Janis Martin, the rockabilly artist once billed as “The Female Elvis,” passed away peacefully after a short battle with an aggressive cancer on September 3 at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. She was 67.
Janis began performing as a young child. By 1956 she received the Billboard magazine award for most promising female artist. That plaque still hangs at a special place in her home. After singing on the radio for “The Old Dominion Barndance” in Richmond, Virginia, she signed with RCA Records and sold over 700,000 copies of her first single, “Will You, Willyum”/”Drugstore Rock ‘n’ Roll”.
She soon left her life on the road to raise her son Kevin, whose arrival largely ended her days as a teen idol. She enjoyed a career resurgence in the mid-’90s when the rockabilly revival began to take hold.
Her powerful delivery and punch inspired many singers, including me (I was particularly honored when she appeared on my 1995 HighTone album Rockabilly Filly). Her personality was sometimes “raunchy” (as she called it) and, man, she wasn’t one to hold back. If she didn’t think her backing band was rockin’ hard enough, she’d pick up a guitar and lead it herself. Once, in Seattle, I saw her kick the band off the stage and play solo for a song or two, then call me up and finish the show as a duo. The 67-year-old bopped and rocked it on up with her 100 percent soulful delivery, even though she was already ill, at her last concert this past April in Richmond, Virginia.
Last spring Janis and her husband, Wayne Whitt, came to Austin, Texas, where drummer Bobby Trimble and I produced her last recordings, including Dave Alvin’s “Long White Cadillac” and “Sweet Dreams”, both of which were played at her service on September 6.