Lena Martell was the first Scottish woman to top the UK charts as a solo artist in 1979, when her version of Kris Kristofferson’s One Day at a Time was a global hit, selling 2.5 million copies in the UK and also topping the charts in three other countries.
Martell’s short period as a pop star at close to the age forty belies an unusual and interesting career and life, either side of this successful interlude.
Born Helen Thomson in 1940 in Possilpark, she was singing with big bands in the ballrooms of Glasgow from the start of the following decade at the behest of her older brother, Allan, a sax player on the local dance band circuit.
His death in a road accident in his early twenties encouraged his sister to change her name (her Dad called her Lena, Martell came from the popular brandy) and pursue a career in music.
Within a decade, and still in her early twenties, she had made her first appearances on television on The Friday Show and Bernard Delfont’s Sunday Show. With a memorable voice, she was well-suited to the type of Light Entertainment shows that dominated the musical output of the BBC and ITV and, having established herself on the variety, musical theatre and cabaret circuit in the interim, she had her own network television shows throughout the 1970s.
These began with Presenting Lena Martell (which had two series in 1971 and 1973) and were followed by Music With Martell (1974), Make The Music Speak (1977) and Lena’s Music (1979).
Managed and produced by former bandleader and radio presenter, George Elrick, he tried, with some success, to position Martell as an equal of Barbara Streisand or Shirley Bassey and other singers who had transcended boundaries between genres and media. Indeed, Martell understudied for Streisand on a Broadway production of Funny Girl.
By this point signed to Pye Records and with a number of albums under her belt, this strategy peaked in 1979 with the hit single and tv show that, at its peak, reached 12.5 million viewers.
Thereafter, Martell’s life and career were to enjoy more lows than highs, resulting in her withdrawing from music for the best part of two decades. This included cancer, bankruptcy, a triple heart bypass and caring for her mother who had dementia.
There is, however, something of a happy ending. After an anthology was released in 2003, she began recording again for the Scotdisc label in 2006, sticking largely to the same formula that established her in the first place, including some more Kristofferson covers. She also began playing live again in her seventies and could still hold a tune, as this 2016 version of One Day At Time on the Janey Kirk show proves.