Marty Robbins - Biography
By J Poet
Marty Robbins was one of country music’s most eclectic talents, a restless creative soul who left his mark on pop, rockabilly, folk, country and cowboy music with dozens of gold and platinum albums and singles. He was the first country singer to appear in Las Vegas and the first to win a Grammy – Best Country Song for “El Paso.” He wrote many of his own hits and a novel, acted in movies and TV shows, started his own record label and publishing company, and was a nationally rated NASCAR driver. His hit albums Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs (1959 Columbia) and More Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs (1960 Columbia) helped bring the Western back to country and western music at a time when many considered folk and cowboy songs passé. He was also the first singer to have a hit featuring fuzztone guitar, 1961’s “Don’t Worry” which crossed over to pop. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1981, a few months before he died.
Robbins was born near Glendale, Arizona in 1925. The family was poor and Robbins worked while attending grammar and high school. His early idol was Gene Autry, and Robbins often walked eight miles to the nearest movie theater to watch Autry’s films. He decided to be a singing cowboy before he was a teenager. He dropped out of High School at 17 to join the Navy and drove a LCT (landing craft tank) in the Pacific. He started concentrating on his guitar playing in the Navy, and also started writing songs. After the war he played with a local band before landing a slot on Chuck Wagon Time on KPHO in Phoenix. He also married Marizona Baldwin; the couple stayed together until Robbins died. Robbins next hosted the 15-minute Country Caravan, where he met “Little” Jimmy Dickens who was in town for a gig. Dickens was so impressed by Robbins’ singing that he called Columbia A&R man Art Satherly who signed Robbins in 1951.
Robbins was offered 20 tunes from Nashville writers for his first recording sessions, and when he said he could write better songs himself, it almost ended his record deal. Columbia finally gave in, but his first two self-penned singles went nowhere. The third, “I’ll Go It Alone,” made it into the country Top 10 and won Robbins a writing deal with Acuff-Rose, the most successful publishing hose at the time.
“I’ll Go It Alone” got Owen Bradley's an invitation to pay The Grand Ole Opry and in 1953 he moved to Nashville. Robbins racked up more Top 10s including “I Couldn't Keep From Crying” and a cover of the Elvis Presley hit “That's All Right Mama.” In 1955 he cut “Singing the Blues” at Owen Bradley’s studio, his first #1 country record. It crossed over and landed in the pop Top 20. Rock’n Rollin’ Robbins (1996 Koch) is a reissue of Robbins first 10’ LP Marty Robbins Sings (1956 Columbia) with additional tracks.
In 1957 Robbins wrote his first smash, the teen drama “A White Sport Coat (and A Pink Carnation)” which stayed on the charts 22 weeks hitting #1 country and #2 pop. Rather than cash in on his growing pop credibility, Robbins did a U turn and released Song of the Islands (1957 Columbia, 1999 Bear Family) a collection of Hawaiian love songs. He quickly followed it with two more conventional albums The Song of Robbins (1957 Columbia) and Marty Robbins (1958 Columbia). The next year Robbins was asked to write the title tune for the Gary Cooper Western The Hanging Tree. “The Hanging Tree” single was a hit and inspired Robbins to compose more cowboy songs. Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs (1959 Columbia) went gold, driven by the gold single “El Paso,” which also became the first country song to win a Grammy. More Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs (1960 Columbia) did almost as well and both crossed over to become pop hits as well. The royalties from “El Paso” allowed Robbins to buy a car pursue he dream of becoming a NASCAR driver.
In 1961 Robbins cut the heartrending “Don’t Worry,” another pop crossover hit. Grady Martin blew a tube in his amp during the recording session, giving his guitar a distorted, fuzzy sound that Robbins loved. That accidental fuzztone gave the single a unique sound and it hit #1 pop and country. Again, he refused to go pop and cash in on the success of “Don’t Worry.” Just a Little Sentimental (1961 Columbia) was a collection of old time pop standards, Devil Woman (1962 Columbia) was more straightforward country, despite the Latin/Calypso tinge of the title tune, another Robbins crossover hit, Marty After Midnight (1962 Columbia) was a collection of jazz standards, while Hawaii’s Calling Me (1963 Columbia) and Return of the Gunfighter (1963 Columbia) returned to more familiar territory.
Robbins began appearing in western movies, starting with Buffalo Gun (1962) and Ballad of a Gunfighter (1964). His last film was Clint Eastwood’s Honky Tonk Man (1982). Robbins never equaled his early chart success, but turned out many excellent albums for the remainder of the 60s including RFD Marty Robbins (1964 Columbia), the sacred album What God Has Done (1965 Columbia), The Drifter (1966 Columbia, 1997 Koch) a stripped down, folky collection of cowboy themed songs, My Kind of Country (1967 Columbia), and Tonight Carmen (1967 Columbia), named after Robbins’ hit of the same name.
In 1969 Robbins had a massive heart attack and underwent bypass surgery, but he was soon back in the studio. My Woman, My Woman, My Wife (1970 Columbia), a collection of love songs, was a successful return to normalcy and the self-penned title track won Robbins a Best Country Song Grammy. In the 70s he toured England, Australia, and Japan; he also had three accidents while driving in NASCAR competitions and stopped racing in 1974. He followed Porter Wagoner’s lead with a syndicated country TV show called Marty Robbins’s Spotlight in 1977. His last major album was El Paso City (1976 Columbia) but he continued to record, tour and play the Grand Ole Opry until his death of another heart attack in 1982.
There have been many reissues of Robbins albums over the years since his death. Good bets are Pieces of Your Heart (1985 Bear Family) a collection of odd outtakes, The Essential Marty Robbins (1991 Columbia), Marty Robbins Country 1951-1958 (1998 Bear Family), a five CD set with all of his early Columbia recordings, Marty Robbins Country 1960-1966 (1996 Bear Family), four CDs of his Columbia sides from the 60s, Under Western Skies (1996 Bear Family) which collects many of his cowboy songs including all the tracks from Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs and More Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs and Legends of the Grand Ole Opry: Marty Robbins (2007 Time Life) with live recordings of some of his biggest songs.