JANIS MARTIN at the Cadillac Lounge (1296 Queen West), Saturday (June 24), 8 pm. $30. 416-536-7717. Rating: NNNNN
Since retiring from her job of 27 years managing the day-to-day operations of a Dannville, Virginia, golf and country club, 66-year-old Janis Martin has been looking forward to doing some travelling. So just before coming to Toronto this weekend, she spent a few days in Spain. Next, it's on to Holland, Denmark and France, where rockabilly fans know her as "the Female Elvis." She's probably just as busy now as she was 50 years ago, when she signed her first recording contract with RCA Victor just two months after they inked Elvis Presley. She's thrilled to be back, belting out her raw rockin' classics like Drugstore Rock 'N' Roll, Bang Bang and Barefoot Baby for screaming audiences.
"This whole thing is unreal," chuckles Martin from her Virginia home, recalling her Spanish gig. "When I got to the venue for soundcheck, the 3,000-capacity theatre was completely sold out. The show was just insane."
Although the Female Elvis tag given to her by RCA A&R rep Steve Sholes has stuck with her over the years, the gimmick probably did her more harm than good by inviting foolish comparisons. Martin's music can stand on its own merits.
It also obscures Martin's important role as a rock 'n' roll pioneer. Once you get past her sock-hop novelty numbers, you realize that her songs have an uncommonly bluesy feel. Both her vocal delivery and song structures were influenced by black gospel and R&B, which similarly shaped Presley's sound.
While the teenage Elvis was still attending L. C. Humes high school in Memphis, the 13-year-old Martin was already tearing up shows by singing the swingin' R&B tunes of Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker. This was 1953, a full year before Bill Haley hit with a cover of Joe Turner's Shake, Rattle & Roll and Presley recorded Arthur Crudup's That's All Right, Mama as his game-changing Sun Records debut.
So it might actually be more historically accurate for Elvis to be known as "the male Janis Martin."
"I never did like that whole 'female Elvis' thing. That's how they billed me at RCA, and it was done with the blessing of Elvis and Col. Parker, but even then I had a pretty big ego and it just didn't sit right with me. I really only ever met Elvis twice, and very briefly both times: once at an autograph signing at the Dannville Fairgrounds, and then later at RCA studios in New York, where he was shooting publicity stills.
"But it was amazing for me to find out how similar our backgrounds were and how we both found inspiration in the black gospel and R&B music we heard growing up."
There was a Sanctified church near Martin's home in Sutherland, Virginia.
"Back then, black and white folks didn't mix - it was taboo - so I'd lie quietly in the weeds outside and listen to that rollicking sound coming from the congregation inside. I loved that music - the rhythm, the soulful feeling - a real rockin' sound."
For a while she was performing bluegrass and uptempo country, but everything changed on a trip to Richmond in 53 when she heard Ruth Brown singing Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean.
"I went straight to the local record shop and bought everything I could find by Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker. And right away I was singing those songs at the Old Dominion Barn Dance in Richmond."
RCA wasted no time signing the blond, ponytailed bombshell, although her tenure with the label was cut short when it was discovered that their fresh-faced teen star had married singer Tommy Ford on the sly and had a child on the way.
But neither her harsh treatment at the hands of RCA nor overly possessive spouses could stop her from recording and performing.
"Even though I was just 16 at the time, I'd been in show business for so long that I just wanted to live a normal life. I cut my last session with RCA in Nashville in 58 when my son was seven months old, and that was it. I was out of show business and essentially blacklisted, which is why you never see any performance clips of me from the period. In those days, you just didn't go against the system, and I was seen as a rebel."
"I have no regrets about anything I've done. My rebellious nature is a big part of the reason why so many rockabilly fans are into my music today. "