Wham Bam Jam
Janis Martin was an early rockabilly filly who kicked out the jams as a teenager in the mid-‘50s. RCA billed her as “the female Elvis” (remember, Presley was also on RCA) and her first single “Will You, Willyum” / “Drugstore Rock ‘n’ Roll” sold over 750,000 copies. The gritty girl appeared on the Grand Ole Opry, American Bandstand, and The Tonight Show. Billboard named her “Most Promising Female Vocalist for 1956”. The Virginia teenager seemed headed straight to stardom.
However, Martin secretly got married before signing with RCA and had a baby just a few years afterwards. RCA dropped the teen mom from her contract and not long after Martin stopped recording. She made a local comeback in Danville, Virginia during the late ‘70s and started playing locally as well as the occasional festival gig. This disc, recorded in 2007, was meant to herald her return.
Unfortunately, Martin learned that she had cancer a few months after she recorded this music. She died four months after the initial diagnosis. As album co-producer and project igniter Rosie Flores discovered, no one wanted to release a record an artist could not tour behind. Thanks to friends, fans and Kickstarter, the record has finally been released.
The Blanco Sessions reveals that Martin still had chops. She’s ably aided by the punchy production of Flores and fellow Texan Bobby Trimble (who both also assist as musicians), and a hot combo of Austin area singers and instrumentalists that include Kelly Willis, Beau Sample and Dave Biller. The 11 tracks here brim with vitality. This ain’t no retro record made to sound like back then. Martin still has the gusto to make the old styles sound fresh and new.
That’s probably why Flores had Martin lead off with Ruth Brown’s 1955 R&B hit, “As Long as I’m Movin’”. The lovesick narrator just can’t sit still. Martin swallows the words country style one minute and then brazenly growls the next. According to the liner notes, Martin idolized Brown and had a framed picture of her in her music room. She must have sung this song a million times in the privacy of her studio as she nails the number.
That is not the only energetic tune on the disc. Martin romps through Ronnie Dawson’s raunchy “Wham Bam Jam” and the oft-recorded rebel classic “Wild One (Real Wild One)”. Martin proves that she, a 65-plus-year-old legend from the past, can still rock and roll better than most others of any age.
Martin also can croon more sedate material. She covers Dave Alvin’s bluesy “Long White Cadillac” and lets the music simmer for effect. Martin also takes on Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams”, most famously sung by Patsy Cline shortly before her death back in 1963. It’s a gutsy move, because the listener cannot help but compare Martin to one of the greatest musical performances from—well, whenever. Cline and the song are both exceptionally great.
Somehow, Martin pulls it off. Oh, I don’t mean she can out-sing Cline. But Martin makes one forget about Cline while she sings. Martin vocalizes with control, passion, tonality, etc.—all of the things which make it turn into a fine performance. She can make one hear a classic song fresh again, which is a mighty achievement. Martin does a fine job on the rest of the material. The titles may be somewhat eclectic, but Martin makes them her own through her singing.
Martin did not know The Blanco Sessions would be her final testament. She left a hell of a will with this music.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.