I—along with 331 other Janis Martin devotees — would assist in funding the production of her final album.
For years, tales of the last offering from “The Female Elvis” had circulated throughout the rockabilly subculture. Recorded just months before her death as a result of lung cancer in 2007, the session — if the whispered rumors could be believed — had produced some must-hear music. Martin contemporary, Rosie Flores, had spent four years shopping the tracks around to assorted record labels. Releasing an album by an artist who, obviously, couldn’t tour in support of it seemed too risky of an endeavor for music executives, and Flores was left with a cache of tunes that fans clamored to hear, yet no one in the industry’s corporate echelon was willing to play. I couldn’t truly comprehend the fickleness of someone dressed in a suit and tie dictating what others far more nuanced than he wanted to hear. It isn’t as if posthumous albums were unheard of; John Lennon and Michael Jackson both had records hit the store shelves following their deaths. And what about the abundance of Presley material that was “discovered” after his passing?
Janis Martin wasn’t an unknown quantity. Her 1956 hit, “Drugstore Rock ‘n’ Roll” — which she penned in only 10 minutes — sold around 750,000 copies. She defied the starched collar values and conformity of the 1950s in both her professional and personal life, becoming one of rock ‘n’ roll’s first female performers, and was the epicenter of what could have been one of the genre’s biggest scandals. Audiophiles are well acquainted with piano man Jerry Lee Lewis’ very public marriage to his cousin, but teenage Janis had secretly walked down the aisle, too. A brief reunion with her military husband during a 1957 USO tour of Germany resulted in pregnancy — and in Martin’s subsequent booting from the RCA roster the following year. Rock ‘n’ roll, with its beguiling rhythms and subversive beat, was devilish enough without a young, pregnant bride with declining record sales as its cover girl. RCA had been quick to shun Martin in life; in death, it appeared as if every other record company was, too.
Until mid-2011, when that bastion of rockabilly affiliated breaking news, Facebook, introduced me to the Janis Martin Kickstarter campaign.
The concept behind the effort was simple. Flores, having grown weary of the skepticism and rejection expressed from record label movers and shakers, decided to take matters into her own hands. With noted drummer Bobby Trimble in the co-producer’s chair and with the assistance of Kickstarter, an online platform designed to work as an intermediary between worthwhile projects and potential backers, she launched an initiative to sponsor Martin’s long overdue album. Kickstarter had provided the impetus for funding a number of meaningful works. Books had been published; documentaries had been filmed. Why shouldn’t Janis Martin’s record be one of them?
My heart drummed an excited tempo. Blood rushed through my ears. This has to happen, I thought to myself. I have to do this. For someone who had cut her musical teeth on Buddy Holly — someone who had tried to emulate Martin’s inimitable snarl while singing along with “Will You, Willyum” — I was compelled to be a part of this cause.
I had to make a donation, but there was a problem — a big one. I was broke.
You know that old saying about not having two dimes to rub together? Well, in 2011, that was me. Heck, I was having enough difficulty keeping tabs on the few pennies that I did have in my pocket. Much of the year — and my income — had been spent doubling my car payments in a frantic attempt to avoid paying higher interest rates. Increased property taxes and the ever climbing cost of gas weren’t helping my nonexistent portfolio, either. “I can manage $5,” I told myself, but an annoyingly loud voice reverberating inside of my skull declared that a five-spot wasn’t enough. I wanted — had — to do more. So, I dug amongst my couch cushions and pawed through the pockets of jeans heaped upon my closet floor. I shaved a few bucks off of a car payment and made more than one meal from that college dorm room staple, ramen noodles. Somehow, I scraped together $50 and, with fingers crossed and a smile twitching about my lips, I made my donation.
I had done my part; now, it was time to wait for others to do theirs… and they did. Again and again, the donation total ticked up by $5, $50; $100. By the time the fundraiser’s deadline had arrived, Martin’s supporters had generously given $16,571, substantially surpassing its $15,000 goal.
I sat silently in the darkened room, staring at the final tally screaming at me from my computer screen. A tear slowly glided down my cheek, followed by another. A sense of fulfillment washed over me. I was still broke — more so than before — but I felt empowered. For the first time in a very long while, I was happy. My contribution, as meager as it may seem to some, had mattered… and the proof resides in Martin’s musical farewell, “The Blanco Sessions”, slated for release on Sept. 18, 2012, for Cow Island Music.
It turns out that some music industry higher ups aren’t so bad, after all.
I will never have the opportunity to meet Janis Martin. I’ll never see her perform “Let’s Elope Baby”, or receive the chance to interview her for an article. The career resurrection that she had dreamed of will never materialize; instead, Martin’s music will live on through her surrogates, Flores, Marti Brom and Kim Lenz, who plan to perform selections from “The Blanco Sessions” during assorted shows.
The Janis Martin T-shirt that I received for my gift to the Kickstarter campaign sits in my laundry basket, waiting to be worn once more. I gaze at her photo — another Kickstarter reward — hanging on my living room wall amongst framed pictures of Eddie Cochran, Bill Haley and a tawdry velvet painting of Elvis, and can’t help but grin. Martin’s decision to forgo a lifetime of performing and endless drives in cramped vehicles belied the rebellious streak that wound its way into her music, a defiance that, at the age of 67, inspired her to return to a tiny studio in Blanco, Texas and create some of the finest tunes that I’ve heard in some time. With roots music mainstays, guitarist Dave Biller and pianist T Jarrod Bonta, lending their considerable talents to the disc, how could Martin miss? Simply put, she doesn’t — but it’s a shame that she won’t be around to enjoy the accolades that “The Blanco Sessions” so richly deserves.
Perhaps, in death, Martin will make the comeback that she had longed for, a final poke to the eye of those who refused to believe that neither age nor gender, nor societal stereotypes, should limit what a talented woman can accomplish. It’s one final lesson from the definitive “Female Elvis”.
Published: August 31, 2012