'Essential Marty Robbins' Salutes a Crossover King


It may just be a coincidence, but the number of country CD reissues seems to have picked up dramatically since Garth Brooks' extraordinary country-pop success in recent months.

Among the latest dividends: "The Essential Marty Robbins 1951-1982," a two-disc salute to one of the most underrated figures ever in country music.

Born Martin David Robinson in Glendale, Ariz., Robinson had nearly 100 country hit singles before his death at age 57 in 1982. That was enough to place him in the all-time country Top 10 in terms of hits.

Even so, he is rarely included by pop, rock or even some country critics when drafting overviews of major country artists. One reason is that Robbins, who worked in a variety of country and pop styles, didn't exhibit the honky-tonk country purity of such rivals as George Jones, Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard.

Over his 31-year career, Robbins recorded everything from rockabilly (including a creditable copy of Elvis Presley's version of Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right"), honky-tonk woes ("Singing the Blues"), teen-oriented tunes ("A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation"), Western gunfighter tales ("El Paso") and pop standards ("Among My Souvenirs)."

All these songs--plus more than 40 others--are included in the new Columbia Records box set, which documents quite nicely the ambition and range of Robbins' artistry.

"I've been called the 'king of the balladeers,' probably because of the gunfighter ballads," Robbins is quoted as saying in the booklet that comes with the set. "But I don't want to be put in any category. I don't want to get in a rut."

While some observers might see that statement as evidence of a willingness to compromise commercially, Robbins--much like Bobby Darin, whose eclecticism was widely misinterpreted by rock purists in the '50s and '60s--enjoyed exploring different styles.

In fact, he could be stubborn in resisting conservative Nashville guidelines.

After being signed by Columbia Records in 1951, he was sent 20 songs and asked to pick four to record during his first session. Rather than be so thrilled by the opportunity to make a record that he would do as he was told, Robbins threw out the songs and wrote four of his own.

Though nothing from the session proved to be a hit, Robbins recorded another one of his own songs, a ballad titled "I'll Go on Alone" during his second session and it went to No. 1 on the country charts.

While Robbins had some other hits, he didn't reach No. 1 again until his version of Melvin Endsley's "Singing the Blues" in late 1956. The record became such a country smash--13 weeks at No. 1--that Mitch Miller, who was head of artists and repertoire for Columbia Records, recorded a pop version of the song with Guy Mitchell.

After seeing Mitchell's version spent 10 weeks at No. 1 on the pop charts, Robbins got together with Miller and made a series of records that were aimed at both the pop and country markets. They included "A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation," a song about a senior prom that went to No. 2 on the pop charts during the spring of 1957.

The record gave Robbins a pop presence that would lead to almost a dozen other Top 40 hits, including "The Story of My Life," "El Paso," "Devil Woman" and "Don't Worry."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World