Fifty years ago this month, Marty Robbins became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Then 27 years old, the golden-throated crooner from Glendale, Ariz., was riding high on his first chart record and soon-to-be No. 1 hit, “I’ll Go On Alone.” Robbins had played the Opry before, but as of Jan. 19, 1953, he was one of the gang.
Long before he died in 1982, Robbins had risen from nervous newcomer to become one of the Opry’s biggest attractions — and its unofficial closing act. Cocky, mischievous and grandly indifferent to his appointed time to leave the stage, Robbins would joke with his band, lead them through extended jams and down unexpected musical byways, all the while flirting outrageously with the audience. Everyone, except the timekeepers, loved it. In 1974, when the Opry left the Ryman Auditorium for its new home at Opryland, Robbins was the last to perform at the radio show’s old venue and the first to sing at its new home.
Born Martin David Robinson, Robbins began singing professionally in 1947 after a three-year stint with the U. S. Navy. In 1951, he was given his own local television show, Western Caravan, on KPHO-TV in Phoenix. It was here that Robbins had the good fortune to meet Opry star and Columbia Records artist Little Jimmy Dickens .
While on tour in 1951, Dickens stopped by KPHO to make a guest appearance on Robbins’ new show. He was mightily impressed. “I’d never heard a voice like that before,” Dickens tells CMT.com. “I’d never heard that much control over a voice as he had — the quality. … I went on to Los Angeles and told Art Satherley, who was the [artists and repertoire] man for Columbia, about him.” Acting on Dickens’ tip, Columbia signed Robbins to a recording contract before the year was out.
Robbins’ first two singles, issued in 1952, failed to chart. Then came his breakthrough hit, “I’ll Go On Alone.” In his first decade of recording, the period during which rock ‘n’ roll emerged to sweep the country, Robbins was able to find an audience in both country and pop with such efforts as “Singing the Blues,” “A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)” and “The Story of My Life.” But it was a song he wrote out of his love of the cowboy music and western movies that made him a superstar. The song was “El Paso.” Released in late 1959, it stayed at the No. 1 spot on the country charts for seven weeks and at the peak of the pop listings for two. The record won a Grammy for best country and western performance in 1960.
During his 30-year recording career, Robbins logged in 16 No. 1s and 30 Top 10s, among them the standards “Just Married,” “Don’t Worry,” “Devil Woman,” “Ribbon of Darkness,” “I Walk Alone,” “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife” (which netted Robbins’ his second Grammy, this one for best country song), “El Paso City” and “Some Memories Just Won’t Die.”
His string of recorded hits sometimes overshadowed the fact that Robbins was also a first-rate songwriter. Besides the timeless “El Paso,” he also penned “A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation), “ “You Gave Me a Mountain,” “I’ll Go On Alone,” “Don’t Worry,” “Tonight Carmen” and “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife.” In 1975, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
From the 1950s on, Robbins was a passionate racecar driver, starting in the micromidget class and eventually moving up to NASCAR level. He continued to race even after suffering a heart attack in 1969. Following a series of wrecks in 1974 and 1975, he quit the sport but returned to it in 1977. He drove his last race a month before his death.
Robbins also appeared in several TV series and movies. His last film was Honkytonk Man with Clint Eastwood. Just weeks before his death Dec. 8, 1982, Robbins was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Recalling his old friend’s early days at the Opry, Dickens says, “He was well-liked from the beginning. He was kind of backward at first and looked down at the floor most of the time when he was singing But he developed into one of the finest entertainers in the world.”
Dickens chuckles when he speaks about Robbins’ show-closing antics. “Oh, my goodness,” he says. “He did just as he pleased.”