Marty was born Martin David Robinson on September 26, 1925. Born near Glendale, Arizona, the family lived in severe poverty. While growing up, Marty's maternal grandfather, Texas Bob Heckle, a former Texas ranger, would supply young Marty with tales of the Old West. This instilled in Marty a love for a time long past, a time of cowboys and gunfighters.
As a young boy, Marty would work various odd jobs to earn him about $.25 a week. On Saturdays, a theater in the nearest town would show Gene Autry pictures, and Marty (who probably wasn't older than 10 or 11) would walk the 8 miles to town alone to see the show. $.20 paid for the movie, popcorn, and a soda, and he would spend all day watching his idol sing and perform. Marty's strongest wish was to be like Gene Autry, a singing cowboy. When the theater closed at 10p.m., Marty would walk the 8 miles back home in the dark alone, but because of his idol, he wasn't afraid. Marty would say, "I had just seen Gene Autry, and I was Gene Autry that night."
At the age of seventeen, Marty joined the Navy. He served three years, two of which were spent in the South Pacific. During the early years of World War II, Marty drove landing craft that was responsible for carrying soldiers to the beaches during a battle over the Solomon Islands.
It was while in the Navy that Marty first became serious about being a singer/songwriter. To help pass the time, he began playing guitar and writing songs. A brief visit to Hawaii before his 1945 discharge left him with a love for Hawaiian music, which would prove useful later on.
Upon his discharge from the Navy, Marty found several jobs and began playing guitar on the side for a local band. His own professional career began in 1947, where he was hired to play and sing at radio station KTYL in Mesa, Arizona. It wasn't long before he attracted his own following.
With his increasing popularity, Marty got a job at a bigger station, KPHO in Phoenix, where he was given an early morning half hour long show called, "Chuck Wagon Time". When KPHO-TV was created, they asked Marty to do some live performances for them. Marty, who was extremely shy, agreed to host their show only after he was told he would lose his radio show if he refused. Only a fifteen minute show shown four days a week, with Marty, "Country Caravan" was a big hit locally.
Marty's break came in 1951 when "Little" Jimmy Dickens, on tour, made an appearance on "Country Caravan" to promote his own show in Phoenix. He was so impressed with Marty's talent and vocal ability, that he contacted Art Satherly at CBS Records. Art promptly took a trip to Phoenix, liked what he saw, and signed Marty to a contract on May 25, 1951. Marty would later joke, "...the people who don't like my singing, don't blame me, blame Jimmy Dickens!"
When Marizona Baldwin was a young girl, she dreamed of one day meeting and marrying a singing cowboy. They first met at a malt shop where Marizona was working. She was 15, Marty was 20. Marty later told all of his friends that he was going to marry that girl. They began dating and were married in 1948. Their marriage was "until death do us part", standing the test of time and spanning 33 years until Marty's passing in 1982. They had two children: Ronny (born in 1949), and Janet (born in 1959)
Early Recording Sessions
For his first session, Marty was to record four songs, and Columbia Records sent him twenty songs to choose from. Marty, however didn't like any of them. He felt he could provide better songs, so he wrote four of his own. The Columbia man providing the twenty songs was so offended, Marty's first recording session almost never happened. Once the dust settled, Marty had gotten his way, and his four songs were recorded. Doing things Marty's way was a pattern that would follow him his entire career.
Marty's first two singles went nowhere. However, Marty's third single, I'll Go On Alone, was a huge success for him. It made it to the top ten, and resulted in Fred Rose signing Marty to a songwriters contract with Nashville's Acuff-Rose song publishing firm. Ironically, Marty had written it in response to Marizona's initial dislike for his new life as a celebrity.
The Grand Ole Opry
While I'll Go On Alone was climbing the charts, Marty did a guest appearance at the Grand Ole Opry. In 1953, he became a member of the Opry, and he and his family moved to Nashville.
