It could be said that Gary Cooper introduced me to Marty Robbins. You remember Coop, right? He was the long, lanky, leather-faced movie star who specialized in Westerns and was rumored to possess Hollywood’s biggest…gun. In the late 1950’s he made one of his many oaters, something called The Hanging Tree, and although I enjoyed the movie a lot, I was more impressed by the theme song and the young singer who performed it, Marty Robbins.
If Marty is remembered at all by today’s music fan, it’s probably for his forays into the gunfighter ballad genre, and more specifically for his big hit, “El Paso”. But although that’s a great song, he was so much more than that. Among the many musical artists who have effortlessly crossed genres during their careers, few did so more skillfully and more daringly than Marty. From his early beginnings as a fledgling rockabilly singer, through his three decades of musical stardom that ended with his premature death in 1982, he was constantly reinventing himself, making new fans along the way.
Born Martin David Robertson in Glendale, Arizona, he scuffled around for a while – even trying the hobo life – and finally joined the Navy, which is where he began to sharpen his musical skills. He began to get noticed as a singer in the post-war era, and within a few years was able to get some recordings made.
His earliest efforts were R&B flavored country or rockabilly — songs such as “That’s All Right”, which he did with more of a country flavor than Elvis Presley’s breakout version. Marty also had some success with “Singing The Blues” in 1956 (a song that was later a megahit for Guy Mitchell). Marty followed that with “The Story Of My Life” and his biggest early hit, “A White Sport Coat” — a softer sound he created with the help of Ray Conniff. It was obviously aimed at the pop crowd and was the first of many pop hits for him.
About the time I noticed him, he’d listened to the voice of his Western upbringing and entered his gunfighter song mode. He’d grown up hearing Western stories and even worked on a ranch himself, so he took to the music naturally and enthusiastically. He even appeared in a few movies about the old West and eventually produced entire albums of Western songs, including his hit “Big Iron”, and updates of old classics such as “Cool Water”.
However, even though he continued to revisit that kind of music throughout his career, he refused to be narrowly categorized, and continued to stretch himself in other directions. He had another big hit with “Don’t Worry”, a song that was the first to feature a fuzz-toned guitar effect. Following that was his glorious Calypso-style song, “Devil Woman” (see video below), which wasn’t even his first venture outside the mainland — earlier, he’d shown a fondness for Hawaii with an album titled Songs Of The Islands.
He kept churning out hits, including “Ruby Ann” and “Ribbon Of Darkness” (a Gordon Lightfoot song) but he also continued to diversify, covering gospel music – er – religiously. At the same time, he expanded his acting efforts, appearing in more movies and on TV too, but still found time for another interest — auto racing. He drove on dirt tracks and even tried the NASCAR circuit for a while.
His sense of adventure continued with his personal image too. Starting as a clean-cut performer in the early days, he eventually morphed into a long-haired, flamboyantly-mustachioed performer, complete with a wardrobe that fit right into the bright polyester look of the times.
He continued with hit after hit, including “Tonight Carmen”, and “I Walk Alone”. His last big hit was 1970’s Grammy-winning “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife”, dedicated to his wife of twenty years. (He also had two children.)
He continued to work regularly in many different musical venues right up until his death during heart surgery, twenty-five years ago this year. His countless best-selling records and multiple Grammy wins might be a little lost in the fog of time, but his music lives on and he deserves to be remembered for his many contributions.