Music News

Guarding a Legacy

By the fall of 1959, Marty Robbins had amassed a recorded catalogue of five albums and 32 singles. Embedded in this waxwork were songs with whistling, songs with yodeling, songs with rockabilly guitar licks and songs with Little Richard-type squeals. One song even had sped-up chipmunk vocals. There was a whole album of Hawaiian songs, at least half a dozen single sides devoted to the Lord and nearly twice that amount dedicated to a high school dance heartache. Some songs were unmistakably country, even though Robbins sang with a smooth pop voice instead of a nasal twang. All of it was superbly delivered in that heartfelt tenor of his. But none of it sounded like the desert. And Marty Robbins loved the desert.

Born and raised near Glendale, Martin David Robinson (later shortened to Robbins) lived the cowboy lifestyle most country singers only gleaned from watching Roy Rogers movies. For two years, he tried maintaining his permanent residence in Arizona while tending to a burgeoning music career in Nashville. When relocation seemed inevitable, it was with more than a heavy heart that he and his wife, Marizona, and their 4-year-old son, Ronald Carson, drove past the sign that read, "Leaving Phoenix, population 250,000." That was in 1953. Each time they returned, it seemed like another 100,000 had enlisted in their absence.

Ronny Robbins has now spent 47 of his 51 years in Music City. These days only funerals seem to bring him back to Phoenix. "I'd love to move back to Phoenix if I can find a place just like it used to be. That's probably Tucson," he says with a laugh.

For Ronny, Phoenix "like it used to be" entails 112 to 115-degree temperatures with 6 percent humidity and driving around Cave Creek when there weren't any paved roads. Sometimes Marty would let his preteen son take the wheel while he'd go shooting rabbits. The Robbins family continued to make treks from Nashville to the Valley every summer and Christmas. It was during one Christmas road trip that Ronny recalls hearing "El Paso" for the first time -- and not on the car radio, either.

"We had a turquoise Cadillac, and that's what I remember we were in when he wrote it," he says. "My mother was driving, I was in the front seat and Daddy was in the back seat with his little guitar and a yellow legal pad just writing down words as fast and furiously as he could. And I'm thinking, "Man, that song is like a movie. A real neat story.' I'm thinking he wrote it over two consecutive Christmases. Never finished it and picked it back up that second year. It wasn't anything I thought was going to be of interest to anyone else but him and me. There were six or seven minutes of verses at one time that he cut down."

Even with that pruning job, "El Paso" became the song that would break the two-and-a-half-minute time barrier in pop music, as well as become the first No. 1 pop record of the '60s and the first recipient of a "Country" Grammy. And Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, the album "El Paso" rode in on, became the biggest seller of Marty Robbins' career.

Now those records sound like the desert. Even without the regional lyrics, songs like "They're Hanging Me Tonight," "Running Gun," "The Master's Call" and "Big Iron" would've screamed desert landscapes to a cabby stuck in New York City rush-hour traffic, if only for the sparse production or the desolation in Robbins' plaintive cry.

You can't rerelease the desert, but you can digitally remaster its songs, and maybe that's as close to a piece of old Arizona as we're ever going to get. While the Gunfighter album has never slipped out of print, its recent rerelease as part of Sony Legacy's "American Milestone" series marks the first time this legendary album has been given the extensive liner notes, original packaging and bonus cut treatment. Quite a far cry from the label's initial lukewarm reaction to an album of songs about determined lawmen and bad-tempered cowboys.

Ronny recalls: "CBS didn't want to do it, couldn't have cared less about western music at the time. It wasn't their idea of what commercial material was. But Daddy said, "I'm going to cut it anyway.' They did the whole Gunfighter album in four and a half hours. It wasn't something they spent a lot of time with. One, because he didn't feel like CBS was going to put it out. Or if they did, they wouldn't get behind it. But it took off like gangbusters.

"This album is still their best seller. It may have gone platinum [it has]. CBS doesn't tell me a lot anymore. They have control of the audio material, and they can market it a lot better than I can."