First, best ‘Female Elvis’ passes, but her music lives on

Story by Linda East Brady
Tue, Dec 11, 2012
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Janis Martin

“The Blanco Sessions”

You might not know Janis Martin’s name, but at 16 years of age, she became the first, and best, of the women who were dubbed “The Female Elvis.”

The Virginia native looked like a pony-tailed blond pixie, but had a beltin’ alto perfectly suited for rockabilly. Signed to RCA, the same label as Elvis Presley, she was making a mark in the music business as a top teen star. But she was secretly married, and at 18, became pregnant. It was the uber-conservative ’50s, and having a teen mom, married or not, was not an option for RCA. Though she played locally around her Danville hometown, her national career faded into obscurity.

But her name and music never died among the rockabilly geeks, with her singles becoming highly collectible.

Fellow rockabilly star Rosie Flores, long a fan, finally met Martin in 1994, and a year later Martin sang in support of Flores on “Rockabilly Filly.” The chemistry rocked, and Flores set her sights on recording Martin’s comeback. It would be 2006 before the women realized their dream. Flores moved back to Austin, Tex., and found old friend Bobby Trimble, who’s drummed for Big Sandy’s Fly-Rite Boys and is a lauded record producer. He agreed to gather some rockin’ sidemen and make the sessions happen.

They gathered in the tiny burg of Blanco, Texas, and knocked this album out. With no desire to reinvent the wheel, but rather let Martin’s gifts sparkle, they went with classic rockabilly tunes. Some are relatively well-known, like “Wild One (Real Wild Child),” made famous by Jerry Lee Lewis; “Oh Lonesome Me,” recorded by everyone from Don Gibson to the Kentucky Headhunters; and “I Believe What You Say,” which hit big-time for Ricky Nelson.

Others are more obscure, but just as tasty, such as the ear-grabbing opener “As Long As I’m Movin,’ ” a hit for Martin’s idol, Ruth Brown, and “Find Out What’s Happening.” The cut of most recent vintage reaches back almost 30 years to the rockabilly revival of the 1980s — Dave Alvin’s “Long White Cadillac.”

Flores and Trimble not only masterminded the sessions, they contribute vocals, as well as rhythm guitar and drums, respectively. The rest of the band includes such Austin-honed experts as Kelly Willis on backing vocals, Beau Sample on upright bass, and T Jarrod Bonta on electric piano. The ensemble sounds as tight as if the members had been doing this together for decades.

Though she was in tremendous voice and seemed strong and healthy when recording, Martin was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer a few weeks after the “The Blanco Sessions” were completed. She died just four months later, the record unreleased.

Flores’ dogged determination that this was a keeper finally landed support from Cow Island Music, and the album arrived this year.

If you have someone on your gift list who loves the sound of real-deal rockabilly, they will surely appreciate this treasure that almost wasn’t.

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