Linda Martell: Country Music's Lost Pioneer - Rolling Stone

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Country's Lost Pioneer

Linda Martell was the first black female solo artist to play the Grand Ole Opry, but her promising country career was plagued by racism and ended almost as quickly as it began. Fifty years after her only album, she's speaking out

Long after the music faded out, she can still hear the hateful words. The year was 1969, and Linda Martell hoped to become one of country music’s breakthrough acts. She had a single on the charts, an album on the way, and the backing of a Nashville industry player. The next step was to play live, and her newly hired booking agent secured a gig in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, to work out her stage show. 

Martell had a warm smile, a stylish beehive, and a way with country phrasing, as heard on that hit single, “Color Him Father,” a story-song about a hardworking stepdad who cares for a woman and her seven children after her husband is killed in combat.

There was one other thing that set her apart: Linda Martell was a black woman, singing in a genre dominated by white acts. And that night, before she’d even sung a note, she heard a reaction she’d rarely heard during her years singing soul and R&B. “I remember that well,” she says. “You’d be singing and they’d shout out names and you know the names they would call you.” 

It’s more than 50 years later, and Martell, now 79, is sitting in the dining room of her daughter’s home in Irmo, South Carolina. Her long, gray-streaked hair falls to her shoulders, and she sports a Sunday-best white-and-black dress. “You’re gonna run into hecklers, and I did,” she continues, via Zoom. “Calling names. Name-calling. That was something else.” She shakes her head. “You felt pretty awful.” She also remembers what came next, when the promoter joined her onstage and told the crowd to either shut up or leave. Most of them, thankfully, stayed.

Recently, country music has shown some measure of progress in adding black voices: Kane Brown, Mickey Guyton, Jimmie Allen, and former Hootie and the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker have all made inroads in recent years. But black artists were even more of a rarity in country in the Sixties, and Martell helped smash that barrier: She was the first black female solo country artist to play the Grand Ole Opry, she landed three singles on the country charts, and she appeared on Hee Haw, the hugely popular, syndicated, country variety show. Her lone album, 1970’s Color Me Countryan alternately spunky and heart-melting honky-tonk set — stands with just about any country album released at the time, and it has aged remarkably well. “Country music’s come a long way, so I give kudos to her,” says Brown. “Color was a thing back then. It’s still a thing today, but it was worse back then. She was so brave.” 

But while pioneering black country acts like harmonica player DeFord Bailey and early crossover sensation Charley Pride are both in the Country Music Hall of Fame, Martell has been relegated to obscurity. Until it was recently reissued, her one album was out of print for decades. Her name rarely appears in country history books.

Looking for inspiration when she started her career, Guyton typed “black women country singers” into a search engine. Up popped Martell — a shock for someone who had grown up listening to white acts like Dolly Parton and LeAnn Rimes. “I didn’t even know she existed,” Guyton admits, echoing what Brown also said. “I felt really bad when I discovered that I didn’t know. What she went through, being heckled and called the n-word. I’ve wanted to quit the industry because of how difficult it is. I’ve been called [names] too.… It’s so similar, even though they were in such different times.”

For the last three decades, Martell has lived in virtual anonymity in South Carolina. But with her family’s urging, she feels the time has come to revisit her victory and her struggles. “That was a time and a half,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong. There were some beautiful people. And some not that beautiful.”

Thelma Bynem arrived into a segregated world. Born in 1941, one of five children, she grew up in the small town of Leesville, South Carolina, which had separate churches for white and black people. Her father, Clarence, was a sharecropper (other fellow sharecroppers still had homes on white farms, according to local historian Louise Riley). Thelma’s mother, Willie Mae, toiled away in a chicken slaughterhouse, which remains one of the central industries in the now combined towns of Batesburg-Leesville. Thelma began cooking dinners for her family when she was seven; it was the only way she could avoid working in the fields. 

linda martell

Martell in 1970

Isaac Sutton/Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy Ford Foundation, J. Paul Getty Trust, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Smithsonian Institution

As long as she can remember, she sang. Along with her family, she applied her hearty voice to gospel in her Baptist church. Country music lurked on the fringes. Her father’s favorite song, which he would often burst into around the house, was Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and the family was able to hear country tunes by way of tuning in to Nashville’s WLAC radio. 

