The NASCAR Balladeer ~ Marty Robbins
I bid you welcome gentle readers, to the story of Marty Robbins, who was equally at home behind a microphone or a steering wheel. To our assigned reader of all things NASCAR, do enjoy your stay, and I hope you are a Country Music fan, or it might be a really long day.
First things first, as our Mothers always taught us… there are a lot of teens, twenty and thirty-somethings out there that don't have a clue who Marty Robbins is or was, and if the name is familiar at all, then they wonder why his name appears on a racing site and not a Country Music site. To the older folks that read here, the answer is easy. Marty was both a racer and a singer. He was a great song writer too, in case you missed that part. The man was quite literally multi-talented and excelled at most anything he touched.
Born in 1925 in Glendale Arizona, as the male half of fraternal twins, the other half being sister, Mamie, he was part of a 10-child household headed by a father with a penchant for drink. His parents divorced when he was only 12 and his Mother moved all of them to Phoenix. His boyhood, Marty says, was mostly colored by his maternal grandfather, "Texas" Bob Heckle, as the older man billed himself. Texas Bob was a travelling salesman and a teller of grand old Western tales.
In Marty's own words, "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."
The early influence that drew him toward singing was singing cowboy and Western movie star, Gene Autry. Marty described sitting in the front row of those movies… the "neck breaking seats" is what I've always called them as, "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."
As soon as he was old enough to serve, in 1943 Marty did what every "red-blooded" American boy did in WWII; he enlisted for a three-year stint in the Navy, where he learned to play guitar and began singing and songwriting. After his days in the Pacific Theater were through, he returned home to do odd jobs, join a local band and in 1947 was hired to sing at a radio station in Mesa, Arizona. As his fan base grew, he soon moved on to KPHO Radio in Phoenix where he hosted a one-hour show called, “Chuck Wagon Time." KPHO Radio followed much of the country in the waning days of the 1940s, venturing into that budding entertainment medium we know as television, and for fifteen minutes, four times a week, Marty entertained on “Country Caravan." Little Jimmy Dickens, already a Nashville success, made an appearance on the show and was so impressed that it led to Marty being signed by Columbia Records (CBS) in 1951. In later days, Marty would often joke, "... the people who don't like my singing, don't blame me; blame Jimmy Dickens!"
Lest we pass over what was probably the most important thing in Marty's life, on September 27, 1948, he married Marizona Baldwin, whom he had met and courted since she was only 15. Two children [Ronny and Janet] and 33 years later, they would still be together and still in love at the time we bade farewell to our racing balladeer.
Marty joined the Grand Ol' Opry in 1953 and through that decade appeared in a handful of Western "B-movies", one of which, "Buffalo Gun" also included Country singers Webb Pierce and Carl Smith. Recorded hits began with what was actually his third song, "I'll Go On Alone", the catalyst for a songwriting contract with Acuff-Rose Publications, and included many familiar songs such as "Singin' the Blues", "White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation)" and of course, his first Grammy winner (And first Grammy ever awarded to a Country song) and life-long theme song, "El Paso." Just before that, he had written and recorded the title song from Gary Cooper's movie, "The Hanging Tree", one of my personal favorites from Marty. During those years, we also saw the birth of "Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs", originally released as a single album but released since in several forms… each differing from the original.
Marty continued to write and sing through the next decade, with songs such as "Don't Worry", "Devil Woman", "Ruby Ann", "Ribbon of Darkness" and "I Walk Alone" all making appearances on the charts. While all that was going on, Marty found a pastime that became an avocation, and that was stock car racing.
Marty admitted to having a love for speed since watching the Bettenhausens and Jimmy Bryan at Indianapolis while growing up. His new home in Nashville allowed him to hear the cars racing at the nearby Fairgrounds and he and son Ronny began to visit local area tracks in the summer of 1959. It wasn't long before Marty decided watching wasn't enough; he wanted in; he wanted to race. He purchased his first racecar, a 1934 Ford (The Devil Woman Car) from "Preacher" Hamilton, grandfather of NASCAR driver Bobby Hamilton, both of whom were local Tennesseans. Once he'd tried it for himself, he became a regular competitor at the old Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, in the late model division, forerunner of the Busch/Nationwide/Xfinity Series. Many times he would rush to appear at the Grand Ol' Opry after running the Saturday night feature race.
As time permitted, Marty also became a respected NASCAR Grand National racer and independent car owner. Over 13 years, he competed in 35 races, between 1966 and 1982. His best finishes were a 5th at Michigan, June 16, 1974 and a 9th at Talladega, August 11, 1974. Over that period, he scored that single top-five and 6 top-ten finishes. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was in 1974 that Marty wrote and recorded a big hit called "Twentieth Century Drifter", which depicted the life of a stock car racer. He poured heart and soul into this one and I feel it explains so much of the man that was Marty Robbins. Please enjoy:
"He would give you all you wanted, I can tell you that" says NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison "He had a real, raw talent. He had good equipment. And he really respected the guys who were trying to make a living in racing. He would ask questions and then actually listen when you answered them."
