Janis Martin, 'The Female Elvis,' Returns

Sep 30, 2012

Janis Martin was just a teenager from Virginia when she was christened "The Female Elvis." In the mid-1950s, she sold 750,000 copies of a song called "Will You, Willyum." She played the Grand Ole Opry, American Bandstand and The Tonight Show. But her fame was short-lived. Martin got married and had a baby, which didn't sit so well with the people managing her career. Her label dropped her, and she fell off the musical map.

Five years ago, a fan got Martin back in a studio, and the result is a new album, The Blanco Sessions. That fan, Rosie Flores, co-produced the album with Bobby Trimble, and spoke to Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin about the life of Janis Martin and the process of making The Blanco Sessions.

Janis Martin (right) with Rosie Flores.
Courtesy of the artist

Flores says she first heard Martin in 1979 at a rockabilly show, during Martin's brief comeback. "It was Janis Martin for me that really became kind of a role model and an idol ... because of how amazing her voice sounded and the kind of guitar parts that were on her records," she says. "It just really spoke to me."

In 2007, Flores set out to help Martin give new voice to some old tunes. She brought Martin to a studio in Blanco, Texas.

"It was just inspiring to watch her work in the studio after all these years. I realized that she and I had such a great rapport, and that I could relax her in the studio, and she took direction so well," says Flores. "She was a little bit nervous because she hadn't done this in such a long time. It was important for her that it be really good."

Flores recalls how excited Martin was about the record coming out. She remembers Martin saying that she was going to get her luck together and begin to plan tours. But Martin died of lung cancer at age 67, just a few months after wrapping up production of The Blanco Sessions.

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Maybe you've heard this tune - maybe you haven't - but in the mid-1950s... it was a hit, selling more than 750,000 copies.


MARTIN: The singer was a teenager from Virginia who had been christened by RCA music producers as a female Elvis. Her name was Janis Martin and she went on to appear at the Grand Ole Opry, "American Bandstand" and the "Tonight Show." But Martin's fame was short lived. The teenager got married and had a baby, which didn't sit so well with the people managing her career. Martin's label dropped her and she fell off the musical map. Janis Martin made a brief comeback in the 1970s and '80s, much to the pleasure of fans who had never forgotten her. A music producer and singer named Rosie Flores was one of them. And in 2007 she set out to help Martin give new voice to some old tunes. Flores brought Janis Martin into a studio in Blanco, Texas and the result - co-produced by Flores - is a new CD called "The Blanco Sessions."


MARTIN: But in the end, Janis Martin didn't get to see the album released. She died of lung cancer just a few months after wrapping up production. Janis Martin was 67 years old. Rosie Flores ended up releasing the album on her own and she is now performing the music on tour. Ms. Flores joins us now from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Welcome to the program.

ROSIE FLORES: I'm thrilled to be here talking about Janis Martin.

MARTIN: So, tell me about this. I mean, obviously, you were a fan of Janis Martin's. How did this partnership come about? You just kind of drop her a line, give her a call and said you want to do this?

FLORES: I have to tell you, I was at a rockabilly show in '79 in San Francisco, and I was talking to this girl in the audience. And I said I'm in a Rockabilly band too and I do some cool stuff. And she goes, well, do you do any Janis Martin songs? And I said who? And she looked at me and she said if you don't know who Janis Martin is you don't know anything about rockabilly and she walked away. And I was like, whoa, who is Janis Martin? So...

MARTIN: You better figure it out.

FLORES: Yeah, I was like she must be really awesome. So, I drove back to L.A. the next day and went to a record store that carried some vintage, you know, vinyl. And I took the record home. And I was instantly a fan. And I just started writing down her lyrics. And it was Janis Martin for me that really became kind of a role model and an idol for me because of how amazing her voice sounded and the kind of guitar parts that were on her records. It just really spoke to me. And so I kind of just because this adoring fan.

MARTIN: Because there weren't a lot of girls or women making this kind of music. Can you kind of remind us what a big deal it was when Janis Martin kind of came on the scene back in the '50s?

FLORES: Right. You know, back then, you know, when Elvis is really coming into his own and she had already been honing her craft since she was about 6, so she was already being kind of a hillbilly-bop, rockabilly girl before the term was actually even there. And when she came along and she had this jump, bop, wiggle and shake stage presence...

MARTIN: So, she was doing all that stuff.

FLORES: ...and a great voice - she was already doing it before she ever met him. And she told me that she didn't know that he shook like that when she was doing it. She just did it on her own, you know.

MARTIN: So, you embark on this project. You're singing on this album along with Janis Martin. And one of the cuts - it's a duet you're singing with her called "Wild One," which is probably best, well-known, most people know it as a Jerry Lee Lewis hit.


MARTIN: What was it like to stand there next to this woman who you had kind of idolized and sing with her in the studio?

FLORES: Oh, it was just nothing but fun. It was just inspiring and, you know, to watch her work in the studio after all these years. And I realized that she and I had such a great rapport and that I could, number one, relax her in the studio. And, you know, she took direction so well and I got, ah, such great vocals.


MARTIN: It sounds like you two were having a great time.

FLORES: It was. Just to watch her excitement, it was really, really fun for me. But she was a little bit nervous 'cause she told me she hadn't done this in such a long time, and it was important for her that it be really good and it was important that it be really rock and roll. And was real excited about having it come out and she was talking plans about touring. And, you know, I'm going to get my luck together, she said. You know, I was on cloud nine for months after that.


MARTIN: It's such a distinct voice she has.


MARTIN: I mean, one reviewer that I read called Janis Martin's voice on this particular cut haunting and thick, which I thought was a really good descriptor.

FLORES: Ooh, I like that.

MARTIN: It's good, right?

FLORES: Haunting.

MARTIN: How would you describe it...

FLORES: I like that.

MARTIN: ...to someone who'd never heard her before?

FLORES: You know, when she was young it was so different, right? She had kind of a sparkly, a little hillbilly voice, but because she smoked, which was, you know, basically what was her downfall in the end, but she had this gruffness to her voice but with such confidence. She was definitely not a wimp. She was a rocker, you know, and I think that shows in her voice, you know?

MARTIN: I want to finish by talking a little bit about this very lovely rendition of "Sweet Dreams," which was made famous by Patsy Cline. And as the liner notes in the CD point out the song was really shortly after Cline's death in 1963. Tell us how you and Janis Martin chose it for the album.

FLORES: Well, I have to say I kind of pushed that one on her. Sometimes you had to talk Janis into stuff. But if you made a good case, she would accept it.

MARTIN: Why didn't she want to sing it?

FLORES: Well, you know, she really wanted people to think of her as a rock and roll singer. She says, Rosie, that's a country song. I said, yeah, it is, but, I said, but nobody sings it like you.


MARTIN: That's lovely.

FLORES: Some of the other people have tears in their eyes right now.


MARTIN: Rosie Flores, thanks so much for talking with us about your friend.

FLORES: It was my pleasure.

MARTIN: Rosie Flores is co-producer, along with Bobby Trimble, of Janis Martin's posthumous album. It's called "The Blanco Sessions."


MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.