Versatile singer and songwriter Marty Robbins was one of the artists most successful at adding western flavor to his country hits. Over a recording career that lasted roughly thirty years, he scored smashes with such songs as “Singing the Blues,” “El Paso,” “Devil Woman,” and “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife.” Robbins also had hits in the rock and pop genres—including the classic “White Sport Coat”—in addition to recording Hawaiian, Caribbean, and gospel music. He won Grammys and several songwriting awards for his efforts and was a frequent performer at the Grand Ole Opry until his death in 1982.
Marty Robbins was born September 26, 1925, in Glen-dale, Arizona. His childhood was spent in a desert area where he received little exposure to music. Thus Robbins was particularly influenced by his father, who played the harmonica for Marty and his siblings, and his grandfather, Texas Bob Heckle, a traveling medicine man who told stories and sang songs about cowboys. Irwin Stambler and Grelun Landon quoted Robbins on the subject of his grandfather in their book The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music: “A lot of the songs I’ve written... were brought about because of stories he told me. Like ’Big Iron’ I wrote because he was a Texas Ranger. At least he told me he was.” Robbins also enjoyed going to see western movies as a child, and he idolized singing cowboy star Gene Autry.
It wasn’t until he enlisted in the Navy at the age of 19 that Robbins began to actively pursue his ambition to follow in Autry’s footsteps. While off duty, he learned to play the guitar and quickly began writing songs for the instrument. At the end of his three-year hitch, Robbins returned to Phoenix, Arizona, where his family had moved when he was twelve. A friend asked Robbins to play with his group, and, though he gratefully accepted, he soon realized he was able to sing and decided to form his own band. Robbins and the K-Bar Cowboys performed in Phoenix-area clubs, eventually landing a job on a local radio show. It wasn’t long before the station’s television affiliate recruited Robbins to host his own musical variety show, Western Caravan.
Though Western Caravan was a local television program, it was important enough to attract guests like country star Little Jimmy Dickens, who noticed Robbins’s talent. Dickens suggested that Columbia, his own record
For the Record…
Born Martin David Robinson, September 26, 1925, in Glendale, AZ; died of a heart attack, December 8, 1982, in Nashville, TN; son of Jack Joe and Emma (Heckler) Robinson; married Marizona Baldwin, 1945; children: Ronnie (son), Janet.
Singer, songwriter, and guitarist. With K-Bar Cowboys, played in small clubs and on radio shows, AZ, late 1940s; host of local television show Western Caravan, c. 1950; solo recording artist and concert performer, 1952-82. Film appearances include Buffalo Gun, 1962; Ballad of a Gunfighter, 1963; Honkytonk Man, 1982; The Gun and the Gavel; The Badge of Marshal Brennan; and Guns of a Stranger; star of syndicated television show Marty Robbins’s Spotlight, 1977. Raced stock cars on the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) circuit, 1960s and 1970s. Author of Small Man (novel), 1966. Military service: U.S. Navy, 1944-48.
Selected awards: Grammy awards for best country and western recording, 1960, for “El Paso,” and for best country song, 1970, for “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife”; voted Man of the Decade, 1970, Academy of Country Music; NASCAR Rookie of the Southern 500, 1972; inducted into Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame, 1975; Gold Trustees Award, National Country Hall of Fame, 1979; inducted into Country Music Hall of Fame, 1982.
label, audition the young musician. The company sent one of its executives to hear Robbins perform, and he was signed as a Columbia act in 1951. Robbins didn’t create much of a stir with his first two singles, but Columbia had faith in their new discovery and continued to release his efforts. Finally Robbins began climbing the country charts with “I’ll Go It Alone” and “I Couldn’t Keep From Crying.” Because these hits were Robbins’s own compositions, he attracted the attention of Acuff-Rose Music Publishing, who signed him to a songwriting contract. Promoters for the Grand Ole Opry had also noticed Robbins, and by 1953 he had become a regular performer on its stage.
Island music was a favorite of Robbins’s, and in 1953 he recorded the first of what would prove to be many Hawaiian and Caribbean songs. Country Music’s Rich Kienzle described him as “a peerless Hawaiian-style vocalist, able to handle even falsetto singing.” Robbins went on to record two complete albums of Hawaiian music—Song of the Islands, released in 1957, and the 1963 release Hawaii’s Calling Me.
Robbins scored his first Number One country hit in 1956 with “Singing the Blues.” The following year, however, he became famous with pop fans nationwide when he released the smash “White Sport Coat.” Another of his own compositions, Robbins recorded the hit in New York with producer Mitch Miller and arranger Ray Conniff during the first of several sessions he had with the pair over the course of two years. He followed up this success with the singles “She Was Only Seventeen” and “Stairway of Love,” but it was not until 1959 that Robbins gave audiences his best-remembered, trademark hit, “El Paso.” One of Robbins’s many story songs, “El Paso” concerns a young man who shoots another man over a Mexican dancing girl. He flees, but is unable to stay away from the dancer and returns, only to be shot by a posse and die in the woman’s arms. “El Paso” not only garnered Robbins his first Grammy Award, but received the first Grammy ever awarded in the country and western category.
