Marty Robbins Biography

Martin David Robinson 26 September 1925, near Glendale, Arizona, USA, d. 8 December 1982, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. Robbins later maintained that his father hated him and that his early childhood was unhappy. Reports indicate that John Robinson (originally a Polish immigrant named Mazinski) suffered from a drink problem that led to him abusing his family before eventually leaving his wife, Emma, to cope alone with their seven children plus the two from her previous marriage. At one time they lived in a tent in the desert, but in 1937 his parents divorced and Emma and the children moved to a shack in Glendale, where she took in laundry to support the family. In his early teens, Marty spent some time with an elder brother breaking wild horses on a ranch near Phoenix. Consequently his education suffered; he attended high school in Glendale but never graduated, and by the early 40s he was becoming involved in a life of petty crime.

He left home to live the life of a hobo until he joined the US Navy in May 1943. It was during his three years in the service, where he saw action in the Pacific, that he learned to play the guitar and first started songwriting and singing. He also acquired a love of Hawaiian music that would surface several times during his career. After discharge in February 1946, he returned to Glendale, where he tried many jobs before starting to sing around the clubs and on local radio under the names of either Martin or Jack Robinson (his mother strongly disapproved of him singing in clubs and he used the name ‘Jack’ to try to prevent her finding out). By 1950, he had built a local reputation and was regularly appearing on KTYL Mesa and on both radio and in his own television show, Western Caravan, on KPHO Phoenix. He married Marizona Baldwin on 27 September 1948, a marriage that lasted until Marty’s death. A son, Ronald Carson Robinson, was born in 1949 and 10 years later, their daughter Janet was born (Ronald eventually became a singer, performing both as Ronnie Robbins and as Marty Robbins Jnr.).

Through the assistance of Little Jimmy Dickens, and by now known as Marty Robbins, he was signed by Columbia Records, for whom he first recorded in November 1951. In December 1952, ‘I’ll Go On Alone’ became his first US country hit. It charted for 18 weeks, two of which were spent at number 1 (Marty wrote the song because initially his wife disliked his showbusiness life). He moved to Nashville in January 1953 and became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Early in his career, he acquired the nickname of ‘Mr Teardrop’ and later wrote and recorded a song with that title. In 1955, his career, which by the end of 1954 appeared somewhat becalmed, received a welcome boost with the success of his recordings of rockabilly numbers, ‘That’s All Right’ (originally written and recorded by Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup in 1947 but more recently a hit for Elvis Presley) and ‘Maybellene’ both became Top 10 country hits.

He had always realized that it would be advantageous to record in differing styles and accordingly his recordings varied from country to pop, from Hawaiian to gospel, and even some with his own guitar providing the sole accompaniment. In 1956, he achieved another country number 1 with his version of Melvin Endsley’s ‘Singing The Blues’. The song also made number 17 in the US pop charts, where Guy Mitchell’s version was number 1. The following year, Marty turned Endsley’s song ‘Knee Deep In The Blues’ into a number 3 country hit but again lost out in the pop charts to Mitchell, who had immediately covered Robbins’ recording. Somewhat frustrated, Robbins made his next recordings in New York with Ray Conniff and his orchestra and during 1957/8, with what may be best termed teenage love songs, he registered three more country number 1s with his own song, ‘A White Sports Coat (And A Pink Carnation)’ (a million-seller), the Hal David - Burt Bacharach song, ‘The Story Of My Life’ and ‘Stairway Of Love’. The first two were also major US pop hits for him (in the UK, the former was a hit for the King Brothers and Terry Dene, while Michael Holliday had Top 3 successes with the latter two).

During the late 50s, he formed a talent and booking agency and launched his own record label. Robbins had always had a love of the Old West. He always considered the cowboy state of Arizona to be his home (his maternal grandfather had once been a Texas Ranger), and in the late 50s he appeared in three B-movie Westerns, Raiders Of Old California, Badge Of Marshal Brennan and Buffalo Gun. The first two were straight acting roles but the latter co-starred Webb Pierce and Carl Smith and included several songs. It was also at this time that he began to record the material that would see release on albums such as his now legendary Gunfighter Ballads And Trail Songs (he actually recorded the whole album in one day). In 1959, he wrote and charted the title track of the film The Hanging Tree, which starred Gary Cooper, before his classic ‘El Paso’ became a number 1 country and pop hit. It gave him a second million-seller and was also the first country music song to be awarded a Grammy. The success of this song established Robbins once and for all and songs such as ‘Big Iron’ and ‘Running Gun’ became firm favourites with audiences the world over.

