Marty Robbins In Depth - Part One

First published in Country Music People, March 1975

Part One Early Days

An almost incredible variety of musical influences came together to produce that wonderful and rich hybrid musical form which we now refer to as country music. A music which is generally considered to be rural, Southern and Anglo-Saxon in nature, emerges as perhaps the most diverse in origin and nature of any musical style.

Country music has absorbed a multitude of instrumental, vocal and commercial techniques from a host of sources. Not only does it derive from the vaudeville, minstrel and medicine show traditions, but its various strains echo the musical influences of a score of lands and people; the steel guitar melodies of Hawaii, the fiddle accents of Scotland; the guitar stylings of Spain; the lonesome yodels of Switzerland and even the concertina rhythms of France. Then you can add the rhythms, songs and styles of the coloured slave labour that was forced to leave Africa and has done so much to enrich the various American musical forms.

America is a country full of differing traditions. Traditions that have come from every corner of the world as the country has gradually absorbed people intent on making a new start in an infant country. This diversity of people and traditions is what makes American country music so rich and colourful and such a popular music all around the world.

Marty Robbins, born of Polish parentage, is very much a part of the many traditions that make country music. He brought to the music the simplicity of a Southern rural upbringing, the folk-lore of a part-Mexican background, a basic love of cowboys and their music, and most of all, a rare musical talent.

We really owe a lot to artists like Robbins. He has lifted country music out of its limited rural appeal up into the unlimited allure of pop music. For those people who place musical sounds in categories, Marty Robbins presents a problem. Where other performers have a knack of being stuck in one particular groove, Robbins seems to glide from sound to sound with melodic ease.

Marty’s voice is a versatile one, he can sing any type of song. His own tastes know no boundaries and this is reflected in the wide range of material he records. Spanish love songs, the beautiful music of Hawaii, teen ballads of the 1950s, rock’n’roll, cowboy ballads, country love songs or contemporary pop music, Marty Robbins has proved that he is a master of all these styles of music.

His heart has always been with the sweet, simple country ballads that won him the tag of ;Mr. Teardrop; twenty years ago and also the western songs he writes, which are simple memories of the legends of the beautiful land where he was born, the great South-west Arizona.

Marty is a dyed-in-the-wool product of the West, having been born in Glendale, Arizona, September 26, 1925. He has an inborn love of the West and the music that portrays it so vividly.

He attended grammar school in Preoria, Arizona and high school at Glendale. Tony Malloque, his schoolteacher form Glendale helped Marty with his early efforts in singing and songwriting. Tony was teaching spelling and writing and took the boys for athletics and baseball. Marty wrote his first songs while still in his teens and recorded for a small independent label.

One of the tunes he recorded was called Heartsick, and though there’s not much known about this first record, it would be interesting to hear this in comparison to his current work. At the time of this recording in the early 1940s, Marty wasn’t too serious about his singing career and after working at several odd jobs, he joined the Navy in the early part of 1943.

While on duty in the lonely islands of the South Pacific he began pickin’ and singin’ to while away the long hours. His shipmates encouraged him to continue with his singing and he decided that if he got out of the War alive then a singing career was what he was after.

Marty was discharged from the Navy at the end of the War, and during the next five years he tried several jobs, including ranching, but none of these jobs really suited young Marty.

Becoming interested in hot-rod racing, Marty needed a regular income in order to save up for a car of his own. In the daytime he would do odd-jobs for Ed Camrud, owner of Camrud Motors in Phoenix. Ed was also a keen motor-racing enthusiast and he urged Marty on with his interest. In the evenings Marty secured a regular position as guitarist with a small band at Fred Kares Night Club in Phoenix.

It was a small beginning, but soon Marty’s chances began to unfold. Quite often he would sing a couple of songs while the regular singer was having a break. When this singer, Frankie Starr was sick, it was only natural that Marty should be asked to stand in for him.

This led in late 1947 to Marty beginning a professional career with a group of local entertainers. He sang and played with his own guitar accompaniment on Radio Station KTYL in Mesa, Arizona. Later he formed his own group, the K-Bar Boys along with two local musicians, Slim Forbes, and fiddle player, and guitarist Johnny Dakota.

The group worked hard around Arizona playing nightclubs and small benefit dances, all the time building up a large and loyal following. Soon they moved onto bigger things with a half-hour programme every morning called Chuck Wagon Time on station KPHO in Phoenix. The show was such a success with local people that within a few months Marty and the group had secured their own television series.

The Western Caravan show was transmitted four days a week on KPHO TV and along with Marty and the K-Bar Boys, Ken Kennedy, Joe Dana and Bud Wheeler, all local performers, appeared regularly on the show.

It was while at Radio KPHO that Marty received an important break. Little Jimmy Dickens came into Phoenix while on tour and appeared on Marty’s programme to plug his own concerts. He heard Marty and the boys sing and was impressed by what he heard. When he returned to Hollywood a few weeks later, he recommended that Columbia Records keep an eye out for the smooth, Arizona singer.

