Janis Martin Obit
Courtesy: Matt Schudel, Washington Post
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
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
"I heard Ruth Brown, and I just found my kind of music," she said in
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
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 addition to her husband, survivors include a granddaughter and
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