two.

The Blanco Sessions, poised to put Janis Martin on the Wanda Jackson comeback track, doesn't disappoint. Martin had been a star as a child, playing the Grand Ole Opry and weekly radio broadcasts. Though her few recordings were collectible and she'd made festival appearances, The Blanco Sessions hits the jackpot. Martin cashes in her experience with a throaty confidence that all but steals "Sweet Dreams" from Patsy Cline and trounces the Kentucky Headhunters' version of Bill Monroe's "Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine." It's a powerful statement of time and talent, not to mention a sheer pleasure to hear a 71-year-old woman singing about going steady with boys.

"I'm not giving Janis up," states her producer. "I'm taking her on the road with Marti Brom. We'll be all over the West Coast and the New York area with both records."

Brom's own reputation for rockabilly sass fits well with Martin's sultry alto. Yet Flores is committed to more than just the usual PR campaign for the new recording. Janis Martin rests in her heart, as well as life and career. Flores considers her tour plans, large dark eyes distant and soft in the hazy fall afternoon.

"When you've lost a child, and your heart is wounded and you grieve, it makes you weak," she says. "Janis was hurting and it was hard for her to fight for her life. I always felt if Kevin was alive, she would have fought for her life. Now Janis Martin lives on through her voice.

"And I hope people hear in my voice, her voice."

Rosie Flores marks the release of both her new disc and Janis Martin's along with Marti Brom at the Continental Club, Saturday, Dec. 1. Coincidentally, Wanda Jackson plays that same night at Antone's.

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Rosie Flores, Janis Martin, Wanda Jackson, Elvis Presley, Penelope's Children, Marti Brom, Ray Campi, Suzi Quatro

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