In my early years exploring the oldies, I was certainly aware of Marty Robbins as a singer of country & western/cowboy music. Once while visiting Florida, I was caught up in the Americana of the Old West and bought Marty’s 1959 album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs on CD and here I really fell in love with Marty’s way with a song, the drama and creativity of his storytelling. Eventually I found this album on vinyl which thrilled me but it may have been at a community garage sale at a local fire station that I really discovered Marty’s work. I remember there was a table full of CDs and a few people were standing there thumbing through them. I was peering between a couple guys, looking at the spines of the discs. I spotted Marty’s name and grabbed one; one of the guys turned and looked at me with disgust. What I had grabbed was Disc 2 of The Essential Marty Robbins: 1951-1982 set of 1991. It was years later at a thrift store that I found Disc 1 and I finally owned both discs of this great set. The excellent music on it solidified my respect for Marty.
Martin Robinson was born in Arizona, one of 10 children. His father was a drinking man and eventually left the family when Marty was 12. This left only his Paiute Indian mother to care for the brood; she often, though, enlisted the help of her father, Texas Bob Heckle, a local medicine man, who regaled young Marty with his tales of the Old West. With this heritage, a foundation of sorts was set for Robbins. At 17, Marty enlisted in the Navy and was stationed in the Solomon Islands and there Marty learned to play the guitar as he discovered a love for Hawaiian music.
In the post-war years, Marty – from Arizona – married a woman named Marizona. The two started a family and Marty began playing music locally, earning a reputation as a favoured performer on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. It was singer Little Jimmy Dickens who hooked Marty up with Columbia Records and Robbins wasted no time making an impact on the US Country charts. In fact, from the very beginning of his recording career, Robbins cemented his reputation as a composer and singer of quality songs that equally captured the essence of the time in which they were written and recorded and also contained a timeless quality that enabled them to stand the test of time. I was surprised to learn just how many of Marty’s excellent recordings were his own compositions.
Robbins penned “I’ll Go on Alone” and issued it as his first single in 1952 – and watched it rocket to the top of the US Country charts, the first of many times he would reach that lofty position. The next year Marty’s own “I Couldn’t Keep from Crying” peaked at #5 on the same listing. Marty’s 1955 recording of the recent Elvis Presley regional hit “That’s All Right” landed at #7 on the Country charts and his follow-up, another cover, this time of Chuck Berry‘s “Maybellene”, was another Top Ten country hit for Marty and even charted in Australia. Then in 1956, Robbins again topped the Country charts with his version of the country standard “Singin’ the Blues”, a song not written but first recorded by Marty. This record marked Marty’s debut on the Pop charts where it reached #17. Later that same year, Guy Mitchell had a smash with this tune topping the Pop charts with it for ten weeks.
Robbins picked up where he left off in 1957 with another impressive run of country hits, many of which reached the top spot on those listings. After “Knee Deep in the Blues” (#3 Country), Marty put his stamp on the music of the golden era we love to discuss here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure. While driving from the motel to a venue in Ohio, Robbins passed a high school where the kids were milling outside dressed for the prom. Once he could get a pen in his hand, it took Marty only 20 minutes to write one of the most enduring songs of this time, “A White Sport Coat”. Enter the legendary Ray Conniff. Arranger/conductor Conniff worked on many records by Columbia artists before embarking on his own storied career as a recording artist in his own right. Conniff had orchestrated Guy Mitchell’s version of “Singin’ the Blues” resulting in a much bigger hit than Marty’s record. This time, Robbins wanted Ray on hand for “White Sport Coat” and the two joined in the studio in January of ’57. The results were exactly what Marty Robbins had hoped for as “A White Sport Coat” topped both the US Country charts and the music charts in Australia while it also reached #2 on the US Pop charts.
Marty finished up 1957 by releasing perhaps his most delightful hit record, “The Story of My Life”, an early songwriting collaboration by the legendary team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The wonderful song – bearing the unmistakable Ray Conniff touch – became Marty’s fourth #1 on the Country charts and his highest-charting Pop hit to that time, reaching #15. Through 1958, Robbins enjoyed hits with “Just Married” (#1 Country, #26 Pop) and “She Was Only Seventeen (He Was One Year More)” (#4 Country, #27 Pop) and then in 1959, Marty Robbins’ reputation would enter another realm, one that would be inextricably linked with him.
The Hanging Tree is a 1959 western, the first film produced by Gary Cooper’s production company. It starred Cooper and Karl Malden. Famed film composers Jerry Livingston and Mack David created the title song and gave it to Marty Robbins to sing over the film’s credits. The song was a hit on both the Country and Pop charts and was nominated for an Academy Award. This led Marty to further explore the more “western” side of “country & western” and he released the legendary album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs in September of 1959. It was his fifth album and reached #6 on Billboard‘s albums chart; his third album, by the way, had been the delightful 1957 set of the Hawaiian songs Marty loved, Song of the Islands.
“I think about the thing I’ve done, I know it wasn’t right. They’ll bury Flo tomorrow but they’re hanging me tonight.”
