Twentieth Century Drifter

Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins

Diane Diekman
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 320
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt1xckkw
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  • Book Info
    Twentieth Century Drifter
    Book Description:

    During his three decades as a country music performer, Marty Robbins (1925-1982) placed 94 songs on Billboard's country music charts, with sixteen number-one hits. In addition to two Grammy awards, he was also honored with the Man of the Decade Award from the Academy of Country Music in 1970. His Hawaiian songs, rockabilly hits, teen-angst ballads, pop standards, and country & western classics showcased his exceptional versatility. Yet even with fame and fortune, Robbins always yearned for more. Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins is the first biography of this legendary country music artist and NASCAR driver._x000B__x000B_Drawing from personal interviews and in-depth research, biographer Diane Diekman explains how Robbins saw himself as a drifter, a man always searching for self-fulfillment and inner peace. Born Martin David Robinson to a hardworking mother and an abusive alcoholic father, he never fully escaped the insecurities burned into him by a poverty-stricken nomadic childhood in the Arizona desert. As Diekman describes, he spent his early teens in trouble with the law and worked an assortment of short-term jobs after serving in combat in World War II. _x000B__x000B_In 1947 he got his first gig as a singer and guitar player. Too nervous to talk, the shy young man walked onstage singing. Soon he changed his name to Marty Robbins, cultivated his magnetic stage presence, and established himself as an entertainer, songwriter, and successful NASCAR driver. As NASCAR's Bobby Allison said, "He started out being a singer driving a race car, but he became a race car driver who could sing."_x000B__x000B_For fans of Robbins, NASCAR, and classic country music, Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins is a revealing portrait of this well-loved, restless entertainer, a private man who kept those who loved him at a distance.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09420-0
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. [1] In the Hall of fame
    (pp. 1-4)

    It was October 11, 1982, and Marty Robbins sat in the audience at the Grand Ole Opry House near Nashville, Tennessee, during the Country Music Association’s nationally televised awards show. He believed in dressing up for awards shows, and his pinstriped swallowtail coat with vest, ruffled white shirt and black bowtie fit that description. A red handkerchief peeked from his breast pocket, and his large round eyeglasses held photochromic lenses. A country music star for thirty years, he was one of five nominees in the “active performer” category for the Country Music Hall of Fame. With this being his first...

  5. [2] Child of the Arizona Desert
    (pp. 5-14)

    Martin David Robinson was born at 9:55 pm on Saturday, September 26, 1925, five minutes before his twin sister, Mamie Ellen. They joined the family of Jack and Emma Robinson and five children. Lillie, seven at the time, remembers their Grandma Heckle had come to spend a few days, a visit that pleased her because of enjoyable times they spent together. Grandma woke the children on Sunday morning and told them of a surprise in their mother’s room. Lillie recalls, “Mamma was still in bed, which was unusual. On a cot were two tiny babies, each with a fist in...

  6. [3] A Drifter
    (pp. 15-24)

    One summer Saturday afternoon in 1937, Martin walked into the Glendale movie theater and saw Gene Autry in the middle of theYodelin’ Kid from Pine Ridge.The singing cowboy climbed into a wagon, a guitar mysteriously appeared, and Autry said, “Well, I’m not much at making speeches. I guess I’ll just have to sing for you.”¹

    Eleven-year-old Martin found a hero. He wanted to be a singing cowboy like Gene Autry. Every Saturday from then on, he was at the theater when it opened. “I was down there sitting in front,” he recalled. “I would sit so close to...

  7. [4] Music and Marizona
    (pp. 25-32)

    During the job-hopping months after his discharge, Martin told people he was looking for a better position in life. “What I was really looking for was a way to get out of work and still make a living,” he admitted later. “I knew I was lazy, but I didn’t want people to know it.”

    When not at work, he drank heavily. “I had a little problem with policemen at times, and with anybody, really,” he said about his behavior while drinking. “I was a happy-type person, but it could change in a second if somebody said the wrong thing.” One...