Along those same lines came comments from another Hall of Famer, "King" Richard Petty. "You wonder how good he could have been had he started earlier [Marty was past 40 when he began racing in the elite series] and been able to concentrate on it full time," said Petty, who was not just a friend to Robbins, but also a fellow Dodge driver, and in those days, it surely didn't hurt to have Petty in your Dodge corner. "I know this. No one had a better time at the racetrack than Marty Robbins. He was so happy to be at the racetrack. He wasn't a singing star when he was with us in the garage. He was just one of the guys. That's why people always liked him so much."
Yes, Marty was "just one of the guys", but he was one of the best of them. Racing at Charlotte in 1974, in an attempt to avoid hitting a car broadside, Marty turned into the wall at about 160 mph. This was long before the advent of the SAFER barriers. In addition to 37 stitches in his face, he suffered a broken tailbone, several broken ribs and two black eyes. "If Marty hadn’t turned into the wall, it’s highly likely I might not be here today." Those are the words of Richard Childress, the driver Marty Robbins didn't hit.
Once asked if he thought he was a good driver, Marty responded, "I think I'm a careful driver. Now as far as being a good driver, you better ask the other drivers about that. But I don't think I get in their way."
For many of those 35 Grand National starts, Marty's car was prepared by yet another Hall of Famer, Cotton Owens. The man travelled in fast company; in fact, it was top of the line fast company, and they didn't just like Marty Robbins; they loved him, and to this day, every living one of them will tell you so. Marty continued to race stock cars until just before he died, with his last race coming at Atlanta International Raceway on November 7, 1982, just one month and one day before his death.
At this point gentle readers, please allow me to share with you a televised tribute done just after Marty's death in 1982 by P.M. Magazine. It gives those who never met him a very quick look into the man that was Marty Robbins and perhaps a better idea of why he was so loved.
Sadly, it would seem that the man who loved speed and loved travelling in fast company, may have himself travelled too much and at too great a speed for his unwilling heart. In 1969, Marty experienced his first heart attack, while touring in Ohio. Always the trooper… and the troubadour… Marty went through with the performance in Cleveland before returning to Nashville in a great deal of pain. X-rays showed that three major arteries to his heart were blocked and the doctors gave him only a year to live without a then very new procedure called bypass surgery. Marty opted to live and thus became the first person in history to undergo a triple bypass.
Sometime shortly thereafter, Marty penned a song for the woman that had held his hand and helped him live when hope seemed distant, his wife Marizona. Though I've heard that it was originally intended to be sung by Frankie Laine, Marizona requested that Marty keep and sing it himself… "My Woman, My Woman, My Wife." He did and the song became his second Grammy Award winner.
Throughout the 1970s, Marty kept up the pace, and a more than brisk pace it was. Country Music was not at that time a genre content to let the fans come to the theater; the talent traveled to the fans, a fact that sadly contributed to so many of the early stars meeting their demise in auto or plane crashes. He wrote songs; he recorded songs and he sang his songs, in all parts of this great land. He also appeared in several Hollywood films during those years, including Clint Eastwood's "Honky Tonk Man", which debuted shortly after Marty's death. And oh yes, as mentioned above, he continued to race as well. Marty maintained that racing relaxed him. He was just that kind of guy…
March of 1974 saw Marty become the last performer to play at the old Ryman Auditorium, the original location of the Grand Ol' Opry. A week later, he would be the first to play at the new Grand Ol' Opry House. The following year, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters International Hall of Fame. There were still more hit recordings to come and more races to be run. Early in 1981, Marty suffered a second heart attack, but kept going at his usual double-time pace after recovery. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in October of 1982. In November he raced at Atlanta. In December, his third major heart attack did not respond to surgery, which this time was a quadruple bypass, and one month and one day after the race, Marty Robbins passed away, December 8, 1982.
“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.”
"I miss you, Marty. I miss the jokes and the smiles and laughter that always gave me a lift every time I was around you. No matter how tired, or what I might be burdened with, you made it all a lot lighter."
"I feel certain that Marty Robbins was truly one of God's gifted. The whole world is saddened at his passing but the whole universe will be rejoicing at the arrival of such a beautiful man."
"...he had a charm about him that I couldn't help but fall in love with. And he never turned it off. It didn't matter where he was. If he was on stage, he just turned it on a little bit more. He was always ready to shake hands with anybody or give an autograph. He was just so warm to everybody. And I admired that about him - for someone of his stature to be able to do that and love every minute of it."
It just wouldn't be right to do the story of Marty Robbins and not include "his" song. If anyone thought I was not going to play it, anyone was wrong. Here is Marty at the Grand Ol' Opry, doing "El Paso."
"Marty Robbins, you sang your way to fame, and you raced right into everybody's hearts." Not my words, gentle readers, but a line from the song you're about to hear. I hope that my words and the song's lyrics together do justice to the man that did indeed live two lives in one.
And lest we forget, Marty also had a life away from the stage and away from the track. Despite being loved by so many and so busy with both careers, Marty maintained a very private, private life as husband and father. What follows is an interview conducted by John (Bo Duke) Schneider with Marizona, Ronny and Janet Robbins. This will depict that family side of Marty far better than I can tell it. Please enjoy…
There is no need today for our usual Classic Country Closeout, as this entire piece speaks to Country Music. However, so as not to disappoint, you can enjoy almost an hour of Marty’s greatest hits by simply listening to this collection.
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!