As a teenager in the late Fifties, Thelma formed a trio, the Anglos, with one of her sisters and their cousin, and they began performing at local clubs. Visually and vocally, Thelma came across like a Southern version of Ronnie Spector, a deep throb embedded in a big voice. A local DJ, Charles “Big Saul” Greene — who helped promote James Brown and Little Richard early in their careers — saw her sing at school. He soon played a pivotal role in her transformation. “He said, ‘Thelma ain’t good for a stage name,’” she recalls, “and he scribbled on a piece of paper and said, ‘Your name is Linda Martell. You look like Linda. That fits you.’” She liked the sound of it.

Initially billed as Linda Martell & the Anglos, the group released its first single, 1962’s “A Little Tear (Was Falling From My Eyes)” on the New York-based Fire label. Martell remembers taking a nine-hour bus ride to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to cut it. It wasn’t promoted and didn’t sell. The group released a couple of other singles, including “Lonely Hours,” on Vee-Jay, home to the earliest U.S.-released Beatles singles. Credited to the newly spelled Angelos, which now included Martell’s brother Elzie (Lee for short), “Lonely Hours” was simmering, forlorn girl-group pop. But it too did nothing for their career or bank accounts. “We learned that the music business is most difficult,” she says, “and you can really, really be fleeced.”

The group broke up when their cousin got married, and Martell carried on singing R&B in Carolina clubs. When she was 19, she had married drummer Clark Thompson, and the couple had three children. Around 1966, she attended an Otis Redding concert in South Carolina; as Martell and family members recall, he sang one song directly to her and then kissed her on the lips. Martell says Redding then asked her to go on the road with him in some capacity, but her husband Clark prohibited it: “He knew what would occur,” says their daughter Tikethia. Martell and Clark separated in 1966. Redding died in a plane crash — while on the road — a year later. 

Martell in the Sixties

Courtesy of the Bear Family

Nobody, not even Martell, would have guessed what came next. William “Duke” Rayner, who ran the K Furniture store in Nashville, saw Martell singing at an Air Force base in South Carolina; at the crowd’s urging, she did a couple of country covers. Hungry to enter the music business, Rayner offered to pay for a demo tape. Martell initially blew off his calls, thinking he was “a kook.” But she finally listened and took him up on his offer. Intent on managing Martell, Rayner introduced her to Shelby Singleton Jr., a stocky, wavy-haired man of all Nashville trades. Singleton had worked in A&R at Mercury Records, where he signed “King of the Road” songwriter and singer Roger Miller, and he produced records for both black and white artists, from George Jones and Jerry Lee Lewis to Dinah Washington. “Rhythm and blues and country music are the most parallel types of music,” he once said. “It’s the working people who make up the listeners for both.”

In 1969, Martell met with Singleton in the office of his company, and Singleton seemed to instantly realize that her ambitions had not been fulfilled. “He asked me, ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to go on like you were?’” she recalls. “I said, ‘I want to sing.’” To her surprise, he asked her if she could sing country. “I looked at him, like, ‘Really?’” she says, still sounding taken aback. “I was a little bit shocked! I was mostly doing pop. But he said, ‘You gotta go country.’” 

It was a risky move. Black contributions — from the banjo to string music to the harmonica — were among the building blocks of country music, but black singers had, by the Sixties, made few inroads into the genre. Bailey played the Grand Ole Opry from the mid-Twenties to early Forties. Much later, Ray Charles recorded country songs, and Pride, the son of a Mississippi cotton picker, scored a series of hits starting in the mid-to-late Sixties. And, like Pride, the few black artists who had consistent hits in country — like Stoney Edwards soon after Martell — were men. (Even Hollywood seemed to consider the idea of black country singers to be a joke: In Robert Altman’s 1975 Nashville, the character of Tommy Brown, the fictional country singer, was portrayed as a banal, neutered lightweight, heckled by a fellow African American as an “Oreo.”)

But Singleton and Rayner (who reportedly paid for Martell to record an initial demo) both saw commercial possibilities. “I figured that if I could find a colored girl that could sing country and western,” Rayner told Ebony in 1970, “I’d really have something.” Singleton died in 2009, but according to his brother John, who worked with him at the company, he liked to cut against the grain. “He was not afraid to do something different,” says John. “He didn’t care if the rest of the music business wasn’t doing it. He would jump into it. He thought that would be something really unique, if he could be the first one to have hits with a black female country artist. Charley Pride had been around for a few years by then, so Shelby felt that maybe the market was ready for a female black country artist.”