  8. [5] On Columbia Records
    (pp. 33-40)

    Although Martin David Robinson became Marty Robbins, with his birth name used for legal matters, Marizona would forever remain Marizona Robinson. The young couple struggled with both their relationship and their finances as 1950 approached. Marty spent little time at home, working gigs wherever he could find them, and Marizona took care of the house and baby. During this period Marty’s songwriting focused on heartache, usually pining for a lost love. Years later, he would say, “I like to be by myself because I like the feeling of being lonely. When I get to feeling that way, then I can...

  9. [6] Mr. Teardrop
    (pp. 41-52)

    When Marty renewed his Columbia contract on December 12, 1952, he listed his address as 1887 Loney Drive in Nashville. He and Marizona purchased the house the following year. “You couldn’t see a mile down the road,” Marty said about his early impression of the South. “[Roads] were crooked, trees everywhere. I felt trapped down here. I almost went back to Arizona. I couldn’t handle the cold weather down here; I couldn’t take the humidity.”¹

    He first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry as a member on January 24, 1953. Too shy to look at the audience, he stared at...

  10. [7] Singing the Blues in a White Sport Coat
    (pp. 53-62)

    “Marty Robbins did it this week—yes, he won the cherishedBillboard MagazineTriple Crown with his fabulously successful ‘Singing the Blues’ record for Columbia,” said aNashville Bannerarticle of November 22, 1956. The Triple Crown consisted of threeBillboardCountry Hit Parade charts—jukebox play, store sales, and radio play. Runner-up recordings were Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms,” Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel,” and Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.”¹

    “Singing the Blues” had come to Marty’s attention at WSM’s Friday Night Frolic more than a year earlier, when young Melvin Endsley from Arkansas rolled up in his wheelchair...

  11. [8] Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs
    (pp. 63-78)

    In 1958 the center of Nashville’s music industry began migrating from downtown to Sixteenth Avenue South, now known as Music Row. Marty, always a forwardlooking businessman, moved his office from its downtown 319 Seventh Avenue North location to 713 Eighteenth Avenue South, an old house he and Marizona purchased in July. Other publishing companies and entertainers joined him on Music Row, with recording studios replacing WSM and the Grand Ole Opry as industry focal points. Marty later purchased two neighboring lots and the property housed Marty Robbins Enterprises, Inc. until years after Marty’s death.

    The foundation of Music Row had...

  12. [9] Early 1960s
    (pp. 79-86)

    Micro-midget race cars evolved from three-quarter midgets, which evolved from pre-World War II midget race cars. An average micro-midget weighed 250 pounds and was 5 feet long and 34 inches high. “When you’re that close to the ground,” one driver remarked, “sixty miles an hour is a hell of a lot faster than one hundred twenty in a standard-size car.” Motorcycle engines powered the cars.¹

    Marty indulged his love of auto racing by purchasing his first micro-midget, a number seven car he raced without repainting. He bought a second and called it “44 Junior” because he sponsored the number 44...

  13. [10] Cowboy in a Continental Suit
    (pp. 87-94)

    In December 1961, when Marty had been at Columbia for ten years, Don Law negotiated a contract change from a two-year to a ten-year term. “I made so much money back in 1959, ’60, ’61, and ’62, and I didn’t even have a CPA,” Marty told an interviewer in 1981. “By the time I got one, it was already too late. I’d spent a whole lot of my money and a whole lot of Uncle Sam’s. I had an income tax problem for eight or nine years.” To put the era in perspective, a 1964 Ford Mustang sold for $2,368.¹...

  14. [11] Still More Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs
    (pp. 95-104)

    “I don’t go out and look for songs,” Marty told an interviewer. “It’s mostly just my own songs I write and record.” He added, “If I hear a song and like it, I’ll record it. I don’t care who writes or publishes it. If it’s good enough for me to sing, I don’t care.” One song he heard and liked in early 1965 was Gordon Lightfoot’s “Ribbon of Darkness.” The voice of the unknown Canadian on the demo tape intimidated ever-insecure Marty. “I had a hard time doing it, because he did such a good job,” Marty said. “It took...

  15. [12] From Dirt Track to NASCAR
    (pp. 105-112)

    Marty’s fascination with fast cars surfaced when he returned from the Navy in 1946 and spent spare time at Phoenix races. “I understood a little about working on cars and even put my own engine together,” a 1969 newspaper article quoted him. “I built a little street job back then. I put together the complete body from part of a 1928 Chevrolet I got out of the desert. The back part was what they call a bucket, a Model T truck. I even put upholstery in and I was pretty proud of it.”