Gunfighter Ballads is the perfect collection of songs of this type and each track takes the listener down a dusty trail ending at a campfire under a starry sky, listening to the strum of a guitar and a tale of the Old West. “Big Iron” was written by Marty and tells of a duel between a Texas Ranger and a young killer with a reputation. Marty’s abilities as a storyteller are in evidence as he tells of the swiftness of the Ranger who draws before the kid had even “cleared leather”. “A Hundred and Sixty Acres” and “The Little Green Valley” are both loping laments of the joys of having “just a plot of, not a lot of, land” to call your own and “They’re Hanging Me Tonight” is a harrowing tale of a man’s murder of his love. But the centerpiece of the record is Marty’s composition “El Paso”.
The narrative of the song is a textbook example of the tales often found in country music, particularly in those dealing with the Old West. In “El Paso”, Marty begins in the past tense, telling in the first-person of his attraction to Feleena, a dancer in a cantina. Having now set the table, Robbins turns to the present tense and tells of his desire to see Feleena and take her away from the other cowboys who spend time with her. He jealously challenges one of these cowboys to a duel and guns him down, drawing the ire of the others in the bar. He flees, stealing a horse, but can’t stay away. He returns to see Feleena who has now come to appreciate the protagonist’s affection for her. She runs to him as he is gunned down and the end of the tale is told – by a dead man.
“El Paso” alone cements the reputation of Marty Robbins in the world of country & western and the world of Oldies in general. Unique for the time, it was issued on Gunfighter Ballads first and then as a single on October 26, 1959. It became Robbins’ biggest hit, topping the US Country and Pop charts and topping charts in Canada and South Africa and later winning a Grammy for Best Country & Western Recording. Like the storyteller he was, Marty returned to the tale told in “El Paso” twice in later years. 1966’s “Feleena (from El Paso)” serves as a “prequel”, telling the life story of Feleena and how she came to work at Rose’s. It’s climax is the gunning down of the narrator of the first song and adds the compelling conclusion of Feleena taking her own life as her young admirer dies. Personal sidebar: my 53rd-favourite song is “Seven Spanish Angels”, a stirring 1984 song recorded by Ray Charles and Willie Nelson. In that song, an outlaw and his girl are trapped by a posse and the outlaw is shot dead. Knowing she cannot go on without her young man, the woman aims her empty rifle at the posse and is killed. Marty later wrote and recorded “El Paso City” in 1976. In this tune, the singer is flying over the city of El Paso and is reminded of an old song he once heard about the city and he proceeds to summarize the two previous songs. Robbins actually wrote the song while flying over El Paso in the length of time it takes to sing the song; four minutes and fourteen seconds. The interesting thing about “El Paso City” is the lyrics. Yes, they reference the previous two songs. But their theme is more about reminiscence, time-travel, almost. And this can certainly resonate with those of us who live in the past. The song “El Paso” and the two companion tunes easily show that Marty Robbins had an innate ability to spin a yarn.
“Can it be that man can disappear from life and live another time? And does the mystery deepen ’cause you think that you yourself lived in that other time?”
These songs also forever linked Marty with the specific “cowboy music” idiom and this led to the inevitable offers from Hollywood. Like many singers of the day, Robbins was offered the chance to make films. In 1957, Marty played a small role in The Badge of Marshall Brennan, a western starring Jim Davis and Lee Van Cleef. Also in ’57, Raiders of Old California again starred Jim Davis and Lee Van Cleef but this time added country singer Faron Young…as Marshal Faron Young. In Buffalo Gun (1961) and The Ballad of a Gunfighter (1964), Marty played “Marty Robbins” before taking a break from films and returning in 1973 with Guns of a Stranger. Additionally, Robbins wrote a novel that he published through his own Marty Robbins Enterprises in 1966 called The Small Man. And here is perhaps another instance of Your Home for Vintage Leisure being the only place that offers info on this small pocket of music history. The only problem is I don’t have much info to share. Suffice it to say, Marty did indeed write and publish a western novel in 1966 about a Texas Ranger – “short in stature, but big in courage” – who goes up against three killers. In what I like to call a “garage sale miracle”, I found this book years ago at a sale among some Louis L’Amour’s. There is virtually zero available to learn about this book out in the ether except that Robbins also told this story in song, recording “Ballad of a Small Man” in 1966.
The quality of Marty’s music did not taper off as the 1960’s progressed. In fact, some of his best music was still to come and also his songs and his singing voice would take on a deeper resonance and gravity. Robbins wrote “Don’t Worry” and released the single in February in 1961. The song – while simple in structure – is nothing less than one of Marty’s finest. His gritty, passionate reading drives the slowly grinding song. And Marty’s regular guitarist, legendary Nashville session man Grady Martin, contributed a stellar distorted fuzz guitar solo. “Don’t Worry” – while perhaps lesser-known – was actually one of Marty’s biggest hits. It was the #1 country song in the US for ten weeks and it reached #3 on the US Pop charts. The next two years featured more #1 Country sides, among Marty’s best. “Devil Woman” and “Ruby Ann” were back-to-back #1 Country tunes and the following year Robbins added another gem, maybe my favourite Marty Robbins song. In another impassioned vocal performance, Marty invested much into his composition “Begging to You”. A tale of a man playing the sap, Marty laments the depths to which his lover has plunged him and the listener joins in the heartbreak. He’s in a pathetic state. It was Marty’s tenth #1 song on the Country charts and stayed on those listings for half the year.
