Remembering Janis Martin, "the female Elvis"

With The Blanco Sessions, Rosie Flores hails rockabilly's other queen

American roots music fans have a deep reverence for the past and the artists who created the sounds they love. For decades, rockabilly singer and guitarist Rosie Flores has championed the seminal works of the music's originators — a commitment which has resulted in a compelling new project, The Blanco Sessions. The album is a tribute to the legacy of rockabilly's enigmatic Janis Martin, who was branded "the female Elvis" in 1956 because of her seductive stage presence. "When I first heard Janis Martin it changed my attitude toward music," Flores says. "She was so happy and bouncy, and our singing was very similar."

In 2007, Flores produced 10 tracks by Martin, whose career was cut frustratingly short twice: First, due to the draconian mentality the recording industry held toward women during her prime years as an artist. And then again when she died of lung cancer four months after the songs were completed. Five years later, The Blanco Sessions arrived, thanks to Flores' commitment to see the recording through to completion and an exhaustive Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $16,500.

In 1956 Martin's first single, "Will You, Willyum," sold more than 750,000 copies, and she likely would have found lasting success if the rules had been different. Burdened by a manufactured image as the All-American Girl Next Door, Martin followed her heart and secretly married her paratrooper husband when she was 15 years old. After a European USO tour, and some conjugal visits with her husband, she returned to the States pregnant. Her label, RCA, didn't know what to do with a pregnant, married woman, and she was ultimately dropped. After releasing a few more singles for Palette Records, her second husband insisted she quit show business altogether, and in 1960 Martin quietly retired.

"She opened lots of doors, but the door was closed on her," says Martin's longtime friend and devotee, Austin, Texas-based singer Marti Brom.

During her third marriage, music historian Dennis West reconnected Martin with the booming rockabilly revival of the mid-'70s, and she again began routinely performing for adoring crowds the world over, regaining the respect she'd worked so hard to achieve more than a decade prior. "If Janis hadn't stopped performing in 1960, she would have been up there with Brenda Lee — probably a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — and this album would have brought on an even bigger resurgence in her career," Flores says.

Picking up where she left off, Martin may have looked like a grandmother, but she was still a wild and uninhibited party girl whose confident yet feminine voice was her trademark. When she belted out "My Boy Elvis," "Drugstore Rock 'n' Roll," or the ironic "Let's Elope Baby," crowds went wild. "She had the 'swagger,' knew how to act on stage, and even after she came back to playing, she performed great shows — always kept it fresh, new, and with lots of energy," Brom recalls.

For Flores, financing The Blanco Sessions was an issue. "I spent $5,000 making this record, thinking I would have no trouble getting it back," she says. "It's a great record, and Janis was willing to do what it took to promote it. But when she passed away it took a while to overcome the shock."

Moving forward, Flores shopped the record to various labels but was roundly rejected, mostly because Martin had died and couldn't tour to support it. Ultimately, Flores went the Kickstarter route. Since its September release, Flores and Brom have been on the road playing songs from the album, while also supporting Flores' latest, Working Girl's Guitar (Bloodshot Records).

The Blanco Sessions was a labor of love, weathering Martin's death and a music industry that still refuses to embrace her music. But Flores' actions need no more justification than her word. "Janis was our friend," she says. "We promised her we would do it."