You never know who you’re going to meet on the internet and I came to know Peter Tibbles (bio here) via email over the past couple of years. His extensive knowledge of most genres of music and his excellent taste became apparent only gradually (Peter’s not one to toot his horn) but once I understood, I knew he needed his own column at Time Goes By – or, better, that TGB needed his column – which appears here each Sunday. You can find previous Elder Music columns here.
I saw Marty Robbins only once, not too many years before he died. I have to say that, of all the concerts I’ve attended, and boy there’s been a few of those over the years, Marty’s was the most enjoyable.
Not only was he a fine singer, he was also a generous and dynamic performer who responded to audience requests with great good humor. The only mark against him was his pea-green jump suit. Well, it was the seventies.
Martin Robinson was born in Glendale, Arizona in 1925, one of ten kids. He had a difficult childhood as his father only did odd jobs and was more than fond of the booze.
Marty joined the navy at age 17 and served in the Pacific. To pass the time, he learned to play the guitar and started writing songs. After the war he played venues around Phoenix and moved into radio and television.
He originally appeared under the name Jack Robinson because his mother disapproved of this singing lark. That name would really fool her. However, it wasn’t too long before he settled on the name we know now. He eventually secured a recording deal with Columbia records.
The first song of Marty’s that impinged on my little brain was one that my sister bought on a 45. She tried to teach me to dance to this song in preparation for the school social. This is one you all know, A White Sport Coat.
We, in Australia, assumed that a sport coat is what we call a sports coat. Just another cultural difference. Not much of one, maybe, but a difference nonetheless even if it’s only a single letter. Anyway, here’s that song.
In 1959, Marty recorded the classic album “Gunfighter Ballads”. Not too long after that, he recorded “More Gunfighter Ballads” which was nearly as good but lacked the iconic songs you all know that were on the first of these.
Naturally, I’m going to include both of them. This is the first one and it was the first track on the album, Big Iron.
Okay, you knew this song had to be here and I won’t disappoint you. Easily his most famous song, El Paso, with the great Grady Martin on guitar.
Years later he recorded a sequel to this song. The words of this are very post-modern. Very self referential. I always have a chuckle when I hear it. Do people still chuckle anymore? Well, you might when you listen to El Paso City.
There’s a third song in this saga called Feleena (From El Paso), actually the second to be released, which tells the story from Feleena’s point of view, but I think we’ve had enough of this by now. Besides, that song is more than twice as long as El Paso, itself not what you’d call a short ditty.
Moving on – well, moving back to 1961, he had a huge hit with Don’t Worry. This song is one of the very first to feature fuzz-tone guitar, certainly the first country song to do so.
Whether this was deliberate or someone kicked in the speaker or the cone got soaked with water, we’ll never know. However it came about, the sound was influential on later guitarists. The guitarist as usual was Grady Martin. Floyd Cramer is also unmistakable on piano.
Before all of these songs, there were others. A couple involve a bit of tit for tat in covering other people’s songs. The first is That’s All Right, a song of Arthur Crudup’s that Elvis released. Marty did a cover version and actually out-sold Elvis, but I’m not going to play that.
His next song, Singing the Blues, flew up the charts until Guy Mitchell recorded it and that version stopped Marty in his tracks. The versions were a bit different and I’m going to let you hear the original by Marty.
I really have to include another from “Gunfighter Ballads” because it’s such a fine album. This isn’t one that Marty wrote and it’s been performed by many singers over the years. I can’t think of any version of Cool Water that was better than his though.
Towards the end of his life, Marty recorded only one song (that I know about) by Gordon Lightfoot. I wish he’d done more as his voice was admirably suited to Gordie’s compositions. The song is Ribbon of Darkness.
Marty was an avid race car driver, competing in 35 career NASCAR races with six top 10 finishes, including the 1973 Daytona 500. He appeared in several films, most notably Clint Eastwood’s Honky Tonk Man where Clint played a character loosely based on Jimmie Rodgers. Hey, you’ve got Marty Robbins there and you let Clint sing. Oh well.
Unfortunately, Marty died of yet another of his several heart attacks before the film was released. I’ll finish with a song that has absolutely no connection to that film. This was his next hit after Don’t Worry – it’s Devil Woman.
Marty’s twin sister, Mamie Robinson Minotto, was part way writing a book about him when she died in 2004. This has been finished by Andrew Means and was published in 2007.