Even by Nashville’s efficient standards, things moved fast. On May 15th, 1969, Martell signed a management contract with Rayner; the next day, she put her signature on a one-year record deal with Singleton. Almost immediately, Singleton gathered Martell and session musicians together in one of his studios. There, he played everyone the original version of “Color Him Father,” by a D.C. soul group called the Winstons, then told Martell to sing it. 

Martell took one pass at it, but Singleton wasn’t happy. As Martell recalls, “He said, ‘Put your voice on there. I don’t want to hear the Winstons. I want to hear you.’ And that’s what I did.” Her father had told her there wasn’t anything she couldn’t accomplish if she set her mind to it, and he proved to be right. She approached the song as a little bit country, a little bit R&B, and just as important, she connected to the tale it was telling. “Country music tells a story,” she says. “When you choose a song and you can feel it, that’s what made me feel great about what I was singing. I did a lot of country songs, and I loved every one of them. Because they just tell a story.”

Martell in 2020

Kennedi Carter for Rolling Stone

One by one, Singleton would pull out a song, and Martell and the musicians would learn and record it on the spot. “Shelby used to push people,” she says. “He said, ‘Don’t dawdle.’” Inspired by memories of her father singing country hits, she pulled out a yodel in the honky-tonk shuffle “Bad Case of the Blues,” and her voice soared on the breakup ballad “San Francisco Is a Lonely Town.” Her own marital challenges informed her reading of “The Wedding Cake,” and she settled into the unrequited heartbreak of “I Almost Called Your Name.” The arrangements were lean and spunky, making her sound like the equal of Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette. “Those country musicians were something else,” she says with a laugh. “They would listen to me sing a line or two from a song and then put their instruments on it. That was amazing. It turned out beautifully.”

In one long 12-hour workday, the album was finished, and the single “Color Him Father” was on the market three days after Singleton signed her. “And from then on,” the focus of their attention says, “I was Linda Martell and doing country music.” 

Martell’s country makeover began with promise. She moved to Nashville with her second husband, TV-repair shop owner Ted Jacobs, and their combined four children from their previous marriages. Singleton hooked her up with the Hubert Long Agency, a Nashville company specializing in booking country acts. She was advertised in the South as the “First Female Negro Country Artist.” After that disturbing first show in Missouri, she appeared at an Austin country festival with acts including Waylon Jennings, who called her, as Martell recalls, “a little bit country, but a lot rock & roll.” At another, she was on the bill with baritone-voiced star Hank Snow of “I’m Movin’ On” fame. Upon its release, the industry trade mag Cashbox called “Color Him Father” a “pretty, pretty disk” that “should find appeal among country fans,” which proved correct: The single reached Number 22 on the country chart.

In 1969, Martell made her debut at the Opry, where, as she recalls, she reveled in two standing ovations; by her account, she appeared there a total of 12 times. (The Opry confirms her performances but has no records of the total number.) Her father, who drove up from South Carolina, would have preferred that she’d stuck with gospel, but gave his tacit approval. At various times at the Opry she was photographed with country icons like Roy Acuff and Lester Flatt. “I can only imagine what she was going through, how nervous she must have been, especially to do the Opry,” says Kane Brown. “It’s such a legendary place. But for her to do it back then, praise to her.… Going back to 1969, I wouldn’t even come close to attempting to do something like that. How did she have the courage to do that? I could talk to her for hours about that.”

Singleton released three straight Martell singles, followed by Color Me Country, in 1970. Her upbeat, eager-to-please persona prompted at least one TV executive to consider her for a job hosting a country talk-variety show. But the heckling and slurs Martell heard during her early country debuts were far from the most jarring surprises. One of those arrived early, when Singleton informed her that her music would be released not on his SSS International record company but on its sister label devoted to country — which sported the actual name of Plantation Records

From its launch in 1968, Plantation was home to both white and black artists. Martell says Singleton told her there wasn’t a specific reason he chose that name, with its slavery connotations. “I said, ‘Yes, there was,’” she recalls. “He said, ‘Of course not.’ I said, ‘Yes. What you are telling me is that black people belonged on the plantation!’” Singleton himself never made such a public declaration about the label’s name, and rarely, if ever, explained its origins; John Singleton says he doesn’t recall why his brother chose that name for his label. But lacking any other options, and fully aware of Singleton’s industry clout, Martell had little choice but to go along with his plan. “I didn’t like it,” she says, “but that’s the name he wanted.… There was very little that Shelby touched that didn’t turn to gold, and he knew it.”