    When he began singing in nightclubs, he...

  16. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  17. [13] A Hot Dog Ready to Pop
    (pp. 113-122)

    Driven to compete with himself in his passions for singing and racing, Marty searched for hit songs and faster cars, combining an amazing number of activities in the 1960s. While continuing to keep his family life private, he built his publishing companies and recording portfolio, made movies and television shows, and handled a heavy touring schedule. Because he enjoyed traveling, he usually rode the bus instead of flying.

    Bobby Braddock remembers Marty’s competitive nature and how he didn’t like losing poker games. “My relationship with him was very pleasant,” Braddock says, joking that “it was because I didn’t play poker.”...

  18. [14] “I Want To Race Again”
    (pp. 123-130)

    On January 2, 1970, Marty went into the Columbia studio and recorded “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife” as the title track of his next album. Although he often said he wrote the song for Marizona while in the hospital, he probably fine-tuned it there. Ralph Emery asked him, “Where were you when you wrote this song?” He answered, “In a bus.” Okie Jones says Marty wrote it before the Las Vegas trip in July. Marty said his hospital stay showed him “what a woman has to go through in life, and I dedicate that to all of the ladies...

  19. [15] Back in the Groove
    (pp. 131-140)

    Marty worked mostly with Bobby Sykes and Don Winters for the next several years. He sold his bus, and Okie Jones found other employment.My Woman, My Woman, My Wifewas Marty’s only album in 1970, with Columbia releasing two compilation albums. He appeared regularly on the Opry.

    “He made a striking figure up there on that stage in a white suit with navy pinstripes, a deep blue shirt and white patent footwear,” says Louise Mayer, vice president of his fan club, in describing his Opry appearance on July 11. “Thunderous applause brought about the encore we wanted so much....

  20. [16] NASCAR 42
    (pp. 141-152)

    When Marty applied for his NASCAR license in 1970, he chose number fortytwo from a list of available car numbers. Lee Petty had used that number from NASCAR’s beginning in 1946 until he retired from racing in 1962. Richard Petty writes in his autobiography, “Daddy picked it by looking around the garage until his eyes stopped on the license plate of his passenger car. Four and two were the first two numbers, so that was it. Somehow there should have been a more exciting reason for picking the number that someday would become one of the most famous in NASCAR...

  21. [17] Twentieth Century Drifter
    (pp. 153-160)

    “Every time I go to a race,” Marty once said, “I feel I have as good a chance of winning as anybody, y’know, because so many things can happen. That’s like when I put out a song; I think I have as good a chance as anybody of having a hit.”¹

    Marty wrecked his 1972 Dodge during February 1973’s Daytona 500. “On the sixty-third lap he was the low man as three cars came side by side through the treacherous number four turn,” a SportsIllustratedarticle explained. “Marty’s right front fender was tapped just enough to send his car...

  22. [18] Return to the Road
    (pp. 161-168)

    The Ryman Auditorium had been home to the Grand Ole Opry since 1943, ten years before Marty arrived. Built in 1892 by Nashville riverboat Captain Thomas Ryman and called the Union Gospel Tabernacle, it contained enough wooden pews to seat 3,755 people. From its beginning, the tabernacle hosted secular events, and it became known as the Ryman Auditorium after Captain Ryman died in 1904. The National Life and Accident Insurance Company, owner of WSM Radio and the Opry, purchased the Ryman for $207,500 in 1963 and changed its name to Grand Ole Opry House.¹

    In 1974 the Opry moved from...

  23. [19] Back on Columbia Records and in the Spotlight
    (pp. 169-176)

    About the time Marty returned to Columbia, the company released another compilation album.No Signs of LonelinessHere, which came out in November 1975, contained a selection of singles from the 1960s. The title track belonged to Lee Emerson, Marty’s former road manager and sideman. His occasional reappearances over the years frustrated Marty because of Emerson’s violent and unpredictable drug–related behavior. The end would come in December 1978 when Barry Sadler of “Ballad of the Green Berets” fame shot and killed Emerson, who was sitting in a car outside the apartment building of a woman they’d both dated. Sadler...