“What a pitiful sight I must be tonight begging to you.”
Marty Robbins would carry on through the 1960’s routinely placing songs on both charts seeing many of them top the Country charts. Worth noting are “Ribbon of Darkness” (#1 Country), written by Canadian Gordon Lightfoot, and another Country chart-topper, the Robbins composition “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife”, a song that while it might sound overblown today, was a heartfelt love letter of sorts to Robbins’ own wife, Marizona. “You Gave Me a Mountain” was a Robbins composition that became a hit when Marty offered it to Frankie Laine (1969, #24 US Pop). Significantly, Elvis Presley adopted the song and used it to great effect many times in concert throughout the 1970’s. Marty’s more gentle version was amplified by King who – like Presley was often able to do – gave it additional dramatic import. Presley sang it live around the time of his divorce and the lines about the breakdown of a marriage became more significant.
“My woman got tired of the hardship, tired of the grief and the strife. So tired of workin’ for nothin’. Just tired of being my wife.”
Marty was not content with writing and singing numerous chart hits, starring in westerns and writing novels. Much like actor Steve McQueen, Robbins got into motorsports. A lover of NASCAR, Marty hooked up with driver Cotton Owens who maintained Robbins’ cars, often brightly coloured and bearing the number 42. Entering events at big-time tracks like those at Talladega and Daytona, Robbins racked up 6 Top Ten finishes in his career, his best being a Top 5 in 1974 at the Motor State 360 in Michigan. Interestingly, Marty was credited with possibly saving the life of fellow driver Richard Childress at the 1974 Charlotte 500. Childress’ car had stalled on the track and, to avoid t-boning him, Robbins threw his car into the wall sustaining injuries himself. In later years, Marty’s contributions to the popularity of the sport and his dedication to it were honoured in many ways, one of which coming when NASCAR named the annual race at the Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville the Marty Robbins 420.
Through the Seventies and into the Eighties, Marty Robbins all but disappeared from the pop charts but his numbers on the Country charts rank with those of the most successful country artists. Between 1971 and 1983, Marty scored 17 Top Ten songs on that chart including 3 #1’s. Notable later tunes include a delightful Christmas song from 1967 titled “Many Christmases Ago” from one of Marty’s two seasonal releases. 1982’s “Some Memories Just Won’t Die” is a gem of a song that reached #10 US Country and topped the Country charts in Canada. That same year, “Honkytonk Man” was Marty’s last Top Ten Country hit. It was written for the film of the same name – starring and directed by Clint Eastwood – which was Robbins’ last film appearance.
Seemingly, the one dark cloud hovering over the life of Marty Robbins was the cardiovascular disease he dealt with all of his life. On December 2, 1982, Robbins suffered his third heart attack. The quadruple coronary bypass operation doctors performed afterwards was unsuccessful. Marty Robbins did not recover and died six days later in hospital in Nashville. He was 57 years old.
As we always do, let’s take a look at Marty’s success on the Pop charts during the years we like to focus on, 1954-1963. During those years, Marty Robbins placed 24 songs on the Pop charts and saw 13 of them hit the Top 40. Out of these, three were Top Ten songs and one, “El Paso”, topped them all. Of the oldies artists we’ve been featuring lately, these numbers place Marty ahead of Lloyd Price and just shy of the Drifters.
We are left to consider the many reputations of Marty Robbins. In country music, he cut a unique path with successful recordings – 16 of them that topped the Country charts – that were relatable, sometimes lighthearted, sometimes compelling, always of the highest quality. By way of testimony, in 1970, Marty received the Man of the Decade Award from the Academy of Country Music. Also, Marty was renowned as a favourite of the fans and was generous with his time with them, often posing for pictures and signing autographs after his shows. Robbins was one of the more successful crossover country artists of this era, enjoying much popularity with the kids and scoring hits on the Pop charts, as well. His status as a cowboy is also intact. His Gunfighter Ballads record is the seminal “cowboy” album mostly because of the tales told. It takes more than singin’ about the doggies and the corral to make a good cowboy song. The best ones – like those from Marty – draw you into the story and depict vividly not only the starry nights by the campfire but also the very souls of the young men and women who helped tame the west. Few are better than Marty at painting these pictures. When I’m in the mood for cowboy music, I turn to only Marty. And Lorne Greene. Fans of western films can appreciate his work in this area and his serious foray into racing earned him the respect of his fellow competitors. More than all this, it seems Marty Robbins was a pretty good guy. He was married to Marizona for 34 years – until his death – and they raised two sons. This reputation of Marty Robbins may be the most commendable. For us fans, there is much to love about the man from Glendale. Much to find admirable. Much to find entertaining and fascinating. And much to find simply cool.
10 from Robbins
- A White Sport Coat
- The Story of My Life
- El Paso
- Big Iron
- Don’t Worry
- Devil Woman
- Ruby Ann
- Begging to You
- Many Christmases Ago
- Some Memories Just Won’t Die