Rockabilly’s Janis Martin Dies

Rockabilly pioneer Janis Martin, who once was billed as "The Female Elvis," has died. She was 67.

Martin died Monday of cancer at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, her husband said Tuesday.

Bradley Whitt, her husband of 28 years, said Martin learned she had cancer shortly after what turned out to be her last public performance — a cancer benefit in Richmond in March.

Martin rose to fame in the ’50s as Elvis Presley’s label mate at RCA Victor, which promoted her as "The Female Elvis.” Her first record and biggest hit, "Will You Willyum,” was released in 1956, when Martin was just 15. The song made the Billboard Top 10 for one week and sold about 750,000 copies.

She appeared on "The Tonight Show” and "American Bandstand” and toured with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Faron Young, Hank Snow, Porter Waggoner and Jim Reeves. She became a star in Europe and remains popular there today, Whitt said.

Martin was voted Billboard’s most promising female artist in 1956. She formed her own band, The Marteens, and played clubs and fairs before temporarily retiring from show business in 1958. She remained largely inactive in the business until the late ’70s, when the rockabilly revival led to extensive tours in Europe and introduced Martin to a new generation of fans.

"She was a free-spirited lady who was devoted to her fan base — loved every fan that she had,” Whitt said in a telephone interview. "She would stay for hours after a show and never leave a person standing, taking pictures and signing for them for four or five hours.”

She had been scheduled to perform at The Americana, an international rockabilly show in England, on July 4 but had to cancel because of her illness, Whitt said.