There are few people on this planet that would walk away from the trajectory of fame that Linda Martell left behind. After breaking big into the country music industry in 1969, our May AMPLIFY feature retired just five years later, in 1974.
Linda Martell, born on June 4, 1941, will be seventy-five years old in just a few weeks. Unlike most of our prior (and future) AMPLIFY features, Martell is still alive, although she has kept largely to herself since her retirement in 1974. She grew up in Leesville, South Carolina (1), and developed her singing abilities in the gospel choir of St. Mark’s Baptist Church, with her sister and three brothers. Martell, her siblings, and her cousin formed a band, and three of the girls (Martell, her sister, and cousin) formed an all-female vocal trio called the Anglos. The Anglos recorded their first single when Martell was twenty-one. According to the Ebony’s 1970 interview with Martell, the group enjoyed mild success, singing behind The Drifters and Jimmy Hughes (2, 3).
Linda Martell’s “big break” came in 1969, after a performance at the Charleston Air Force Base. Duke Rayner, a furniture-salesman-turned-music-agent (3), heard Martell perform a country-western song after the audience pleaded (or heckled… I suspect history was too kind to these spectators) with the singer to perform a country song instead of R&B. When Martell gave in to their request (demand?), the crowd was stunned, and Duke Rayner decided then that Martell should be a star. Martell thought that Rayner was a bit nuts, because he made six long-distance phone calls to convince her to record.
The first black person to perform at the Grand Ole Opry was “Country Charlie” Pride, in 1967, so Rayner suspected that he may have success as an agent if he ‘discovered’ a woman of color with incredible talents (3). Rayner’s suspicions proved true; after the aforementioned six long-distance phone calls he made to Martell to convince her to travel to Nashville, Martell’s first single was recorded, released, and she was signed to a label by Shelby Singleton (3). The single: Color Him Father, the record label: Plantation Records.
Color Him Father climbed to the Top 25 when it was released, earning Linda Martell her first Grand Ole Opry performance in August of 1969, appearing with Roy Acuff (1). Throughout her short career, Martell would perform an impressive eleven more times on the coveted stage. She released two singles in 1970 that appeared in the Top 60, but it was suspected that Martell retired so she could spend time with her husband and children (1). When Martell’s career first ignited, she mentioned concerns over the toll all of the travel would take on her relationship with her children and husband (3). In 1974, after her twelth Grand Ole Opry performance, Martell retired from her career in the spotlight.
As I was reading about Linda Martell, I couldn’t shake the idea that her career in Nashville in a genre dominated by white men and Confederate flags must have been incredibly emotionally trying. When she performed at the Grand Ole Opry, she looked out at the Confederate Galley sign, and sang song for a label named Plantation Records. Reminders that she was far from her R&B and Gospel roots lurked in every direction and here seemed to be white men at every turn looking to take a slice of Martell’s success. As a white woman, I can even begin to comprehend what Martell may have gone through.
I struggled to find a lot of reliable information on the internet about Linda Martell, but I was able to find a lot of her recordings readily available on YouTube. So please, if you do nothing else, take the time to listen to Linda Martell’s incredible voice and please let us know your favorite Linda Martell song! There is no doubt that Martell’s brief career paved the way for future black artists.
Dearest HerStory readers, I leave you with my invitation for feedback. Suggestions, criticisms, questions, corrections - I want it all! I’m trying to help educate the HerStory community on the badass women of our past, but I still have a lot to learn myself.
- Ashlee Christensen
Linda Martell’s Timeline
Compiled using all sources
June 4, 1941 - Linda Martell is born. Her birth name is Thelma Bynem. She was born in Leesville, South Carolina.
1962 - Recorded first single, as the lead singer of the Anglos.
1969 - Martell was ‘discovered’ by Duke Rayner when she performed at Charleston Air Force Base. This moment resulted in a meeting with Shelby Singleton, producer and record label owner.
Summer, 1969 - Color Him Father, Martell’s first single, is released, making the Top 25.
August, 1969 - Martell makes her Grand Ole Opry debut, appearing with Roy Acuff.
1970 - Two singles were released by Martell, "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" and "Bad Case of the Blues". Both made the Top 60.
1974 - Martell retires, after her 12th Grand Ole Opry performance.
3) “Country Music Gets Soul” from EbonyMagazine, 1970, volume 25, pages 66-72
Ashlee Christensen lives in Pittsburgh, PA. She is an Illinois native - grew up in the Chicago suburbs, went to school at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL, and lived in the city of Chicago up until 2015. In June 2015, she packed up with her partner and moved to the city she has absolutely fallen in love with, Pittsburgh! When she's not at work, she can be typically be found in yoga class, working on the next edition of AMPLIFY, cuddling with George the cat, or enjoying trying to figure out what next home improvement task she is going to take on. Follow her nonsense on Twitter: @trashleeinpgh.