It was only the first of many eye-opening experiences. She was booked for a show in Beaumont, Texas, but the promoter canceled it when she arrived and he saw she was black. Fans would tell her she didn’t sound black, which took her aback; she had no idea what that meant. Invited to perform on the all-important Hee Haw, a show executive approached her during rehearsals and instructed her on the correct way to pronounce her words. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. I’m singing this song — I’m gonna sing it like I always sing it,’” she recalls. “And that’s what I did. He wasn’t too happy about it. But I did anyway.”  

Martell onstage at the Grand Ole Opry in August 1969

Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum

Did she feel the comment was racist? “Yes, it was,” she says firmly. “It most always is when you’re in that kind of situation.” Told the story, Brown groans. “Anyone showing her how to pronounce her words, I didn’t know how to explain it. I would be so mortified.” At a Hee Haw party, Martell sought counsel from Pride. As Martell recalls, Pride gave her advice on how to survive in country: Develop a thick skin and get used to the name-calling. But adjusting to the taunts was not so easy. Singleton advised her to refrain from stage patter or addressing the audiences in any way. “He was right,” she admits. “A lot of times, you feel like saying, ‘OK, look here, I don’t wanna hear that. Please quit calling me names like that.’ But you can’t say that. You can’t say anything. All you can do is do your singing and try your best to forget about it.”

Singleton became more careful about which cities and venues Martell played. “But it was very hard,” Martell continues. “When you’re playing to an all-white audience — because Lord Jesus, they are prejudiced — you learn to not say too much. You can carry it a little too far if you’re correcting somebody. So you learn how not to do that.” Sensing how rattled she could get onstage, people would sometimes hand her drinks to get through a performance. She avoided drugs, she says, but alcohol helped calm her nerves. “Sometimes,” she says, with a smile, “it was a way to get through things.”

After a while, the taunting lessened but never entirely went away. “You still heard some names,” she says. “Maybe not loud names, but you’d hear them.… You wonder why people do it. Why not just sit there and enjoy the music? That time, that’s what you heard.” She looks off to the side, and her voice grows misty as memories of those nights and that heckling return to her thoughts. “But I guess,” she adds, “you go through anything.”  

Martell with manager Duke Rayner (left) and musician Leon Rhodes backstage at the Ryman Auditorium.

Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum

As quickly as Martell’s country rebirth arrived, it was over. Her difficulties started in May 1970, when Rayner sued Martell for failure to pay him commissions. He claimed she had already made $6,500 that year and had the potential to make $40,000 more, and he deserved his cut. According to Martell, Singleton made the case go away, one way or another.

But for Martell, a bigger issue was the attention paid to her labelmate, Jeannie C. Riley. In 1968, Plantation scored its biggest hit ever with Riley’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.” Riley, who was white, became an overnight sensation. Martell says Singleton sat her down and told her he would be focusing on Riley more than her. Martell was offended. “When Jeannie came on the scene, it seemed like he forgot all about me,” she says. “I was totally ignored at that time. I said,” — her voice softens — “ ‘OK, I understand.’ I thought he was still gonna promote me. But he just kept promoting Jeannie, and I told him I’m not gonna play second fiddle to Jeannie C. Riley. That’s when we separated.”

According to John Singleton, Martell’s break with his brother’s company had more to do with issues with Martell’s husband, Ted (who died in 2007). Martell decided to leave Plantation, and her contract specified that she could sign with another label once her contract was fulfilled. But no sooner had she cut a few new tracks for another, now-forgotten label than, she says, Shelby Singleton threatened to sue the other company, resulting in that new deal collapsing. “He blackballed me,” she says, a flash of anger taking over her face. “You heard the term? Well, he did that. So no one else would record me. It ruined my reputation in country music. Shelby had a lot of power during that time.” (John Singleton says he has no memory of this.)

