Born in Glendale, Arizona, in 1925, Marty Robbins was an iconic country and western singer. He taught himself how to play guitar while serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After the war's end, Robbins started performing in clubs in and near Phoenix, Arizona. He had his local radio and television programs by the end of 1940s. In 1951, Robbins signed with Columbia Records. He had his first No. 1 country song in 1956 with "Singing the Blues." In 1959, Robbins released one of his signature songs, "El Paso," for which he won a Grammy Award. Later hits include "My Woman, My Woman, My Wife" and "Among My Souvenirs." Robbins died in 1982.
Country music legend Marty Robbins was born Martin David Robinson on September 26, 1925, in Glendale, Arizona. One of nine children, he grew up around music. His father was an amateur harmonica player. His grandfather, a traveling salesman and first-rate storyteller, was another important influence on Robbins. "His name was 'Texas' Bob Heckle,'" Robbins later recalled. "He had two little books of poetry he would sell. I used to sing him church songs and he would tell me stories. A lot of the songs I've written were brought about because of stories he told me. Like 'Big Iron' I wrote because he was a Texas Ranger. At least he told me he was."
As a boy, Robbins was also inspired by Western movies. He was especially taken with Gene Autry, the original "Singing Cowboy." Robbins would work out in the cotton fields before school in order to save up money to see each new Autry film. He remembered sitting in the front row of those pictures, "close enough so I could have gotten sand in the eyes from the horses and powder burns from the guns. I wanted to be the cowboy singer, simply because Autry was my favorite singer. No one else inspired me."
Robbins's parents divorced when he was 12 years old. He and his eight siblings moved with their mother to Phoenix. After dropping out of high school, Robbins and one of his brothers spent some time herding goats and breaking wild horses in the Bradshaw Mountains outside of Phoenix. Robbins enlisted in the United States Navy in 1943. During World War II, he served in the Pacific. His wartime travels marked the first time went beyond the borders of Arizona. While in the Navy, Robbins participated in the successful campaign to recapture the island of Bougainville from Japanese forces.
It was also during his time in the Navy that Robbins made his first sustained efforts at songwriting, teaching himself to play the guitar during his free time. When he returned to home to Phoenix in 1946, he had set his heart on a career in show business.
Robbins got his start singing with local bands in bars and nightclubs around the Phoenix area, and in particular at a local club named Fred Kares. To support himself, he worked construction jobs. One day, while driving a brick truck, he heard a country singer featured on the local radio station KPHO. Robbins was convinced that he could do better. He drove right down to the station and earned a place on the show.
By the close of the 1940s, Robbins had his own radio program called Chuck Wagon Time as well as his own local TV show, Western Caravan. He landed a deal with Columbia Records in 1951, after a talent scout watched Robbins working in the studio on Western Caravan. The following year, Robbins released his first single, "Love Me or Leave Me Alone." This effort was not especially successful, but he soon scored the first of his many Top 10 singles with his 1953 song "I'll Go on Alone." He landed another hit months later with "I Couldn't Keep from Crying."
Around this same time, Robbins was invited to become a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry, the nation's most popular country radio show. The show was broadcast live every week out of Nashville, Tennessee. Over the next 25 years, Robbins remained a staple of Grand Ole Opry cast, starring alongside such other country music greats as Chet Atkins, Jimmie Rodgers and Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters.
Robbins's first No. 1 single on the country charts was the 1956 hit "Singing the Blues." He followed with two more No. 1 songs in 1957, "A White Sport Coat" and "The Story of My Life." That same year, Robbins also enjoyed two more significant hits, "Knee Deep in the Blues" and "Please Don't Blame Me." Before long, Robbins was a country star on the rise.
In 1959, Robbins released an album called Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. The record featured two of his most popular and enduring songs: "El Paso" and "Big Iron." "El Paso" won the Grammy Award for best country and western recording. With a big, resonant voice and a flair for storytelling in the mode of his grandfather, Robbins continued to churn out chart-topping songs through the 1960s. His most famous tracks of the era include "Devil Woman," "Beggin' to You," "The Cowboy in the Continental Suit," "Ruby Ann" and "Ribbon of Darkness."
Meanwhile, Robbins was indulging a lifelong fascination with auto racing. He began in the early 1960s by racing stock cars on small dirt tracks. By the end of the decade, he had progressed from small, local races to the NASCAR Grand National division. Robbins competed with the likes of Richard Petty and Cale Yarbrough on the NASCAR circuit.
Robbins suffered a major heart attack near the end of the 1960s, but his health problems didn't sideline him for long. By the end of 1969, he had scored his biggest hit in years with the ballad "My Woman, My Woman, My Wife." This song brought Robbins his second Grammy Award.
Robbins also continued NASCAR racing, though he experienced several near-fatal crashes. In the worst of these crashes, an incident that proved both Robbins's fearlessness and his compassion, he swerved into a concrete wall at 145 mph to avoid smashing into a fellow racer's car that had stalled in front of him. During this time, Robbins kept making music. His 1970s hits included "Jolie Girl," "El Paso City," "Among My Souvenirs" and "I Don't Know Why (I Just Do)."
Death and Legacy
In October 1982, Robbins was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Although he had fallen very ill, Robbins managed to release one last single that year, fittingly titled "Some Memories Won't Die," before he passed away. He suffered his third serious heart attack in early December. Despite undergoing surgery, Robbins died a few days later, on December 8, 1982, in a Nashville hospital. He was 57 years old. Robbins was survived by his wife, Marizona; the pair had been married since 1948 and had two children together.
Marty Robbins enjoyed one of the most illustrious careers in the history of country music. He recorded more than 500 songs and 60 albums, and won two Grammy Awards. Each year for 19 consecutive years, Robbins managed to place at least one song on the Billboard country singles charts. Most remarkably, according to Robbins himself, he accomplished all this without any special musical talent. "I've done what I wanted to do," he said in an interview near the end of his life. "I'm not a real good musician, but I can write [a song] pretty well. I experiment once in a while to see what I can do. I find out the best I can do is stay with ballads."
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