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Janis Martin, 67; Teen Rockabilly Star Was 'the Female Elvis' of the 1950s

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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Janis Martin, 67, 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 lived in Danville, Va.

After beginning her career on country-music radio shows in Virginia, Ms. Martin had a short but bright burst of fame in the 1950s with the dawn of rock-and-roll. By 15, she was recording for RCA, had a Top 40 hit and seemed poised for stardom.

She was a ponytailed blonde with a strong, clear, country-inflected voice and had a series of lively, eye-catching dance moves on stage. A convention of disc jockeys named her "the most promising female vocalist" of 1956.

Ms. Martin was also 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.

A 1998 article in the Nashville Scene newspaper described the enduring excitement of the music she made as a teenager: "Forty years later, Martin's records remain some of the most rockin', most thrilling hillbilly music ever to emerge from the Music City."

When Ms. Martin secretly married and became pregnant, her record label dropped her, and she returned to a life of relative obscurity in 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. "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."

The song young European admirers clamored for wasn't her Top 40 hit, "Will You, Willyum" but a hard-charging tune called "Drugstore Rock 'n' Roll," which Ms. Martin wrote when she was 15.

"I wrote 'Drugstore Rock 'n' Roll' in about ten 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 was born March 27, 1940, in Sutherlin, Va., and lived in Akron, Ohio, for eight years before her family returned to southern Virginia. Ms. Martin began playing the guitar at age 4, balancing it upright because it was too big for her to hold.

Pushed by a "typical show-business mother," Ms. Martin finished second in her first talent contest at age 8. In the next two years, she entered 11 more contests and won all of them, including a statewide competition.

By 11, she was a regular on a weekly country-music radio show in Danville. 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 broadcast on CBS Radio.

Her influences were country stars Eddy Arnold and Hank Williams, but she soon became interested in Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker and other rhythm-and-blues singers.

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

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

She was called "the female Elvis" with the approval of Elvis Presley, her RCA label mate, and sang one of her minor hits, "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, Ms. Martin had a rendezvous with her husband and became pregnant. She recorded her final songs for RCA when she was 17 and in her eighth month of pregnancy.

Ms. Martin recorded a few songs in 1960 for a European label, but she seemed to be a show-business has-been at 20. She divorced her husband, settled in Danville to raise her son, then married and divorced a second husband, Ken Parton.

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

"She was a cute little old gal in a ponytail just belting out that music that nobody else was doing," he said yesterday.

Ms. 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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