“I heard Ruth Brown, and I just found my kind of music,” — Janis Martin

Cultural history is peppered with What Ifs. What if someone like Janis Martin had gone the distance? What if she hadn’t lapsed into obscurity? Would she have carved out a small space for women in rock ‘n roll (alongside the likes of Wanda Jackson)? Rock ‘n roll was so associated with men. The sexual energy coming from the stage was male, and geared towards … everyone, really. The energy did not discriminate. But, like it or not, there is a difference between a young man gyrating on a stage in front of people and a young woman doing the same thing. There are thousands of years of cultural/social history behind this being the case. Men presenting themselves as sexual objects in such a frank way was new. And controversial. It exploded norms. Women doing the same thing brought about the usual: they were sluts, they were vulgar. The boys were called vulgar too, but again: we have thousands of years of history bolstering up why it’s different when you call a woman “vulgar”. If you come into conversations like this thinking male sexuality is the default (first of all: you’re brainwashed. Work on it), thinking the rightful order is women being the objects of male sexuality … if you can’t dismantle the web of inherited associations, then of course it would make sense men would lead rock ‘n roll. You wouldn’t question the bias, you would assume it was true, you would believe the assumptions, and would believe that of course there’s just a smaller audience for women who rock. It’s not like some conspiracy or anything. Time has proven all of this to be untrue. How many artists have been casualties of these unexamined, or – worse – examined, biases?

This is not to dismiss the importance of The Boys. You don’t have to crash anyone off a pedestal when you’re questioning the underlying assumptions. There’s a reason the Boys were “the ones” and it’s not just a conspiracy against women. I’m of the opinion that it had to be The Boys who eventually broke through, and what they were doing WAS more of a threat, because it cracked the edifice of conformist masculinity, they kicked down the door for other modes of expression, their own. So, there’s that. The Boys, though, through no fault of their own, dominate the landscape of memory so totally that posterity has forgotten the others, the ones who came before, or their contemporaries who may not have been as massive but who also had an impact.

People like Janis Martin. (It’s her birthday today.) It has taken time to dig her legacy out of obscurity. In the 80s, she started performing again, and her audience remembered her. 30 years after the fact. Think about that.

Janis Martin was a child performer, born into a musical family. They lived in Virginia, steeped in a strong country music background. Just like Elvis, Janis Martin was born at the right time, in terms of the cultural upheavals to come. – 1933-1940 is really the time to have been born. If you were born in that span, you were at the right age and in the right moment when the mid-50s rolled around. Like so many others in her generation, like Carl Perkins, like Elvis, like Wanda Jackson, Janis Martin just assumed she’d be a country singer. But by the mid-50s, things were getting a little, how you say, interesting. The genres were starting to blend together. These changes were amplified by new technology, powerful radio stations: things happening in one region could carry more easily to the next. News could spread.

You could say Elvis was the one to crack it open and you wouldn’t be wrong. Just in terms of impact and reach. But it didn’t just come out of nowhere. Carl Perkins was there first. Carl Perkins was the first to sell a million records. Elvis’ success, though, showed the way for others. En masse, country singers switched to rockabilly. It took over a generation for country music to recover. Janis Martin was part of this first wave. She loved Carl Perkins. She heard what he heard.

Janis Martin loved Hank Williams, because you could move to his songs. But it was when she heard Ruth Brown that the roof blew off and she saw all kinds of possibilities (the same possibilities everybody else was feeling). In her own corner of the cultural landscape, Janis Martin was very unusual, in the same way Elvis was unusual, or Carl Perkins was unusual, and etc. One of the original DJs at WDIA in Memphis (Black-owned and run radio station, the first of its kind) said, “You can’t segregate the airwaves.” This was the real revolution. You could keep white people and black people separate in public spaces, but you literally could not stop white kids from tuning into the “black” radio stations, and you could not bar black kids from listening to the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts, even though they wouldn’t have been allowed inside the building. You could not force people to NOT be “into” music made by …. whoever. The controls were loosening.

Martin started incorporating her inspirations in her performances. Reminder: she’s still just a kid, basically. 14 years old. She was a rarity, a teenage girl rocker: her voice could be growly and sexy, but also pure and clear as a bell – like Patsy Cline’s. I love her voice. It goes right through you. Her sexy voice was not va-va-voom sexual. Oh, no. It was more threatening than that. She sounds like a regular teenage girl with regular desires. No big deal, in other words. And the powers that be can’t have THAT.

The ball started rolling when Martin recorded a demo for two songwriters whom Martin knew from the radio broadcasts she appeared on. The guys were radio announcers, and they wanted to shop their song around – a little thing called “Will You Willyum”. So Martin recorded it. The demo somehow found its way to Steve Sholes at RCA, the same Steve Sholes who had just signed Elvis to the label literally a couple months prior. Sholes was impressed with what he heard. The Elvis Wave was breaking. It was the Gold Rush. RCA signed Janis Martin on the spot, and began marketing her as the “Female Elvis”.

Let’s get down to specifics, though. Let’s look at the numbers. The real story is there. Just because Janis Martin’s name doesn’t have the recognition factor of Carl Perkins (a big influence on her) doesn’t mean her accomplishments are somehow lesser. In fact, it makes you MAD when you look at the numbers.

RCA releases “Will You, Willyum” as her first single. This, as you recall, is the demo that caught RCA’s ear in the first place. On the B-side was Martin’s own composition, a song called “Drugstore Rock ‘n Roll”.

And “Drugstore Rock ‘n Roll” was the one that “hit”, even though RCA was pushing the A-side. This is very significant. The song SHE wrote is the one people flipped over. “Drugstore Rock ‘n Roll” sold 750,000 copies. I’ll say that again. 750,000 copies. 3/4s of a million copies. Those are almost Elvis numbers. You don’t have to grade Martin on a curve. The song was a massive hit AND she WROTE it, whereas Elvis wrote none of his. And “Drugstore Rock ‘n Roll” is a banger!

