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Linda Martell, The Black Grand Ole Opry Star Who Disappeared

Music | November 18, 2020

R&B and Country singer Linda Martell poses for a portrait circa 1969 in Nashville, Tennessee (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

In a genre dominated by white men, Linda Martell changed the course of history as one of the earliest black female country stars even while suffering the slings and arrows of racism. Martell brought a new style of emotion to country music with her big, soulful voice. Although she broke new ground as the first black female to perform at The Grand Ole Opry and released a few hits, she is considered a hidden gem who disappeared from the spotlight after an unnecessarily short career. Today Martell’s name is obscure even to some of the biggest country enthusiasts. The unsung hero deserves more recognition for her immense contributions and influence to the country world.

Linda Martell Got Her Start Singing Gospel In Church

Source: Pinterest

Linda Martell was born as Thelma Bynem in Leesville, South Carolina in 1941 and began her musical endeavors singing in the gospel choir at her all-black Baptist church. As a teenager in the late ‘50s, she formed a family band The Anglos with her sister and cousin, and the group mesmerized local DJ Charles “Big Saul” Greene. Greene saw great potential in the group, especially with Martell, so he consulted them on their image and even was the one who encouraged Martell’s name change from Thelma Bynem. The group, now with the name Linda Martell & The Anglos, released a few singles, but nothing career-changing. Martell began singing on her own throughout the ‘60s focusing on R&B and pop when she met her first husband, drummer Clark Thompson.

Martell Was Discovered At An Air Force Base

Source: Pinterest

During a gig at an Air Force base in South Carolina, K Furniture Store owner William Duke Rayner watched Martell blow crowds away with her powerful voice. The retail worker knew this could be how he could finally break into the music industry, a career he'd desired for many years. Rayner offered to lead Martell as her manager, and proceeded to introduce the singer to Shelby Singleton Jr., a highly respected name in A&R at Mercury Records. Singleton, who was always trying to step outside the norm and bring unique artists onto the scene who could push the boundaries, had a very innovative idea for Martell that was a bit unexpected. He asked the R&B and gospel artist to sing country. Although hesitant at first, Martell agreed -- after all, she had grown up listening to old country artists with her family -- and she trusted the producer. Straightaway, Singleton gathered a group of session musicians to record "Color Him Father" with Martell on vocals. A more famous version of the same song had already been recorded by soul group The Winstons; it would win the Grammy Award for Best R&B Song in 1970. It took some time for Martell to become comfortable with singing the song with her own soulful twist that fused together country and R&B, rather than singing it exactly how it sounded on the Winstons' record. By the end of the day, Martell’s first album Color Me Country has been recorded featuring popular tunes "Bad Case Of The Blues," "The Wedding Cake," and "I Almost Called Your Name."

Linda Martell Played The Opry 12 Times

Source: 8 Tracks

Albums go out of print, and songs fade from the airwaves, but milestones are harder to forget. Martell’s greatest feat was when she became the first black solo female to perform at the Grand Ole Opry in 1969. Although extremely nervous to take the stage of the biggest weekly country show that launched the careers of some of the greatest white country stars, Martell stunned the audiences with her talent and received two standing ovations. This courageous act, in a cultural space and geographical region that had its racist tendencies, propelled Martell's career to a new level. She was invited back to The Opry eleven more times. Martell was even considered for hosting another country variety show, but that one never worked out.  

Racism Was A Harsh Obstacle For Martell

Source: Oxford American

Martell’s career built on the progress in country music made by Charley Pride and Ray Charles, but she did face the intense cruelty of racism, even with her own producer. Singleton critically offended Martell when he informed her that her music was now going to be released on his new label dedicated to country music called Plantation Records. Martell accused Singleton of promoting that “black people belonged on the planation,” but Singleton denied that the name was tied to slavery. Martell did not really have a choice, since she knew Singleton was in charge of her career, so she begrudgingly signed to Plantation. The racism only grew from that point on as Martell was viciously heckled when she played live shows. One promoter cancelled a show in Beaumont, Texas when he realized she was black; audience members would tell her she didn’t sound black; and a show executive tried to teach Martell how to pronounce words correctly so she wouldn’t "embarrass" them during her performance on the variety show Hee Haw. Because Hee Haw, as we all know, was all about proper pronunciation. Martell disregarded his instructions and sang the song as she always did, which left the executive in a rage. Charley Pride advised Martell to ignore the racist slurs and toughen up in order to survive the prejudice that was then more or less baked into the genre. Singleton, on the other hand, began booking her in more racially diverse cities because of the hostility she faced from all-white audiences. 

Waylon Jennings And Hank Snow Were Fans

Source: Amazon

Following her debut album’s release in 1970, Martell was becoming a sensation, so she moved to Nashville, country music's Mecca, with her second husband Ted Jacobs. By leading the life of a country star and performing with famous white musicians, she blazed a trail for all future black country artists who might never have had the chance to enter the country world. "Color Me Country" reached #22 on the country chart, giving Martell the opportunity to perform with some of the top country legends including Waylon Jennings and Hank Snow, who both adored her voice along with her charming personality. 

Competition From Her Own Label Mate

Racism was not the only element that chipped away at Martell’s career. Jeannie C. Riley was also on Plantation Records, and in 1968 had given Singleton his biggest hit, in fact one of the biggest country hits of the '60s: "Harper Valley P.T.A." Singleton’s entire focus was on Riley and Martell was almost completely forgotten about as she was no longer being promoted. Martell wasn’t going to accept the ignoring, so she left Plantation Records to record new songs with a different label. Singleton halted her career when he threatened to sue the now-forgotten label and blacklisted her from the whole country industry. Martell’s reputation was ruined through no fault of her own so she decided to give up her professional career in music by 1974 and then disappeared into oblivion.

Martell Left The Country World And Never Looked Back

Source: Wide Open Country

Over the ensuing decades Martell occasionally picked up the microphone, but only for small audiences who were unaware of her previous fame. She spent time as a cruise ship singer in Los Angeles, but California was not enthusiastic about true country music (they were more interested in country-rock like The Byrds and The Eagles). She then moved to New York and opened a record store focusing on R&B and disco music, not even selling her own record. During the ‘80s, she relocated to Florida and sang in an R&B cover band with her brother Lee playing the keyboard. Eventually, she abandoned music altogether and moved back to her home state of South Carolina during the ‘90s to spend more time with her children. It was here that she picked up her second most memorable job -- as a bus driver. She also began working in a classroom with children with disabilities where she occasionally revealed her past and played her old records to her amazed students. The people of the town remembered Martell as the sweet bus driver and had no idea of her country stardom. In 2004, Martell retired when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Today, she remains hidden from the public eye but should forever be remembered for her inspiring life and career. 

Tags: Country Music | Linda Martell | Music In The 1960s | Racism | Rare Facts And Stories About History | What Did She Do?...

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Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.