The western storytelling tunes and bluesy country love songs continued to do well for Robbins during the 1960s. He had hits with “Big Iron” in 1960, “Don’t Worry” in 1961, the melodious “Devil Woman” in 1962, and “The Cowboy in the Continental Suit” in 1964. In a testament to Robbins’s ability to write, sing, and play, Fred Dellar and Roy Thompson, in their book The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, deemed Robbins “a first-rate songwriter,” allowing, “his musical versatility is astonishing.” Robbins also had smashes with other writers’ efforts, including “Ruby Ann,” “Ribbon of Darkness,” and “Tonight, Carmen.”
In addition to music, the multitalented Robbins also extended his versatility into the acting realm. He proved a competent performer in that arena as well, appearing in several westerns, including Buffalo Gun —his first film, released in 1962—Ballad of a Gunfighter, and The Gun and the Gavel. His last film appearance was a cameo role in the 1982 film Honkytonk Man, starring Clint Eastwood.
In the late 1960s Robbins suffered a massive heart attack, and underwent bypass surgery in 1970—according to some reports he was only the fifteenth patient ever to have the operation. He recovered quickly, though, and later that year came back with his second Grammy-winning single, the love ballad “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife.” He even managed to tour extensively during the 1970s, performing in England, Australia, and Japan.
Robbins had many interests, including cattle ranching and, as owner of several record labels and a movie production company, the business side of the music and film industries. His favorite, however, was stock car racing, which he took up in the 1960s. Robbins refused to let his heart trouble keep him from pursuing his hobby, and by 1972 he was competing professionally in National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) races against well-known race drivers. He did so well, in fact, that he was named Rookie of the Southern 500 by NASCAR that same year. In 1974, however, Robbins was involved in three bad racing accidents—reportedly in one of them, he deliberately drove into a wall in order to avoid broadsiding another driver—and he decided to rededicate himself to the music business.
Robbins released another successful single in 1976 with “El Paso City,” a kind of sequel to “El Paso.” Although “El Paso City” was Robbins’s last real hit, he continued to be an active recording artist and performed at the Grand Ole Opry almost until his death from another massive heart attack on December 8, 1982.
Singles; on Columbia Records
“That’s All Right,” 1955.
“Singing the Blues,” 1956.
“White Sport Coat,” 1957.
“She Was Only Seventeen,” 1958.
“Stairway of Love,” 1958.
“El Paso,” 1959.
“Big Iron,” 1960.
“Don’t Worry,” 1961.
“Devil Woman,” 1962.
“Ruby Ann,” 1962.
“Begging to You,” 1963.
“Ribbon of Darkness,” 1965.
“Tonight, Carmen,” 1967.
“My Woman, My Woman, My Wife,” 1970.
“El Paso City,” 1976.
Albums; on Columbia Records, except where noted
Singing the Blues, 1956.
The Song of Robbins, 1957.
Song of the Islands, 1958.
Marty’s Greatest Hits, 1958.
Marty Robbins, 1958.
Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, 1959.
More Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, 1960.
More Greatest Hits, 1961.
Just a Little Sentimental, 1961.
Portrait of Marty, 1962.
Devil Woman, 1962.
Hawaii’s Calling Me, 1963.
Return of the Gunfighter, 1963.
Island Woman, 1964.
Turn the Lights Down Low, 1965.
What God Has Done, 1966.
The Drifter, 1966.
My Kind of Country, 1967.
Tonight, Carmen, 1967.
It’s a Sin, 1969.
Marty’s Country, 1969.
My Woman, My Woman, My Wife, 1970.
Greatest Hits, Volume 3, 1971.
Marty Robbins Today, 1971.
The World of Marty Robbins, 1971.
All Time Greatest Hits, 1972.
Bound for Old Mexico, 1972.
El Paso City, 1976.
American Originals (recorded 1976-1982), 1990.
Best of Marty Robbins, Curb/CEMA, 1991.
The Essential Marty Robbins 1951-1982, 1991.
Border Town Affair, Embassy.
Good ’n’ Country, MCA.
A Lifetime of Song (recorded 1951-1982).
The Marty Robbins Collection, Hallmark.
Marty Robbins/Johnny Horton, K-tel.
Two Gun Daddy, MCA.
Also recorded Adios Amigo, Alamo, The Bend in the River, Biggest Hits, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Christmas With Marty Robbins, Come Back to Me, El Paso, From the Heart, Greatest Hits, Volume 4, Gunfighter Ballads/My Woman, My Woman, My Wife, Have I Told You Lately That I Love You, Heart of Marty Robbins, I’ve Got a Woman’s Love, I Walk Alone, Marty After Midnight, No Signs of Loneliness Here, Saddle Tramp, Some Memories Just Won’t Die, The Story of My Life, and Streets of Laredo, all on Columbia.
The Annual Obituary 1982, St. Martin’s, 1983.
Dellar, Fred, and Roy Thompson, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of
Country Music, Harmony Books, 1977. Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, St. Martin’s, 1984.
Country Music, January/February 1986; September/October 1986; May/June 1990; July/August 1990; November/December 1991; January/February 1992.
Los Angeles Times, December 27, 1991.
Newsweek, December 20, 1982.
People, December 9, 1991.
Pulse!, February 1992.
Washington Post, May 29, 1992.
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