  24. [20] The Marty Robbins Band on Tour
    (pp. 177-188)

    In late 1977, Marty took his band to Australia, playing Sydney’s Opera House and shows in Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, and Hobart, Tasmania. Del Delamont remembers “lots of famous venues. We played the Palladium in London, we played the famous old theater in Edinburgh, Scotland, we played the Coliseum in Guttenberg, Sweden. Those were landmark years for me. I was so honored to be a part of this great show.”¹

    Marty made his third Wembley appearance in March 1978, where he introduced his forty-minute segment by joking, “Next time we come here, it’s going to be probably in December, because...

  25. [21] Into the ’80s
    (pp. 189-198)

    “I’ve never had the feeling I had it made,” Marty said in 1981. “I never felt like I could get by on what I had. I’ve always had this fear it could all be taken away.” He added, “I’ve got a long way to go before I can even feel safe. Maybe that’s what keeps me going. Besides, I don’t like to work. What I’m doing—this is not work for me.”¹

    He found a kindred soul in Eddy Arnold, also from an impoverished background, who became Marty’s business mentor and partner. “I think he was fortunate that he was...

  26. [22] NASCAR—Phase Two
    (pp. 199-202)

    Following Marty’s wrecks at Charlotte in 1974 and Daytona and Talladega in 1975, articles carried headlines such as “Marty Robbins Gives Up Racing!” He told reporters he had retired permanently from NASCAR. “I’ve had the prayers of a lot of people going out on that race track with me,”Country Song Roundupquoted him as saying, “and the Lord’s always stuck by me. I don’t believe He’s deserting me now, but He may be trying to tell me something. If He is, I got the message loud and clear.”¹

    While Marty struggled to subordinate his racing passion to his singing...

  27. [23] Super Legend
    (pp. 203-212)

    New Year’s Day, 1981, after returning home from a three-show New Year’s Eve performance in Evansville, Indiana, Marty experienced chest pains. “I thought it was just an extra bad case of indigestion,” he said later, “because I’ve had a heart attack, and it wasnothinglike the one I had in ’69.”¹ He waited from Thursday until Monday to call Doctor Ewers for an appointment. “I told him I had a little pain in my chest, and he said come on over,” Marty remembered. “I said I was planning on coming over tomorrow, and he said get on over here...

  28. [24] No Plans of Quitting Any Time Soon
    (pp. 213-224)

    “Women just drooled over him,” Wayne Jackson says about Marty. “Sometimes we’d have to sit on the bus for two or three hours while he would be sitting on the side of the stage after a show. He would shake every man’s hand and kiss every woman on the cheek. And they all thought they knew him personally. He was the epitome of how to treat fans. You treat them with love and kindness because they’re the reason you got the Cadillac and the farm. He knew that in a supreme manner.”¹

    To improve his shows, Marty made an attempt...

  29. [25] “I’ll Be Drifting Home”
    (pp. 225-230)

    Marty wrapped up his 1982 touring with a post-Thanksgiving weekend in Pennsylvania and a quick trip to Cincinnati, while holding a recording session between them. On the evening of November 30, he recorded five songs, telling producer Bob Montgomery he thought those songs were even stronger than the previous album. They planned to record the remaining songs Friday, after Marty’s return from Cincinnati. Montgomery observed Marty as being tired but in great spirits and excited about “making the best record he could possibly make.” Marty’s bus left at 10:00 pm for a show twelve hours later.¹

    Marty and his band...

  30. [26] Some Memories Just Won’t Die
    (pp. 231-234)

    A cold steady rain fell in Nashville on Saturday morning, December 11, 1982. Mourners began filling the Woodlawn Funeral Home two hours before the eleven o’clock funeral service. The Woodlawn Chapel of Roses held three hundred people, and more than a thousand crowded other rooms and hallways. They competed for space with elaborate flower arrangements that lined the hallways and filled the rooms. Marty Robbins music played softly over the speaker system. Before the service, fans were allowed to enter the chapel and pass by the closed casket covered with pink flowers.

    A floral arrangement behind the casket formed a...

  31. Appendix: Band Members
    (pp. 235-238)
  32. Notes
    (pp. 239-272)
  33. Index
    (pp. 273-280)
  34. Back Matter
    (pp. 281-292)