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Janis Martin: The Female Elvis

Legacy.com / Nick Ehrhardt

Janis Martin: The Female Elvis

Janis Martin (GAB Archive / Contributor / Getty Images)

Janis Martin was a rockabilly darlin' in a man's world. At just 15, she was poised for stardom in the rising genre, one of the few women who'd make a mark in the early days of rock 'n' roll. She was writing her own songs and performing them with a unique brand of swagger that drove fans wild. So why haven't most people heard of the young woman known as the Female Elvis?

The explanation is short and frustrating, and it all starts with Martin's childhood … or lack thereof.

Playing guitar at age 6 and performing professionally by 11, she grew up fast – so quickly that by 15, just before she signed her first record contract, she eloped with her boyfriend, a paratrooper who was being shipped overseas. No one knew – not her parents, not her record company or manager. A little more than a year after her wedding, she was able to spend a month with her husband while he was on leave … and here comes the explanation for her truncated career: She got pregnant. No longer the cute 17-year-old with the blonde ponytail and big voice, she was now a wife and mother, and her record company didn't think they could sell that image. They dropped her contract, and there went her stardom.

But Martin's appeal was about much more than her fresh-faced image.

She was a pioneer for women in popular music, writing songs and playing her own guitar on certain tracks. Since the country music she grew up with was dominated by men, she looked to the black women making their mark within the rhythm-and-blues movement for inspiration – she loved LaVern Baker, idolized Ruth Brown. And though she was called the Female Elvis, stemming from their similar performance styles, maybe Elvis should have been called the Male Janis – after all, she was performing professionally on radio's Old Dominion Barndance while Presley was still trying to get Sun Records to pay attention to his amateur recordings.

Of course, Presley's career rose to far greater heights than Martin's. When she was facing the birth of her son and the end of her career, he was charting No. 1 hits like "All Shook Up" and "Don't," as well as starring in Jailhouse Rock and King Creole. But even though Martin didn't become one of the most familiar household names of the 20th century, she did eventually continue her musical career. She dropped out for a while after the birth of her son, and to hear her tell it – in an interview with the Cat Tales zine – she was happy to take a break. "I missed being a typical child," she said. "I never (led) a normal life. ... I just wanted to settle down and be normal, 'cause I had not been since I was 8 years old."

After a few years of domestic life, though, she found herself itching to play music again. So she formed a band and began playing live shows, eventually embarking on well-received tours in Europe around the time of the rockabilly revival of the 1970s and '80s. She divorced her husband when he demanded that she give up music and stay home – as she said, according to Cat Tales, "Oh, no, honey! I will not give up music for you or anyone!"

That determination to play continued until the end of Martin's life. Could she have achieved greater fame if she'd remained single and childless? Probably so – in 1957, the world was ready for rock 'n' roll, even if people weren't so sure about rock sung by a 17-year-old mom. She even may have been able to compete in the boys club that was 1950s rock. But even though she never regained the fame she'd experienced as a teen, she seemed to enjoy making music throughout her life nevertheless – and she delighted rockabilly fans for decades.