Music News

Guarding a Legacy

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In the '70s, Ronny had his own musical career. Before that he performed with his dad as "Marty Robbins Jr." Columbia Records not only released the lone "Jr." album in 1969, but affixed a "Proudly Presents" to its title as well. When Ronny is told the album is available on eBay, he chuckles and warns, "Don't pay too much for it."

Not a big fan of touring, he quit making music, and since the late '80s has tended to the family business, Marty Robbins Enterprises, which reserves right of approval over everything that carries his father's name, besides those sound recordings. "We market various home videos of his TV shows and live concerts; that's primarily what our business is now," Ronny says.

If Columbia made it its business to second-guess Marty Robbins in the first eight years of his career, Ronny has made it his to second-guess his father's wishes and protect that hard-won artistic integrity since the singer's death in 1982. Not only must he preserve Marty Robbins' name and likeness from appearing in cheap and unsavory endeavors, he must also keep that name and likeness from fading out of the public's fickle consciousness. That's not so easy to do in Nashville. Just as Arizona was quick to pave over its greatest natural resource to become more cosmopolitan, so has Music City given its rich music history short shrift. If it hasn't paved over its cowboy heritage altogether, it's done a thorough job of confining old country music and its stars to museum exhibits and remote AM frequencies.

"Nowadays history only goes as far back as Garth's fifth album," Ronny says with a sigh. "That's as far as anyone looks anymore."

Unless someone creates a Country Music History Month, most people won't even know who Jimmy Dickens was or how huge a star he was at the time he discovered Marty Robbins.

In 1951, Marty Robbins was host of a local television show on KPHO called Western Caravan. "It started out as a 15-minute radio show at KTYL in Mesa, which I think was the forerunner of KPHO," Ronny Robbins says. "One day the station manager told him he would have to do a TV show if he wanted to keep the radio program, and he was petrified! While he had that show, Jimmy Dickens was coming through Phoenix promoting a Grand Ole Opry show. He heard Daddy, and when the tour got to L.A., he told Art Sadlee, the West Coast A&R man for CBS Records, about this kid in Phoenix he needed to go and hear.

"Within six months, Robbins had secured a record deal with Columbia, a writing deal with Acuff-Rose Publishing and an invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry as a member. This convinced him he had to move to Nashville. "I don't think Daddy really liked Nashville as such, after growing up in Arizona," says Ronny. "He had really bad hay fever, and Nashville is the allergy capital of the world. He always said he had claustrophobia in Nashville because he could never see two or three miles ahead."

Equally shortsighted, as far as Marty Robbins was concerned, was Mitch Miller, he of Sing Along With Mitch fame as well as Columbia's powerful A&R man on the East Coast. One of Miller's more successful hit-record formulas was coupling pop arrangements with proven country-western hits. Tony Bennett scored a massive hit with his cover of Hank Williams' "Cold Cold Heart," but at least Williams recorded on another label. When Robbins scored a huge country chart-topper with "Singing the Blues," Miller got another Columbia recording artist, his pet protégé Guy Mitchell, to cover the song instead of promoting Robbins' efforts on the pop charts.

"Daddy sold about a half a million records, which in country was a pretty good seller," recalls Ronny. "Then Guy Mitchell covered him and sold two million copies in the pop field. That got under Daddy's skin real bad. But he was a young act back then and didn't really have a lot of clout. Then he did "Knee Deep in the Blues,' which didn't do as well, and Guy Mitchell covered him on that, too. So by then he was raising all kinds of Cain with CBS.

"Apparently he called their bluff, or they let him bluff them, because the next thing you know he was flying to New York to cut a record with Mitch Miller and the Ray Conniff Singers. It wasn't that he wanted to cut pop, he just didn't want someone else in pop cutting his material. That was the big battle with CBS and he basically won that battle."

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic