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Rhythm, Blues And Rockabilly: How R&B Queen Ruth Brown Inspired Singer Janis Martin

Janis Martin
Janis Martin. (Photo: Library of Virginia)

*This story is part of the VPM series Virginia's Country Music Roots.

Born in Sutherlin, Virginia, Janis Martin started singing and playing the guitar by the time she was six. She was nicknamed “The Female Elvis” for her energetic stage presence. Gregg Kimball, a historian at the Library of Virginia, said Martin’s surroundings helped shape her musical taste.

“Janis Martin tells a story about going and listening at a black church, outside of the church,” Kimball said. “This was like part of the culture and you know, a lot of young white people were really, deeply moved by that music.”

He said her twist on country music is what made her stand out.

“She's getting a little tired of the standard country fare and she hears this rhythm and blues singer,” Kimball said.

That singer was Portsmouth native Ruth Brown — who, as a teenager, would sneak out at night to perform for soldiers at USO clubs in the area. Brown’s son, Ronn McPhatter said his mother’s singing career was limited in Portsmouth.

“She left home and headed for D.C., and she was singing with the Lucky Millinder Band,” McPhatter said.

Soon after, Atlantic Records offered her a contract. McPhatter said the label was called “the house that Ruth built.” Brown became known as the “Queen of R&B.” She recorded “Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean” in 1952. The hit song inspired countless covers, including Janis Martin's.

Co-opting black music has been a common practice since before records existed — and rockabilly was no exception. In a 2006 interview, Martin spoke about her direct appropriation of Ruth Brown’s style.

“When I heard it, I said ‘that is my music.' But still being white in the ‘50s, you couldn’t really go out and do it. So, we kinda tried to combine what they call hillbilly music in with the rhythm and blues,” Martin said.

While that appropriation made Martin famous, she didn’t benefit as much as people like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis did.

For Martin's idol Ruth Brown, economic success was also elusive. She didn't receive royalties from record sales until decades later. In a 1988 interview, Brown painted a picture of what it was like to tour as a black entertainer in the 1950s.

“The different restrooms, sometimes no restrooms, not being allowed to go in and purchase food, and sit down and enjoy,” Brown said. “John Coltrane, I have a picture somewhere that’s priceless, of he and I in the deep south where we had to get our food at the back door. We were sitting out with recent newspapers spread on-top of a garbage can to eat. That was John Coltrane.”

Due to problems with her label, Atlantic, Brown had to get a nine-to-five job.

Martin’s career also stalled after RCA found out that she and her husband were expecting their first child. In an interview with film producer Beth Harrington, Martin said the label gave her an ultimatum, and threatened to drop her.

“I was called in, and the suggestion was made that maybe we can do something about this little problem that I had and, uh, no way. I wouldn’t do it,” Martin said.

Even though Martin no longer had a label, she toured periodically. At 21 she decided to focus on family. About 40 years later, she got a call from singer and songwriter Rosie Flores while working at the Danville Country Club. It led to her first studio work since the ‘50s.

Flores met Martin at a show during the second half of her singing career. In 1995, she recorded duets with Martin for her album “Rockabilly Filly.” She said Martin had all the makings of a star.

“She had the talent, she had the look, she had the charisma, she was writing songs. She just had everything,” Flores said her voice got better with age. “You could hear the difference on Rockabilly Philly from listening to her early stuff, how it developed into this amazing velvety voice — soulful.”

At a rockabilly showcase in 2006, Martin finally met Ruth Brown. Before the pair shared the stage, Martin told the audience that Brown’s music made her into the songstress she was.

“In all the years I’ve been out here playing for you guys for a second time — I had an idol. When I was 13-years-old I heard Ruth Brown sing,” Martin said.

Hundreds of fans packed into a hotel ballroom to watch the women perform together. Martin was moved to tears.  Both Brown and Martin died in the months following the performance. Rosie Flores produced Martin’s final record “The Blanco Sessions.” It was released five years after her death.

Throughout the decades, both women have been greatly revered. Brown was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and Martin was recognized by the Library of Virginia.

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