For the next 20 years or so, Martell led a nomadic life in search of a career reboot. She returned to South Carolina, where she lived in a mobile home on her parents’ property. She and Jacobs split up, and his business partner became her new boyfriend. The couple returned to Nashville in the mid-Seventies. Then she briefly moved to Los Angeles, where she sang on a cruise ship and learned that most Californians weren’t crazy about country. She and her new beau then moved to, of all places, the Bronx, where they opened a record store. The shop focused on R&B and disco records, so copies of Color Me Country were never sold there, although Martell said that fact didn’t bother her at the time. “One way or another,” she says, “I was always associated with music.” 

Martell performing in South Carolina

Courtesy of Linda Martell

During her absence from country, a few more black female country acts — Ruby Falls, Barbara Cooper — emerged, although they didn’t get even as much recognition or chart success as Martell. One of the songs on Color Me Country, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” finally became a career-making hit — but for the Mexican American country singer Freddy Fender. 

In the Eighties, Martell wound up in Florida, fronting an R&B cover band led by her brother Lee, a keyboardist. Instead of country, she was now copying Gladys Knight hits. Finally, in the early Nineties, Martell returned home to South Carolina, in part to be closer to her children. Her father died in 1991, and to earn a living, she took a job driving a bus for the Batesburg-Leesville school district; eventually, she also worked in a classroom with children who have learning disabilities. The school kids knew nothing of her past, although on occasion they’d hear one of her old records. (“Color Him Father” was included on the 1998 collection From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music.) They were amazed,” she says. “They said, ‘Who’s that lady? Is that you?’ ‘Yeah, baby, that’s me.’” 

To some she was a local hero. At a high school assembly around that time, Martell was called to the stage for a special shout-out: “Others study about black history. We have black history right here in our own school,” the school principal told the crowd.

But others barely knew of her or that she worked in the area. Batesburg-Leesville town manager Ted Luckadoo, who was born in 1981, admits he never heard of Martell until he was contacted by Rolling Stone. When he then asked around to see if anyone remembered Martell, he learned that they did, as the kindly older lady who worked for the school system. “A couple of people said, ‘Yeah, I remember Linda Martell,’” he says. “I said, ‘Did you know she worked for our school district driving a bus for many years?’ ‘Thelma, who drove the bus? ‘Yeah, that’s Linda Martell.’ “What?’ People don’t put two and two together sometimes.” 

Her last two decades have been especially difficult. In 2004, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a difficult radiation treatment, eventually retiring from her job. When she sang, it was with a local R&B cover band, Eazzy; she doesn’t remember performing any of the material from Color Me Country since the Seventies. One of the last times she sang publicly was in 2011, when Eazzy were booked for a black-tie Christmas party in town that benefited Alzheimer’s research. She lived in a mobile home until, prompted by health concerns, Tikethia brought her mother to live with her and her family. 

Martell doesn’t keep up with much modern country, although what she’s heard doesn’t impress her much. It’s suggested that some people didn’t think “Old Town Road” was country at all. “It’s not!” she says with dismissive laugh. “They call it country now, but that’s not country. I don’t know what you call them. That’s how much it has evolved.” Her favorite country singer remains Anne Murray, the white Canadian country-pop star whose heyday was in the Seventies, and her favorite recent singer is the late Amy Winehouse: “She had a way with songs that made you want to sit up and listen. You can still listen to them now.”

Every so often Martell is recognized for her contribution. Although she isn’t in the Country Music Hall of Fame, her records and photos are at least included in its collection. A 2013 Lifetime movie, A Country Christmas Story, told the fictional story of a biracial teenager, Grace, who wants to be a country singer. In one scene, the history of black musicians in the genre is explained to her, and another, older character fills her in about Martell and shows her the LP cover of Color Me Country. Dolly Parton, who played herself in the movie, “liked the idea of making Grace biracial and mentioning the history of blacks in country,” says screenwriter Steven Peros. 

Budget restrictions didn’t allow for the use of any of Martell’s actual songs in the film, so no one watching A Country Christmas Story was able to hear her music. But at least it was recognition, if overdue. Martell’s songs can be heard on black country singer Rissi Palmer’s new podcast, Color Me Country, which premiered in late August. “It didn’t matter how successful or unsuccessful Linda was,” says Guyton. “Just the fact that she was there was groundbreaking.… Her story is pretty sad. But she gave me the courage to be here.”

As much as her one album, that courage may be her legacy. Does she at least take pride in paving the way for all the black country artists who have followed in her wake? The church-lady smile she often flashes fades a little. “Sometimes,” she replies, but says nothing more. 

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