At early performances, Marty hadn't yet made a name for himself, and wasn't always given the applause he desired from the audience. He refused to accept this, and so he would walk to the side of the stage and cheer for himself, encouraging them to cheer with him. The crowd loved it, and it soon became a part of Marty's every show. Fans looked forward to Marty leading his own cheering section.
Marty's second hit also came in 1953 with the ballad, I Couldn't Keep From Crying. Songs like this earned him the nickname, Mr. Teardrop,which Marty didn't care for, and he later wrote and recorded the song, Mr. Teardrop, seemingly mocking the nickname.
Marty's popularity quickly accelerated, and with it, Marty's top ten hits. In 1955, Marty earned his third top ten with That's All Right Mama, originally recorded by Elvis Presley. His fourth came in the same year when Marty recorded the Chuck Berry hit Maybelline.
Then Marty met a songwriter by the name of Melvin Endsley. When Endsley played a song for Marty backstage at the Opry, Marty loved it! The song was recorded at Owen Bradley's recording studio. Ray Edenton played lead break on a borrowed guitar, Marty played the opening acoustic guitar, and Owen Bradley played piano. The song, released in August 1956, was called, Singing the Blues, and it was Marty's first number one hit. It stayed on the charts for 30 weeks, topping them on September 12 and remaining at the number one spot for 18 weeks. It also reached the top twenty on the pop charts.
Marty returned to songwriting and while on tour, on an 11 mile stretch of road, he wrote the song A White Sport Coat. It was recorded in New York in January, 1957, and was an instant hit. It stayed on the charts for 22 weeks, reaching #1 on the country charts on April 10, and was #2 on pop.
Marty, testing his versatility, didn't stop with country, pop, blues and rockabilly tunes, his next musical effort would be Hawaiian. This resulted in the December 1957 album, Song of the Islands, and it contained twelve hawaiian love songs.
It was becoming obvious that Marty was capable of recording just about anything he set his mind to. Surprisingly, it wasn't until 1958 that he began recording his much loved cowboy songs. Marty's prayers to be a singing cowboy like his idol, Gene Autry, were soon to come true. His first western hit was The Hanging Tree, recorded as a theme song for a movie of the same name. Then Marty began to pen his own cowboy tunes. His next album was to be Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, and Marty wrote four of the twelve songs appearing on it. One of these, a "little" ballad called El Paso became his signature song, and he'd close every concert with it.
El Paso was actually written much earlier in 1957 while Marty and his family were traveling through the "west Texas town" on their way home to Phoenix for Christmas. He had come up with 14 verses by the time they reached their destination. But El Paso proved to be a difficult song to market, no one wanted to produce it because it was considered too long for radio airplay, a whopping 4:37. With Marty's new Gunfighter album, he finally got the chance. Marty's intuition proved to be correct again. Even though Columbia Records marketed a single with a shortened, 3 minute version for the radio stations on one side, and the song in its entirety on the flip, DJs across the country chose to air the extended version.
The "extended" version of El Paso was a huge success, as was the Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs album, winning many awards. El Paso earned a number one spot on both the country and pop charts, became a GOLD single, and was the first country song ever to win a Grammy Award. The album also went GOLD, and earned Cashbox and Billboard awards. The song, El Paso was also to inspire the creation of two additional songs, also written by Marty, Feleena (From El Paso)(1965) and El Paso City(1976).
The success from El Paso made it possible for Marty to pursue and finance another hobby, auto racing. He didn't want to compete to win, necessarily, but to gain attention and have fun! Marty had a history of amateur racing, and in 1966 he began competing on the NASCAR circuit, against such popular drivers as Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, and Richard Childress. In fact, it was because of his love for this hobby that Marty was scheduled to be the last performer on the Saturday night Grand Ole Opry show. This allowed him to compete in the race at the Nashville Speedway, and then proceed to the Opryhouse where he would perform. He became friends with many of the drivers, even offering his expertise in their attempt to record an album, NASCAR Goes Country.
