There are three trails leading into the town called “Western Music.” The first is that of the songs of the old- time cowboys from the 1800s, which were mostly derived from British folk songs; the second is the songs for the singing cowboys in the movies, like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, which were mostly pop songs with lyrics about the West written by the pop songwriters who wrote for Broadway and the movies; and the third trail is that of country music, which has used the cowboy and the West to define a visual image of a country singer as well as reflect the fact that it was once known as “country and western” music.
The music of Marty Robbins reflects all three of those trails. He grew up in the West and that heritage was deep inside him. His first musical hero was Gene Autry, and the singing cowboys had a huge influence on his life. He spent his life in country music with a career based out of Nashville. Martin David Robinson and his twin sister, Mamie, were born near Glendale, Arizona, on September 26, 1925.
The Robinson family of nine children lived in poverty. When Martin was 12 years old, his parents divorced; he saw his father only twice after this and, after he left Arizona and moved to Nashville, lost track of him completely and never tried to find out anything about him. Robinson was a rowdy kid who disliked school. In the eleventh grade, he dropped out and joined the navy; there wasn’t much else for him to do.
It was 1943, the middle of World War II, and the Service needed young men. Robinson knew that if he joined the army, he’d probably see a lot of action and get shot at, so he chose the navy and served in the South Pacific. At this point, the man who would later change his last name to Robbins had no idea what he wanted to do with his life; but the seeds had already been planted for him to sing western songs, although he didn’t realize it at the time. “My grandfather was my first audience,” Robbins told reporter Joan Dew. “He was a great old character—Texas Bob Heckle—and he could tell the best stories and biggest lies of any man I ever knew. He was a real medicine man. Had his own show.
They ran him out of Texas for stealing horses. He told me he was a Texas Ranger; that was just one of his big lies. But they were all great stories. So we had a deal. He’d tell me a tale of the Old West, and I’d sing him a song. I did that from the time I was three or four until he died when I was six.” Texas Bob Heckle “wasn’t educated, except by life, but he was pretty wise, and I could tell by the words he used that he was a pretty intelligent man,” said Robbins.
“The stories he told me were cowboy stories that he had heard around the campfire. That’s how the stories were related back in the early days of the American West. I guess one rider would take it from one camp to another. But when my grandfather would tell me these stories, he would make me believe that I was really there.”
“My grandfather could write,” continued Robbins. “But he could not write melodies, so my brother would write melodies about my grandfather’s stories. In reality, my grandfather inspired me to be a cowboy.” Texas Bob died at the ripe old age of 86. Shortly after that, Robbins saw his first musical hero, someone who remained a major influence on the singer’s career. “I … started seeing Gene Autry in movies,” said Robbins. “I thought, What a perfect life—riding the open range, singing cowboy songs.
I didn’t want to play the parts, I wanted to live them. But since I couldn’t live those days, I’ve done the next best thing. I sing about them.” In the navy, Robbins was assigned to an amphibious landing craft as a deckhand; two years later he mustered out with the rank of seaman first class—not a lot of advancement for a young man. “I just enjoyed life,” said Robbins, who joined the “52–20 Club” after his discharge, which meant that veterans received $20 a week for a year.
When that source of income dried up, Robbins returned to Glendale and took a variety of jobs—working on a construction gang, driving a milk route, then an ice route, working as an electrician’s helper and a mechanic’s helper and on an oil rigger, all in a six- month period. “I couldn’t find out what I wanted to do, except I knew I didn’t much want to work,” confessed Robbins. Robbins learned to play the guitar in the navy but admits he “wasn’t very good.” However, there was a guitar player in a band in Phoenix who had an electric guitar and amplifier— something Robbins did not have—and who was “less good” that Robbins, so Marty took over his position.
Talking about those early days with writer Bob Allen, Robbins stated, “I tried a lot of things and then I got a job playing music. I didn’t sing at first, I got a job as a guitar player. But right then, I knew it was what I wanted because it fit my hours. I didn’t have to go to work till 9 o’clock at night and then got off at one o’clock. That was great!” “I just couldn’t believe that a person could make a living doing that,” continued Robbins. “I had never paid any attention to that. I knew people could make good money making motion pictures, but I didn’t think or know that they could make any money singing, unless they were in motion pictures.
I didn’t know you could make a living singing in a club. But when I found that out, I knew that was what I wanted.” Performing at the club, called Fred Cares, Robbins “did everything: western songs, songs by Perry Como, Johnnie Ray, Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Eddy Arnold—everybody’s songs.” Robbins performed with a three- piece group in a club that “couldn’t hold more than 100 people. But every night, for three years, it was packed.”
He landed a radio show on KPHO in Phoenix, where the station manager was Harry Stone, who had just left WSM and the Grand Ole Opry to take the job in Arizona. Stone was also program director for the television station that had been launched in Phoenix. Harry Stone was a desperate man; he needed to fill the air time on the new TV station and he was 15 minutes short, so he approached Robbins.
“One day the program director said, how would you like to do some television?” remembered Robbins. “And I said, ‘Oh, no, I don’t want to do any television!’ Because it scared me. He said he needed me that afternoon, that they had a fifteen- minute spot where they didn’t have anything to run. I kept telling him I couldn’t do it. He finally said, ‘Well, if you want to keep your radio job, you’ll do it.’” The show featured just Robbins and his guitar on live television.
