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Janis Martin, 67; rockabilly singer dubbed ‘female Elvis’

Washington Post

Janis Martin, a teenage rockabilly sensation of the 1950s who was billed as “the female Elvis,” died Sept. 3 of cancer at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. She was 67.

After beginning her career on country music radio shows in Virginia, Martin had a short but bright burst of fame in the ‘50s with the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll. By 15, she was recording for RCA, had a top 40 hit and seemed poised for stardom.

She had a blond ponytail and a strong, clear, country-inflected voice and a series of lively, eye-catching dance moves on stage. A convention of disc jockeys named her “the most promising female vocalist” of 1956.

Martin was one of the few young women, along with Wanda Jackson and Lorrie Collins, to make a mark in the masculine, raw-edged music that decades later became known as rockabilly.

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But when Martin secretly married and became pregnant, her record label dropped her, and she returned to southern Virginia.

Except for a few local appearances, she was all but forgotten until 1982, when she emerged from retirement with a concert in England.

“I can’t begin to tell you what it was like -- like stepping back in time,” she told the Nashville Scene newspaper.

“Those kids dressed like we did in the ‘50s. Here I’d been a housewife and a mother. When I hit the stage, it was like I’d come home.”

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The song her young European admirers clamored for wasn’t the top 40 hit “Will You, Willyum” but a hard-charging tune called “Drugstore Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which Martin wrote at 15.

“I wrote ‘Drugstore Rock ‘n’ Roll’ in about 10 minutes,” she recalled in a 1993 interview with Roctober magazine. “Everything in that song is actually the scene that was happening for us as teenagers,” she said. “The drugstore was the only place we had to go and hang out after school.”

Janis Darlene Martin, born March 27, 1940, in Sutherlin, Va., began playing guitar at 4, balancing it upright because it was too big for her to hold.

At 8, Martin finished second in her first talent contest. In the next two years, she entered 11 more contests and won them all.

By 11, she was a regular on a weekly country music radio show in Danville, Va. She appeared with country star Ernest Tubb at 13 and became a featured performer with the Old Dominion Barn Dance, a weekly country concert in Richmond, Va., that was broadcast on CBS Radio.

She soon became interested in Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker and other R&B; singers.

“I heard Ruth Brown, and I just found my kind of music,” she said in 1993.

She toured with country singers Hank Snow and Porter Waggoner, made a demo tape and was recording for RCA with Chet Atkins and Floyd Cramer, all before her 16th birthday.

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She was called “the female Elvis” with the approval of Elvis Presley, her RCA label mate, and sang “My Boy Elvis” on NBC’s “Today” show. She also appeared on “The Tonight Show” and “American Bandstand” and at the Grand Ole Opry.

Another song she recorded was a teenage anthem to runaway hormones: “Let’s Elope, Baby.”

“At the time I was recording ‘Let’s Elope, Baby,’ ” she later said, “my parents didn’t even know I was married.”

She had eloped at 15 with her childhood sweetheart, Tommy Cundiff, who was in the Army. On a USO tour in Europe in 1957, Martin had a rendezvous with her husband and became pregnant.

She recorded her final songs for RCA at 17, in her eighth month of pregnancy.

Martin recorded a few songs in 1960 for a European label, but her show business career foundered.

She divorced her husband, settled in Danville to raise her son, then married and divorced a second husband, Ken Parton.

She worked in the Henry County sheriff’s office, then spent 26 years as the manager of a Danville country club. For the last 29 years, she was married to Wayne Whitt, who first saw her perform as a teen at the old Barn Dance show in Richmond.

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“She was a cute little-old gal in a ponytail, just belting out that music that nobody else was doing,” he said Tuesday.

Martin’s son, Kevin Parton, who played drums in her bands, died in January.

In addition to her husband, survivors include a granddaughter and great-granddaughter.


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