Rockabilly Pioneers Wanda Jackson and Janis Martin Have Some “Unfinished Business”

Videos by American Songwriter

(Janis Martin)

Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis. These names come quickly to mind when thinking of the original rockabilly greats. Besides these pioneering kings, however, there were several women who were rocking it with the boys back in the day. Coincidentally, this autumn sees new releases from the two preeminent rockabilly queens: Wanda Jackson and Janis Martin. Jackson’s Justin Townes Earle-produced Unfinished Business comes out October 9 on Sugar Hill, while The Blanco Sessions represents Martin’s last recordings, which Rosie Flores produced in 2007 less than five months before Martin’s death.

Of the two, Jackson is the better-known performer. From the mid-Fifties through the early Sixties, she scored a number of hit singles, like “Fujiyama Mama” and “Let’s Have A Party.” She also toured with Elvis Presley and was rumored to have dated him for him briefly. In the Seventies, she turned to religion but never fully retired from music. Jackson has experienced a major comeback in the past years, getting elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in 2009), receiving the Americana Lifetime Achievement Award (2010) and having Jack White produce her The Party Ain’t Over CD (2011).

Janis Martin also started rock ‘n’ rolling in the mid-Fifties, with her first 1956 single “Drugstore Rock ‘n Roll” probably being her biggest hit. Dubbed the “female Elvis,” she even recorded a tune “My Boy Elvis.” Despite being named Billboard’s Most Promising Female Vocalist, Martin’s music career basically ended in 1960 after she got married and became a mother while still a teen. She popped back up on the rockabilly radar in the mid-Eighties when the fine German reissue label Bear Family compiled a Martin collection (her complete recordings only amounted to 30 tracks). Her profile rose higher when she appeared on Flores’ 1995 Rockabilly Filly album, which also featured a guest spot from Wanda Jackson, with whom Flores later toured.

Besides the Presley and Flores connections, Martin and Jackson also shared a feistiness that was rare to see in female musicians in the Fifties. Earle, in a phone conversation, used the term “a good girl with a dirty voice” to described Jackson, while also talking about the “raw sexuality” in Jackson’s music. Flores, meanwhile, asserted that Jackson “was the first to break out of the demure chick singer mold” and that Martin drew Elvis comparisons “because of her energetic wiggling around and her spark for that music that was born out of the hillbilly country style that married rhythm and blues. Janis…certainly loved to shake it up!”

(Wanda Jackson and Justin Townes Earle)

Both Earle and Flores have done a great production jobs in showcasing Jackson and Martin on these new CDs as women who can still rock. First time producer Earle revealed that his guiding principal was to keep in mind “how will this work for Wanda.” He called her “one of the famous voices of all time” so he wanted the backing musicians to be “behind Wanda, not playing on top of her.” He admitted that the actual recording session came out quickly, which he found to be an advantage because “sometimes over-thinking is it own worst enemy.”

Earle was successfully in creating a comfortable recording environment to let Jackson do her thing. It’s hard to imagine a 70-something singer sounding more spirited and youthful than Jackson does here, whether she’s doing a girl group-style version of Etta James’ “Pushover” or dreamy Western rendition of the Woody Guthrie/Jeff Tweedy tune “California Skies.”

Jackson, in an email, praised Earle’s work. “We got along fabulously,” adding “Justin already had a pretty clear idea of what he thought would be good for me to record. And, I agreed with all of his choices.” Earle, meanwhile, said that Jackson and her husband/manager Wendell Goodman brought in around 20 songs that they were interested in and he tried to make sure that they didn’t play it too safe.

The songs that stand as Jackson’s favorites are the rollicking roadhouse rocker “I’m Tore Down” (made famous by Freddie King) and “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome,” a Justin Townes Earle tune. “When I heard it I liked it immediately,” Jackson revealed. “It’s been so long since I have recorded a straight ahead country song and I really got a kick out of singing it.” It’s Jackson’s wonderful voice that powers Unfinished Business for, as Earle proclaimed, “she is a goddamn good live singer.”

Listening to Janis Martin’s equally as vibrant singing on The Blanco Sessions it is remarkable to consider that she was just months away from dying of lung cancer. Even though she hadn’t recorded an album in decades, Martin displays a robust voice, full of character and vitality, on what turned out sadly to be her final recording sessions.

Like Earle did on Unfinished Business, Flores and her co-producer, drummer Bobby Trimble, assembled a terrific set of songs for Martin to perform. While the CD projects a rockabilly vibe, the songs range from Bill Monroe’s Walk Softly On This Heart Of Mine” to “As Long As I’m Movin’,” which was made famous by R&B icon Ruth Brown (an idol of Martin’s).

Flores and Trimble spent a lot of time searching for tunes for Martin to sing. She revealed that she asked Martin to write some songs but Martin was interested in “rocking out and finding cover songs that she loved singing,” according to Flores. “Roll Around Rockin’,” a beach music nugget, was a tune that Martin brought to the sessions, while Ronnie Dawson’s fun rocker “Wham Bam Jam” was a Trimble idea that “just fit her perfect,” in Flores’ words. “Sweet Dreams,” long associated with Patsy Cline, was Flores’ choice because “I thought she sang it better than Patsy Cline.” However, Flores stated that Martin’s version of the Blasters’ “Long White Cadillac” probably is her favorite track because “she pours everything she’s got into her vocals.”

The release of The Blanco Sessions (Sept. 18th), signals the long-awaited realization of a dream for Flores. Ever since hearing Martin sing in 1995 for her Rockabilly Filly album, Flores had wanted to do a whole album with her. “I was blown away by how strong her voice still was,” Flores recalled. It took Flores over a decade to finally get Martin in the studio and happily she still sang with soul and power. After Martin’s sudden death, Flores made it her mission to get the album out and it took another five years filled with label rejections before she finally is releasing the record herself thanks to a Kickstarter campaign.

Although Flores has her own successful career (and a new album Working Girl’s Guitar), she is wants to continue to build Martin’s legacy and will feature Martin songs in her concerts. Flores also plans to tour some with fellow rockabilly songstress (and Martin fan) Marti Brom. “It’s going to be a blast and I can’t wait to get out there and rock with Marti in Janis’ spirit.

Jackson, who last year was Adele’s special opening act, will also be performing this fall, including an October 12th New York City concert coming days after the Oct. 9th release of Unfinished Business, her 31st album. When asked what she likes about making music now, Jackson replied, with a laugh, “I like the fact that I can still can!”


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