She paints the picture. She includes all the details. The clothes. The jukebox. The feet tapping.

“Drugstore Rock ‘n’ Roll” is a personal song, coming from Martin’s personal experience. It’s pure rockabilly. Things were moving so quickly, things had moved far away from drinking liquor out of an old fruit jar. Now we’re having a milk shake and banana split. The transformation was so rapid nobody could get a handle on it in the moment. Eddie Cochran became the Platonic Ideal of this final transformation, with all of his hot sexy songs about drive-in movies, borrowing Dad’s car, and partying on a school night. Janis Martin said of the song, that sold 750,000 copies: “I wrote ‘Drugstore Rock ‘n’ Roll’ in about 10 minutes. Everything in that song is actually the scene that was happening for us as teenagers. The drugstore was the only place we had to go and hang out after school.”

Teenagers know authentic when they hear it.

Just for kicks, here’s the A-side. The demo.

RCA really pushed the “female Elvis” thing, which didn’t really work out in the long run, and nobody had the time or inclination to figure it out. She had fans but she also faced a lot of hostility. They forced the connection by making her record a song called “My Boy Elvis”:

Martin’s career was over almost before it began. The label discovered she had been married – in secret – to a paratrooper stationed in Germany. She got married at 15, and kept it a secret for two years. Then she got pregnant. The label tried to make her get an abortion. She refused. RCA dropped her.

And that was it for Janis Martin. It makes me angry just typing those words.

There are deep pockets of history buried within the well-known narrative. People who were dropped, people who had bad luck, people who weren’t protected, who were bad with money, who had substance problems and didn’t get help. The business is brutal. The business was also totally NEW in 1956. Everyone was just making shit up as they went. However: telling one of your artists to get an abortion, and then dropping her because she’s pregnant, is not “new”. That shit is as old as the hills. Janis Martin was a casualty of the oldest bullshit in the book.

I am happy her fans remembered her, and when she started doing little tours in the 80s, the clubs were filled with people who remembered. I hope that felt good. But still. This is not a good story.

Her music is still there to be discovered. I have such an ambivalent relationship with current technology and in many ways MISS my analog life. One of the up-sides, though, is that people like Janis Martin don’t have to be discovered only by rummaging through bins in second-hand record stores anymore. Their music lives on in the eternal present.

If you want to hear more about her origin story, and the tracks that launched her very short career, this site breaks it down in admirable detail.

My brother-in-law Ben turned me on to this great podcast 500 Songs, and one of the episodes is devoted to “Drugstore Rock ‘n Rolls.

I love “Let’s Elope Baby”, which definitely connects to her own story!

I found this clip of her performing “Drugstore Rock ‘n Roll” in 2006 – the year before she died – and it makes me so happy. She sounds great!

From the same show, and this made me cry: Ruth Brown was there too. It’s the first time she and Janis met. So Ruth performs, and Janis sits next to her, just marveling at her, and grooving with her. Beautiful.

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10 Responses to “I heard Ruth Brown, and I just found my kind of music,” — Janis Martin

  1. Thank you for this. I like to think I am pretty knowledgeable about rock and roll but Janis Martin is new to me. I’ll pass it along

  2. Jeff says:

    Like Bill, I like to think I’m pretty knowledgeable about this kind of stuff (and I’ve got so many records and CDs I’ve got no place to put them anymore), and she is new to me as well. I’m listening right now and blown away. Thank you for opening this door!

    • sheila says:

      Jeff – I love it when this happens – and it’s rare!!

      She’s a recent-ish discovery – that 500 Songs podcast is what really launched me down the path. he devotes an entire episode to “Drugstore Rock ‘n Roll”.

  3. Lesley says:

    like the other commenters, Janis is entirely new to me, and I appreciate your turning the spotlight on her.

    the label pressuring her to get an abortion, then dropping her, fits so perfectly with all the actresses who were pushed into terminating pregnancies or losing their careers…underlines once again that nobody, but nobody, not carrying that pregnancy has the slightest business deciding whether we do or don’t. Not nobody, not nohow.

    sorry for the digression…but hope Janis’s life was halfway decent. love that she finally got to sit next to Ruth Brown!

    • sheila says:

      // underlines once again that nobody, but nobody, not carrying that pregnancy has the slightest business deciding whether we do or don’t. Not nobody, not nohow. //

      Amen, sister.

      Don’t even get me started.

      So happy I wrote this post! She was such a happy discovery for me! That 500 songs podcast is a really good source of information!

  4. Elizabeth Westcott says:

    Oh my goodness… Sheila!
    Once again, I must thank you for a magnificent piece of writing and for sharing this wonderful slice of musical history.
    My dad’s from Kentucky so I grew up with a bluegrass and rockabilly background and yet I’ve never heard of Ruth Brown or Janis Brown. Those clips were just amazing and Janis’ story was tragically fascinating.

  5. Katie Martin says:

    Wow, what a great piece Sheila. It saddens me to know that even before I read your piece, I guessed correctly that she had been blackballed because of a pregnancy or relationship “scandal”. That this woman was deprived of the opportunity to pursue her craft, and for all of us to lose the opportunity and pleasure of hearing her full potential is not surprising but nonetheless it sure is disappointing. Thank you for bringing attention to her music and her story. I am inspired to cover some of her songs when I get back to singing!

    • Sheila says:

      Katie – thanks for reading!! I’m really excited by the response to this post – this forgotten slice of our cultural history. I have the 500 Songs podcast to thank for alerting me to Janis Martin.

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