Harry Stone that radio station manager realised that the young Marty obviously had great potential and he became his manager. He worked hard on building the foundation for the Robbins’ career, secured a contract with Columbia in early 1952 and even managed to obtain a guest spot on the Grand Ole Opry, which led to Marty Robbins becoming a regular member on January 19, 1953.

Marty’s first recordings for Columbia were done out West in their Hollywood studios during the late summer of 1952. His first record coupled Tomorrow You’ll Be Gone with Love Me Or Leave Me Alone. Both songs were self-penned and in the weeper style that was prevalent in the early 1950s. The backing consisted of a very pleasant steel guitar, with fiddle and piano. The vocal from Marty is crystal clear, slightly deeper than his present style, with just the right amount of emotion.

For the next three or four years Robbins stuck very closely to this simple, but effective style of country music. Keeping to his own material, which comprised in the main, very sad love songs, Robbins created some of the very finest country music of the early 1950s. Standing out is that wonderful steel guitar that seemed to ‘cry’ with Robbins as he sang his way through great weepers as Castles In The Sky, Crying Cause I Love You and Love You ‘Till The Day I Die.

Rather surprisingly, these early recordings were not the big hits that Columbia was expecting. His third release, I’ll Go On Alone, did creep into the country charts and this tearful country ballad is still recorded by various country singers today, but the other recordings, though selling steadily, never lifted Marty Robbins up into the big star bracket.

Because most of these early recordings by Marty Robbins are not familiar with most country fans, I would like to spend a little time in discussing them. Any comments I make here are completely hypothetical. I have not had the opportunity to discuss the recordings with Marty Robbins or anyone else associated with these early discs, so I’m going from what I hear on the recordings and what I can work out from the matrix numbers and dates of release. This could mean that some of my comments will be wrong, hopefully Marty and others will be able to put right any errors or omissions that I make.

At Marty’s first session for Columbia in Hollywood, four titles were cut. These constituted his first two releases which included Crying Cause I Love You, and I Wish Somebody Loved Me. The accompaniment is out of character with the usual Columbia recordings of the period by singers like Ray Price, Carl Smith, Little Jimmy Dickens and Lefty Frizzell. It’s possible that this accompaniment was provided by Robbins; own group. The producer for this session was probably the famous Art Satherley, and certainly the overall sound has a distinctive old-timey flavour that was missing on so many of the recordings of the period. The next few sessions were probably held in New York. Certainly there is a distinctive difference in the sound on Marty’s third release—I’ll Go On Alone and You’re Breaking My Heart. Although the basic style of fiddle, steel guitar, honky-tonk piano was retained, there’s a slightly different sound which gives the indication of other musicians working with Robbins.

There's no doubt that the songs Robbins wrote at this time were amongst the finest ever contributed to the country music canon. Though the songs could be likened to those classics of Hank Williams, Robbins had a way with the lyrics that gave his songs extra depth and took away any chance of commercial success.

Several of the songs, notably I Couldn’t Keep From Crying, Tomorrow You’ll Be Gone and It’s A Pity What Money Can Do, could be recorded today and not sound at all dated. They have that same kind of lyrical expertise that is prevalent in today’'s music and quite often the songs that Robbins does record now were in fact written several years ago, but for some reason never commercially recorded.

Along with the country weepers, Marty Robbins also recorded several sacred tunes, some of which, like Blessed Jesus Should I Fall, Daddy Loves You and Pray For Me Mother Of Mine were self-written. Sacred music has always been an integral part of country music, and Robbins proved early on that he was a master of this style. With the wonderful country backing behind him, he gives what surely rates as the finest versions of sacred tunes in country music.

The period between 1953-57 was a transitional one for country music and it appears obvious that Marty Robbins was having problems in trying to find a style that would given him commercial success, and most important, security. He was so at home on his own self-penned country weepers that it seemed a pity to change, but continuously backing a loser never spelt success. Among the country love ballads Robbins tried to experiment with other types of songs. He recalled his war period in the Pacific Ocean in late 1954 when he released two Hawaiian ballads, Aloha Oe and My Isle Of Golden Dreams, but still success eluded him. He was by now a country artist touring all over the South and West, well-known, but without that all-important hit record to put him near the top of the bill. To maintain a busy schedule, Marty Robbins desperately needed a big selling record.

He was working with most of the big stars of the time and also alongside newer artistes trying like him to get a break. In early 1955 he came under the first influence of rock’n’roll. He worked a few dates with Elvis Presley, who was just starting out his career, and creating a lot of interest and continuous headline news. Marty was quick to appreciate the potential that Presley had. It was Presley who was drawing the large crowds, the swooning young girls and creating all of the excitement, and Marty noticed that all this was happening without a hit record. Yet Elvis Presley was basically singing a beaty form of country music.

The resultant blend of country and weestern and blues became one of the dominant sounds of the 1950s and Marty Robbins was one of the first straight country artists to turn  to this when he recorded Arthur Crudup’s That’s All Right, Mama. Wisely he coupled this up-beat, blues number with Gossip, one of his excellent country weepers and the result was his biggest selling record up until that time. 

Continued in April issue