Marty was known for driving purple and yellow Dodges, and used the number 42 until 1979. When Kyle Petty began racing, Marty gave up the number to him, and began using #6. Kyle used the number 42 until 1996. Accidental Innovations Marty never ceased to demonstrate his versatility. His next project would be the ballad, Don't Worry, and fans' fascination with it was only partially due to Marty's vocal ability.
In July, 1961, Marty and a group of musicians were in the process of recording the song. Noted guitarist Grady Martin played the mid-song guitar solo, not realizing that a tube had blown in the taping mechanism. Playback revealed an odd fuzzy distortion of every note played on Grady's bass guitar. Instead of correcting the problem and rerecording, producer Don Law liked the sound and left it in. Don't Worry was a hit, in the #1 spot for ten weeks. The sound was later harnessed and has been used in recordings by many artists. To this day, it is known as "fuzztone".
"Ninety-five percent of show biz is show biz - a front. You've got to do something to get their attention." Originally Marty was terribly shy when he first began performing. But this didn't last long. He learned to overcome it, and eventually, Marty's appetite for attention and having a good time became part of his show. He was known to make faces during a performance because someone was trying to get a picture of him, sometimes even stopping in the middle of a song to do so. At one point, when fans approached the stage with their cameras, Marty pulled out his own camera and proceded to take photos of the audience. On another occasion, Marty drove his custom built, all white Panther DeVille onto the Opry stage, where he was promptly written a parking ticket by a security guard. Marty was also known to make up his own set of rules as he went along, disregarding those set in place by the Opry. When Marty wanted to have a trumpet player in his band when he performed, the Opry balked. No one on the Opry had ever had a trumpet player on stage before. It was against the rules. This didn't stop Marty though. He went to war with the Opry's people, refusing to perform unless they allowed his trumpet player. The Opry eventually relented, and Marty got his way. A very popular performer, Marty was given the 11:30 - 12:00 midnight slot at the Opryhouse to enable him to participate in auto races at the Nashville Speedway. His show was supposed to be over by midnight, but Marty, refusing to disappoint his fans, would look at his watch, and then sing another song. When his show ran over his time limit, he would walk over the the onstage Opry clock, set the hands back, and then continue to perform. When his show finally wound down, he would remain behind, talking to fans, 400 - 500 people, passing out autographs and hugs until everyone was gone. He loved his fans as much as they loved him.
Marty's pranks weren't restricted to while he was onstage. Even his friends in NASCAR weren't safe. Marty knew he wasn't much of a competitor when it came to his auto racing hobby, after all he was up against such pros as Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Richard Childress, and Darrell Waltrip. He was just doing it for the attention and to have a good time. One of Marty's wishes, however, was to be able to look some of his more talented buddies in the eye, right before passing them effortlessly. After having a friend remove the restrictor plates from his car's carburator, he got his chance. It was 1972's Winston 500 at Talladega. Marty spent the final 100 laps of the race passing the others, then allowing them by, only to pass them again. Starting in 9th position, he finished 18th. He did so well, he was awarded "Rookie of the Race", an honor he refused to accept. He turned himself in and was awarded a 50th place finish and fined $250.00 by NASCAR. Marty later regretted doing this as he felt he may have stepped on some toes, but he certainly admitted to having fun!
In August of 1969, Marty suffered his first of three heart attacks. It began while on the road, traveling to a showdate in Cleveland, and was confirmed by a local hospital. Marty refused to check in to the hospital there, but he convinced the doctor to allow him to leave by promising him that he would head straight to a Nashville hospital where he would be admitted. Then he continued to Cleveland where he performed as scheduled.