During the 60s, he registered 31 US country hits, 13 of which also found success in the pop charts. The country number 1s included ‘Don’t Worry’ (which has the distinction of being the first song to include the ‘fuzz’ sound on the recording: a fuse had blown in the control room channel carrying Grady Martin’s lead guitar, with the result that it sounded fuzzy - Robbins liked the effect and left it in), ‘Devil Woman’ (a UK Top 5 pop hit for him), ‘Ruby Ann’, ‘Ribbon Of Darkness’, ‘Tonight Carmen’ and ‘I Walk Alone’. In 1964, Robbins supported Barry Goldwater in his bid for President and also wrote ‘Ain’t I Right’ and ‘My Own Native Land’, two protest songs against communism and anti-American war protesters. He felt the first would be a hit but Columbia, fearing racial repercussions, would not let him release them. However, his guitarist and backing vocalist Bobby Sykes’ recordings of the songs were released on the Sims label. He used the pseudonym Johnny Freedom, but sounded so much like his boss that for years many people have believed the recordings were by Robbins himself (Robbins’ own recordings were later released by Bear Family on the album Pieces Of Your Heart).

In 1969, Frankie Laine enjoyed a pop hit with Robbins’ semi-autobiographical song ‘You Gave Me A Mountain’, while Johnny Bush released a country version. Surprisingly, Robbins’ own recording was never released as a single. He also had a great interest in stock-car racing and during the 60s he began driving at the Nashville Speedway, an occupation that later saw him fortunate to survive several serious crashes. During the 60s, he also filmed a television series called The Drifter, appeared in eight films, including Hell On Wheels, The Nashville Story, Ballad Of A Gunfighter, Road To Nashville and From Nashville With Music, and wrote a Western novel, The Small Man. In August 1969, he suffered a heart attack on his tour bus near Cleveland and in January 1970 he underwent bypass surgery. He soon returned to his punishing schedules and in April he was starring in Las Vegas. The same year his moving ballad ‘My Woman, My Woman, My Wife’ became his second Grammy winner and the Academy Of Country Music voted him The Man of the Decade (originally, it had been intended that Frankie Laine should have the song but Robbins’ wife told him to keep it for himself). He left Columbia for Decca Records in 1972 but returned in December 1975 and immediately registered two number 1 country hits with ‘El Paso City’ (a look back at his previous hit) and the old pop ballad ‘Among My Souvenirs’. He had previously returned to El Paso with the nine-minute long ‘Feleena (From El Paso)’. During the 70s, he had a further 30 country hits, made film appearances in Country Music, Guns Of A Stranger, Country Hits and Atoka as well as starring in his network television series Marty Robbins Spotlight.

His songwriting talents saw him elected to the Nashville Songwriters’ International Hall Of Fame in 1975. His extensive touring schedules included crowd-pleasing appearances at the 1975 and 1976 Wembley Festivals in London. He continued with these punishing schedules into the 80s but was again hospitalized following a second heart attack in January 1981. He returned to London for the April 1982 Festival, before making a tour in Canada. ‘Some Memories Just Won’t Die’ became his biggest hit since 1978 and on 11 October 1982 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in Nashville. He toured on the west coast but in Cincinnati, on 1 December 1982, he played what turned out to be his last concert. The following day he suffered his third heart attack. He underwent major surgery but died of cardiac arrest on 8 December and was buried in Nashville three days later. A few days after his funeral, his recording of ‘Honky Tonk Man’, the title track of a Clint Eastwood film in which he had made a cameo appearance, entered the charts, eventually peaking at number 10. A quiet and withdrawn man offstage, Robbins possessed an onstage ability to communicate with and hold his audience, and his clever use of in-jokes, asides and sheer personality made him one of the finest entertainers to grace any genre of music. His tally of 94 Billboard country chart hits places him in eighth position in the list of most-charted country artists. He charted at least one song every year from 1952 (when he first recorded) to 1983 and during this period he also registered 31 pop hits.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.