It could be said that Gary Cooper introduced me to Marty Robbins. You remember Coop, right? He was the long, lanky, leather-faced movie star who specialized in Westerns and was rumored to possess Hollywood's biggest...gun. In the late 1950's he made one of his many oaters, something called The Hanging Tree, and although I enjoyed the movie a lot, I was more impressed by the theme song and the young singer who performed it, Marty Robbins.
If Marty is remembered at all by today's music fan, it's probably for his forays into the gunfighter ballad genre, and more specifically for his big hit, "El Paso". But although that's a great song, he was so much more than that. Among the many musical artists who have effortlessly crossed genres during their careers, few did so more skillfully and more daringly than Marty. From his early beginnings as a fledgling rockabilly singer, through his three decades of musical stardom that ended with his premature death in 1982, he was constantly reinventing himself, making new fans along the way.
Born Martin David Robertson in Glendale, Arizona, he scuffled around for a while - even trying the hobo life - and finally joined the Navy, which is where he began to sharpen his musical skills. He began to get noticed as a singer in the post-war era, and within a few years was able to get some recordings made.
His earliest efforts were R&B flavored country or rockabilly — songs such as "That's All Right", which he did with more of a country flavor than Elvis Presley's breakout version. Marty also had some success with "Singing The Blues" in 1956 (a song that was later a megahit for Guy Mitchell). Marty followed that with "The Story Of My Life" and his biggest early hit, "A White Sport Coat" — a softer sound he created with the help of Ray Conniff. It was obviously aimed at the pop crowd and was the first of many pop hits for him.
About the time I noticed him, he'd listened to the voice of his Western upbringing and entered his gunfighter song mode. He'd grown up hearing Western stories and even worked on a ranch himself, so he took to the music naturally and enthusiastically. He even appeared in a few movies about the old West and eventually produced entire albums of Western songs, including his hit "Big Iron", and updates of old classics such as "Cool Water".