Marty was in increasing pain as the performance continued, and left immediately after its conclusion. The hospital in Nashville determined that three of his heart's major arteries were clogged. Marty was given a year to live, unless he opted to undergo a triple bypass surgery, in its experimental stages at the time. Marty opted for the surgery. Marty became the 15th person in medical history to have the risky bypass surgery, and the first person to have a triple bypass.. When Marty was able to raise his arms, he asked for a guitar. He said he had written a song, and it was for his wife, Marizona, who had helped him through the tough times. The song, My Woman, My Woman, My Wife, was a moving tribute to Marizona, and earned Marty his second Grammy award.
Marty was welcomed back at the Opry two months after his rare transplant operation, to a crowd of adoring fans and collegues. In the style of his idol, Gene Autry, Marty told them, "I had so many things I was going to say. But now, I can't think of anything, so I guess I'll have to sing for you.", much to the enjoyment of the cheering crowd.
Living Life to its Fullest
Marty's doctors told him he would have to lead a very quiet life. Marty did the exact opposite. In fact, he made the doctors promise him he could continue racing before he would allow them to operate. Having been so close to death, Marty vowed to live life to its fullest, and he pushed himself further than ever before. He even practically gave up sleeping, because he was too full of energy, ready to do whatever came next. He devoted more of his time to his fans and touring. He continued to race NASCAR, against his doctor's orders. He claimed that it relaxed him to race, and tests showed it did not adversly affect his health.
Marty continued recording as well, leaving Columbia Records in 1972 to go with MCA. It was a move Marty would later regret. He did moderately well for MCA, but chose to sign back with Columbia after only three years. It was then Marty chose to pen and record another of his beloved ballads, El Paso City. It went to number one, as did his next 1976 single, Among My Souvenirs, which was actually done as an afterthought following a day of recording. It would be Marty's final number one hit, on the charts for 14 weeks. Even though Marty's record sales slacked after his 1978 hit, Return to Me, he still remained a fan favorite, and was continuously nominated for various awards, winning Music City News' 1980 Songwriter and Male Artist of the Year.
Marty's second heart attack occured in 1981. Marty was later to comment, "The truth is I've experienced death so many times I should be dead. I've had race car wrecks at 100 mph and during that operation after my first heart attack in 1969, I technically died on the operating table. "Sometimes I wonder why God has let me go on living. But I'm glad He did."
Back at the Grand Ole Opry, Roy Acuff told him, "Let's you and I both try to stay around here for a long long time, because we need people like you." Marty, ever the joker, replied, "Well, I tell you now, I want to stay around because, you see, I owe too much money to go. So I have got to stay, and I'm taking my time paying them off!"
Some Memories Just Won't Die
In 1982, Marty made the top ten yet again with "Some Memories Just Won't Die". He had a cameo appearance in the Clint Eastwood film, "Honky Tonk Man". On October 11, 1982, Marty was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Presenting the award to him was his good friend, Eddy Arnold, himself a twenty year hall of famer. Marty's acceptance speech was almost prophetic: "I never had any idea that this would happen, because I really feel there are other people that deserve it before I should get it. But, I think, you know, possibly that it might not happen again, so I'm gonna take it tonight!"
Inscribed on the award are these words: "Marty Robbins - Quintessential entertainer whose music has delighted audiences everywhere. His Arizona heritage greatly influenced the western ballads he was later to write and record. He won the first Grammy award for a country song, "El Paso", was the first Nashville artist to appear in Las Vegas, and the first to perform at the new Opryhouse. One of country's most successful stars, he has won enumerable awards for his recording, writing, and performing."
On December 1, Marty was to give his last interview. He told Nashville DJ Al Resin about the Nashville Christmas Parade that he planned to participate in. He was going to ride the Grand Ole Opry float, and was looking forward to winning first place. He jokingly told the DJ to "get around to playing that song of mine somebody requested." Twelve hours later, Marty suffered his final heart attack. Tests at the hospital revealed four blocked arteries. Doctors rushed to save his life, one doctor never leaving his side. Following an eight hour quadruple bypass surgery, Marty's survival chances were upgraded from 5% to 50%. However, on December 8, 1982, Marty Robbins passed away.