Martin David Robinson (September 26, 1925–December 8, 1982), known professionally as Marty Robbins, was an American singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. One of the most popular and successful country and Western singers of his era, for most of his nearly four-decade career, Robbins was rarely far from the country music charts, and several of his songs also became pop hits
Robbins was born in Glendale, a suburb of Phoenix, in Maricopa County, Arizona. He was reared in a difficult family situation. His father took odd jobs to support the family of ten children. His father’s drinking led to divorce in 1937. Among his warmer memories of his childhood, Robbins recalled having listened to stories of the American West told by his maternal grandfather, Texas Bob Heckle. Robbins left the troubled home at the age of 17 to serve in the United States Navy as an LCT coxswain during World War II. He was stationed in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific. To pass the time during the war, he learned to play the guitar, started writing songs, and came to love Hawaiian music.
After his discharge from the military in 1945, he began to play at local venues in Phoenix, then moved on to host his own show on KTYL. He thereafter had his own television show on KPHO-TV in Phoenix. After Little Jimmy Dickens made a guest appearance on Robbins’ TV show, Dickens got Robbins a record deal with Columbia Records. Robbins became known for his appearances at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee.
In addition to his recordings and performances, Robbins was an avid race car driver, competing in 35 career NASCAR races with six top 10 finishes, including the 1973 Daytona 500. In 1967, Robbins played himself in the car racing film Hell on Wheels. Robbins was partial to Dodges, and owned and raced Chargers and then a 1978 Dodge Magnum. His last race was in a Junior Johnson built 1982 Buick Regal in the Atlanta Journal 500 on November 7, 1982, the month before he died. In 1983, NASCAR honored Robbins by naming the annual race at Nashville the Marty Robbins 420. He was also driver of the 60th Indianapolis 500 Buick Century pace car in 1976. He was awarded an honorary degree by Northern Arizona University.
In 1948, Robbins married the former Marizona Baldwin (September 11, 1930–July 10, 2001) to whom he dedicated his song “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife”. They had two children, a son Ronny (born 1949) and daughter Janet (born 1959), who also followed a singing career in Los Angeles, California. Robbins later portrayed a musician in the 1982 Clint Eastwood film Honkytonk Man. Robbins died a few weeks before the film’s release in December 1982 of complications following cardiac surgery. At the time of his death, Robbins lived in Brentwood in Williamson County, outside Nashville. He was interred in Woodlawn Memorial Park in Nashville. The city of El Paso, Texas later honored Robbins by naming a park and a recreational center after him.
Music and honors
Robbins’s 1957 recording of “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation” sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. His musical accomplishments include the Grammy Award for his 1959 hit and signature song “El Paso,” taken from his album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. “El Paso” was the first song to hit #1 on the pop chart in the 1960s. It was followed up, successfully, by “Don’t Worry”, which reached #3 on the pop chart in 1961, becoming his third, and last, Top 10 hit. “El Paso” was followed by two sequels: “Faleena” and “El Paso City”, both of which continued the story featured in the original song. Also in 1961, Robbins wrote the words and music and recorded “I Told the Brook,” a ballad later also recorded by Billy Thorpe.