Born Martin David Robinson, 26 September 1925, Glendale, Arizona
Singer / guitarist / songwriter.
Marty Robbins was one of the real greats in country music history. His versatile baritone enabled him to record in a myriad of styles, from saga songs to teenage pop ballads, from rockabilly to Hawaiian music. In his 31 years of recording, he was almost never off the country music charts, with a total of 94 chart records, including sixteen number ones.
Robbins and his twin sister, Mamie, were born into a poverty-stricken family and his early childhood was unhappy. His father, John Robinson, suffered from a drinking problem that led to him abusing his family before eventually leaving his wife, Emma, to cope alone with their seven children. Marty dropped out of high school and by the early 1940s he was becoming involved in a life of petty crime. He served in the Navy during 1943-1945 and saw action in the Pacific during World War II. While in the service, Robbins started to play the guitar and began to write songs. His musical career started in 1947, and he soon had his own radio and television shows on KPHO in Phoenix, performing under the names of either Martin or Jack Robinson. His break came in 1951, when, with the help of Little Jimmy Dickens (and by now known as Marty Robbins), he was signed by Columbia Records. He would remain with the label throughout his career, except for the period 1972-1975 when he recorded for Decca / MCA. His third Columbia single, "I'll Go On Alone" (1952), was not only his first chart entry, but also his first chart topper. It landed him a spot on the Grand Ole Opry, which he joined on January 19, 1953 and where he remained a regular until his death. Subsequently he moved from Arizona to Nashville.
For the next two years Robbins and his producer, Don Law, concentrated on ballads, like his second hit "I Couldn't Keep From Crying" (# 5). He acquired the nickname "Mr. Teardrop" and would later write and record a song with that title. By 1955 the ballad approach was faltering and his career received a welcome boost by the recording of rockabilly numbers, first Elvis Presley's "That's All Right (Mama)", which peaked at # 7 in Marty's version, and later in 1955 Chuck Berry's "Maybelline" (# 9). The next year he scored his biggest country hit with Melvin Endlsey's composition "Singing the Blues", which topped the country lists for 13 weeks and also reached # 17 on the pop charts. It could have been even bigger if Mitch Miller hadn't covered the song with Guy Mitchell (also on Columbia!), whose version was # 1 on the pop charts for ten weeks. Miller did it again with Marty's next single, "Knee Deep In the Blues", and again Guy Mitchell had the bigger hit.
Seeing his chance for pop success yanked away by his own record company angered Marty, but when the smoke cleared, he accepted an invitation from Mitch Miller to come to New York to record there. This led to a series of five NYC sessions between January 1957 and May 1959, produced by Mitch Miller and arranged by Ray Conniff, with several Nashville sessions in between. The New York dates were squarely aimed at the teen pop market and brought Robbins the crossover success he was hoping for, with "A White Sport Coat" (# 2), "The Story Of My Life" (# 15, the first hit of a Burt Bacharach song) and "Just Married" (# 26). All three songs also reached the top position on the country charts.
It will probably be Marty's cowboy/western songs that will forever keep his name alive. His fascination with this genre came from his maternal grand- father, Texas Bob Heckle, who was a former Texas ranger who entertained the young Marty with tales of the Old West. His first western recording was "The Hanging Tree" (a # 38 pop hit in March 1959), which Robbins wrote for the film of the same name, starring Gary Cooper. The now legendary LP "Gunfighter Ballads And Trail Songs" was cut in one day (April 7, 1959) and contained two self-penned hit singles, "Big Iron" and "El Paso". The latter topped both the pop and country charts at the dawn of the 1960s, in spite of its unusual length of 4:38. It became Marty's signature song and won him his first Grammy, which was also the first Grammy ever awarded a country song. Other western albums followed over the years, but Robbins, Don Law and new co-producer Frank Jones didn't overdo the Western material as singles.
The bluesy ballad "Don't Worry", # 1 for ten weeks in 1961, was not just noteworthy for Marty's vocal. A fuse had blown in the control room channel carrying Grady Martin's lead guitar with the result that it came out fuzzy. Robbins and Law liked the effect and left it in. Further number ones during the 1960s were "Devil Woman" (1962), "Ruby Ann" (1962), "Begging To You" (1963), "Ribbon Of Darkness" (1965, written by Gordon Lightfoot), "Tonight Carmen" (1967) and "I Walk Alone" (1968). In 1969 Frankie Laine had a# 24 pop hit with Marty's semi-autobiographical song "You Gave Me A Mountain". Johnny Bush had the country hit version.
Stock car racing played an important part in Robbins's life and in 1966 he even qualified to join the NASCAR circuit. Unfortunately life in the fast lane caught up with him and in August 1969 he suffered the first of three heart attacks. He underwent a triple bypass surgery which was in its experimental stages at the time. Robbins was only the 15th person in medical history to have the operation and was the first one to have a triple bypass. The first thing he did when he was recovering was to write "My Woman, My Woman, My Wife" as a tribute to his wife Marizona. It was another chart topper (but his last pop hit) and won him his second Grammy. He was ordered to take things easier but on March 28, 1970 he returned to a thunderous ovation at the Opry.
In 1972 Marty parted ways with Columbia and signed with MCA. Though he had several hits during his three years there, he later admitted that the label change had been a mistake. He returned to Columbia in 1975, with Billy Sherrill as his new producer. The next year came his first No. 1 record in six years with "El Paso City", an ingenious update of "El Paso", set in an airliner over Texas. The follow-up, "Among My Souvenirs" became Robbins's second # 1 in a row, but also the last one. A second, mild heart attack in 1981 briefly sidelined him but by May 1982 he rebounded into the country Top 10 with the beautiful "Some Memories Just Won't Die", which was produced by Bob Montgomery.
On October 11, 1982, Marty Robbins was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame. It was only seven weeks before he suffered a third heart attack. He survived a quadruple bypass operation, but his lungs and kidneys failed and he passed away on December 11, 1982, aged fifty-seven.
More info : http://www.martyrobbins.net/ (A labour of love.)
Recent biography : Diane Diekman, Twentieth-Century Drifter : The Life Of Marty Robbins. Urbana, IL : University of Illinois Press, Feb. 2012. 304 pages.
Discography / sessionography (in two parts) : http://countrydiscography.blogspot.nl/2011/03/marty-robbins-part-i.html http://countrydiscography.blogspot.nl/2011/03/marty-robbins-part-ii.htm
Acknowledgements : Rich Kienzle, Colin Escott, Barbara Pruett, Frank Frantik.
Dik, July 2012
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