“I didn’t have any fancy clothes to wear on TV, just a cowboy shirt and Levis,” said Robbins, who kept his early morning radio show (which he taped) and continued to perform each evening at clubs. “I had a list of songs in my shirt pocket, and all I could do was look in my pocket and say, ‘and for my next song, I’d like to do.” I must have done ten songs in fifteen minutes, because I couldn’t talk. But it went over big … so he made me do fifteen minutes a week by myself from then on.”
One day Little Jimmy Dickens came to Phoenix to play a show date and went on Robbins’ show to plug the date. When Robbins performed, Dickens “just stood there and listened. There wasn’t even an audience in the studio, just a little space in front of the camera,” said Robbins. “At that time, I had a lot of confidence, but I didn’t know how I was going to get on record, or become a recording star, but I never worried about it because I had found what I wanted and I didn’t really see how I could fail.
So I knew that it had to happen, that there could be no other way.” Dickens recommended Robbins to the executives at Columbia Records, who signed the young artist. Robbins then moved to Nashville and joined the Grand Ole Opry in early 1953. His first hit was “I’ll Go on Alone,” which reached number one in early 1953. Several chart records followed, and then in 1956 he hit with “Singing the Blues.” The following year he hit with “A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)” and “The Story of My Life.” This was the era of Elvis and early rock ’n’ roll and Robbins found himself regarded as a teen idol.
But he could never settle for doing the same thing over and over. “Styles change, and new trends come along all the time in this business,” Robbins told Laura Eipper of the Nashville Tennessean. “If you’ve got talent, you’ll last. Do you know what talent really is? It’s being able to please the people. What I do isn’t anything great, but I have a good time and so does the audience. Knowing how to please people is the only secret for staying in the business. You’ve got to change, stay flexible, or you’re gone. Some people record the same stuff over and over again.
I can’t do that. I have to do what I do, and that means all kinds of different material.” Robbins recorded Hawaiian songs for his second album, Songs of the Islands, then turned his eyes towards the West. “I never read about the West until I moved to the South,” Robbins told interviewer Bob Allen. “It was all there and I never thought that much of it until I moved away from it. That’s the reason I wrote a lot of the cowboy songs, because I wanted to be in the West, but Nashville was where I had to be.” Robbins decided to do an album of western songs.
“The gunfighter ballads weren’t inspired from motion pictures or other songs,” Robbins told reporter Mark Dawidziak. “When I moved to Tennessee, I really missed the West, so I read a lot of western stories and early West books. I wrote songs on Gunfighter Ballads like “El Paso” and “Big Iron” because of that. And there was nothing like it on the market.” The biggest hit off that album would be his song “El Paso.” “I had always wanted to write a song about El Paso,” Robbins told Allen Le Grand for an article in El Paso Today, published in March 1975.
“I was born and raised in the Southwest with Mexicans and Indians. The first time I ever heard ‘El Paso,’ I said to myself, That must mean the pass. Ever since then, I wanted to come here.” “I went through El Paso one Christmas and wanted to write a song … but I never really had any ideas what I would write—until I wrote it,” continued Robbins. “At that time, there were a lot of waltzes and pop songs going around. I thought about writing a song called the ‘West Texas Waltz,’ then the ‘El Paso Waltz,’ but nothing came of it.
The third time he drove through El Paso, that song came to him. “I finally stumbled onto the song as I was driving and it just kept coming out, flowing like a nice easy river,” said Robbins. Robbins told interviewer Bob Allen that he wrote “El Paso” “in one day when I was driving through. I never even got it down on paper until I got to Phoenix the next day. But I couldn’t forget it because it was like a movie and I didn’t know how it was going to end. I must have been going 100 miles an hour when I ended it. It was so exciting. Once I got started, it just rolled out. I never changed a word”
The song was long—over four minutes—and Robbins’ recording label did not want to release it as a single, although they consented to let him record it on his album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. It soon proved popular on radio and was released in 1959, where it reached number one on the Billboard charts and remained there for 26 weeks. The third Grammy for country music was awarded to “El Paso,” written and sung by Marty Robbins. “If I never had another hit after ‘El Paso,’ it wouldn’t have mattered,” said Robbins. “That song made it for me.”
Ironically, he wrote a follow- up to “El Paso” entitled “Felina,” which he felt was “better than El Paso—it was sheer poetry.” At first, he was unable to finish the song, so he decided to fly to El Paso for some inspiration. He checked into a hotel, looked out of his window at the mountains “and had the song finished in just a few minutes.” The problem was that the song was eight minutes long, so it never received any radio play and was confined to an album cut. In August 1969, Marty Robbins suffered a heart attack; he had bypass surgery in January 1970 when that procedure was still experimental.
In 1975 he came close to death in three auto races that year and suffered his second heart attack, which led to his second open heart surgery and second bypass. Although Robbins remained interested in the West and western music—he wrote a western novel and starred in several western movies—his attention increasingly turned towards NASCAR and auto racing. He competed in NASCAR races for a number of years and, at the end of his life, racing was his passion, although he continued to record, perform and tour.
In 1976 Robbins had a hit with “El Paso City” and the following year a hit with “Adios Amigo.” In 1982, doctors convinced him to enter the hospital for another heart surgery before he had another heart attack, which they felt was imminent. The week after Thanksgiving, Robbins entered the hospital with surgery scheduled for December 6; however, while he was there he suffered a massive heart attack and died on December 8, 1982.