On this day in 1982, the world lost a legend. Country music star, storyteller, and NASCAR racer Marty Robbins passed away after surgery following his third serious heart attack. Before leaving this world, Robbins left behind an impressive legacy and remains a fan favorite even today.
The Early Life of Marty Robbins
Marty Robbins was born in a desert shack outside Glendale Arizona in 1925. According to Britannica, he was the sixth of nine children. His father was a rounder, a thief, and an amateur harmonica player. His mother, on the other hand, worked hard to provide for their family. Between his father’s drinking, stealing, and bad temper the family was forced to move often. With a few adjustments, Robbins’ early life could be one of his ballads.
It was in his formative years that Marty was introduced to two of his biggest influences. The first was his grandfather who was a traveling salesman and storyteller. Robbins learned to spin a yarn from his grandfather, a talent that would serve him well until his death. The other influence on young Robbins was Gene Autry, the singing cowboy. To afford tickets to Autry’s films, Robbins would work cotton fields before school.
According to Robbins, he would sit in the front row of every show he could make. He wanted to be “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.” He would go on to do just that.
Robbins’ Military Service
During World War II, Marty Robbins enlisted in the United States Navy. This would be the first time that Robbins left the state of Arizona. His combat service took him to the South Pacific. Robbins served aboard the USS Crescent City. He participated as the ramp operator on a landing vehicle in the first and third invasion waves in the Solomon Islands. Before leaving the Navy at the end of the war, he achieved the rank of Seaman First Class.
During his time in the Navy, Robbins taught himself to play guitar and started making a serious effort to write songs. When he returned to Arizona in 1946 he was one step closer to becoming the singing cowboy that the world knows him as today.
Marty Robbins’ career started like many others. He played and sang with local bands in bars and nightclubs. By day, Robbins worked construction jobs to support himself. One day, while driving a brick truck, Marty heard a country singer on the radio and knew he was better. So, he drove straight to the station. Soon, Robbins had a place on the show.
It wouldn’t take long for Robbins to have his own TV and Radio programs. They were titled “Western Caravan” and “Chuck Wagon Time” respectively. In 1951 Little Jimmy Dickens was a guest on “Western Caravan.” He was such a fan of Robbins that he convinced the folks at Columbia to give him a record deal. Robbins then moved to Nashville.
In 1953, Robbins became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. He starred alongside popular acts such as Chet Atkins and The Carter Sisters. Three years later he would land his first number-one single with “Singing the Blues”.
In 1959, Marty Robbins released the album that is still incredibly popular today, “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs,” the album put Robbins’ storytelling front and center. The album contained the iconic tracks “El Paso” and “Big iron”. While this was not the only kind of song that he wrote, he was a master of the Western story song. He released several other albums made up of tunes like this.
If you love “El Paso” and “Big Iron” but haven’t dug deeper into Robbins’ catalog, give the album “The Drifter” a spin. Frankly, it’s a crying shame that “Mr. Shorty” isn’t mentioned in the same conversation as the big tracks off of Gunfighter Ballads.
In October of 1982, Robbins was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Many people know Robbins for his musical career but he also has a love for stock car racing. According to the official Marty Robbins website, he started racing when he was in his late thirties which is a relatively late age to get started. In fact, Robbins said, “When most people are ready to stop, I started.”
Marty loved watching races north of Nashville so much that he bought his first micro midget racecar in 1959. A few years later, he would start racing on the dirt track at the Highland Rim Speedway in a souped-up 1934 Ford. In 1965, he started racing at the Nashville Speedway on Saturday afternoons. It was at this time that Robbins started playing the final segment of the Opry so that he would have time to race in the afternoon.
In 1966, Robbins began his NASCAR career he would have several top 10 finishes and one top 5 finish. During his time on the NASCAR circuit, he suffered several near-fatal crashes. One notable crash highlighted his luck, fearlessness, and character. He slammed his car into a concrete wall. He did so to avoid hitting another driver who had stalled in front of him.
Marty Robbins on the Screen
Marty Robbins appeared on both the big and small screen. His first acting role was a small part in “The Badge of Marshall Brennan” in 1957. In 1965 he starred in a TV series called “The Drifter.” The show featured Robbins as a cowboy drifting from place to place doing what he did best: singing songs and telling stories.
His last acting role, and maybe his biggest was as a musician named Smoky in “Honkytonk Man.” The 1982 film starred and was directed by Clint Eastwood. In the movie, Eastwood plays a man who dreams of being a country music star. His tuberculosis is getting in the way. In this scene, Robbins takes over for Eastwood as a coughing fit interrupts his performance.
It doesn’t take much more than that clip to see that Robbins’ talent for acting was about as strong as his songwriting.
Remembering Marty Robbins
Over to course of his career, Marty Robbins recorded 52 studio albums. He had 94 records hit the Billboard charts. Sixteen of those went to number one. He won two Grammy Awards, one of which was for “El Paso.” He is in both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Marty also has a star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood.
Most importantly though, Marty Robbins became the singing cowboy he wanted to be. For many who grew up during his era, he was their Gene Autry. Robbins continues to inspire songwriters, storytellers, and musicians almost forty years after his passing.