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Twentieth Century Drifter
The Life of Marty Robbins
By Diane Diekman
University of Illinois Press
Copyright © 2012 Diane Diekman
All right reserved.
Chapter One In the Hall of fame
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 time as a finalist, he didn't expect to hear his name called.
Eddy Arnold, elected sixteen years earlier, stood on the stage. He had been chosen to reveal the newest member, and he announced, "Marty Robbins, come up here."
Throwing back his head in surprise, Robbins grinned and stood. As he started toward the stage, he paused to turn and wave to the audience. Arnold whipped the red cover from an easel, revealing a large bronze plaque, and said, "Welcome to the Hall of Fame, Marty."
At the microphone, Robbins glanced at the engraved bronze likeness and joked, "Well, I don't know—somebody's looking at me." Appearing genuinely happy, he said, "I never had any idea that this would happen, because I really feel there are other people that deserve it, y'know, before I should get it, but I have a feeling, y'know, possibly, that it might not happen again, so I'm gonna take it tonight." He told the audience, "And I thank everybody that had anything to do with it."
Eight weeks later he was dead. His fourth heart attack took his life on December 8, 1982, at age fifty-seven. The first heart attack occurred during a NASCAR race in 1968 and went undiagnosed. A major heart attack in August 1969 led to triple bypass surgery the following January. His third heart attack came eleven years later. Each time he had returned to an active schedule of singing and racing.
"I certainly thought he deserved the Hall of Fame honor and was happy that he received it," says "Whispering" Bill Anderson. "When he died such a short time later, I was especially glad that he knew in this lifetime how much he was admired and appreciated."
Longtime Grand Ole Opry star Charlie Louvin calls "the passing of Marty Robbins" the Opry's greatest loss. "There've been others, naturally," he says, "but I think Marty was the biggest loss the Opry has taken."
During his three decades of recording, Marty Robbins placed ninety-four songs on Billboard's country music charts, four of them after his death. Sixteen reached number one, including his first charted song ("I'll Go On Alone") in early 1953. He received two Grammy awards for songs he wrote and recorded, "El Paso" and "My Woman, My Woman, My Wife." The Academy of Country Music honored him with its Man of the Decade Award in 1970.
"No artist in the history of country music has had a more stylistically diverse career than Marty Robbins," states one music guide. His Hawaiian songs, rockabilly hits, teen ballads, gunfighter ballads, pop standards, and straight country songs showcased his versatility. He hosted television shows and starred in movies about country music, cowboys, and stock car racing. When the Grand Ole Opry moved from the Ryman Auditorium to the new Opry House at Nashville's Opryland in 1974, Robbins was the last performer at the old location and one of the first at the new.
"He knew how to work that Opry crowd," a fan recalls. "He would sing a song, and the show was supposed to be over at midnight, and he'd run over to the side of the stage—and people would be going nuts—and he would take his hand and move the clock back, like a quarter to twelve, and he kept on singing."
In addition to music and the Old West, Robbins loved stock car racing. From a hobby at Nashville's Fairgrounds Speedway, he moved into the NASCAR circuit. "He started out being a singer driving a race car, but he became a race car driver who could sing," NASCAR's Bobby Allison says. "He could drive," comments NASCAR driver/owner James Hylton. "There's no doubt about it, if he'd put full time into racing like he did his singing, he could have been a winner."
His best NASCAR finish was fifth place in the 1974 Motorstate 400 at the Michigan International Speedway. "Marty felt like he didn't want to take the money from those guys by beating them," says NASCAR legend Cotton Owens. "He was running fourth and actually backed off to let a car pass him there at the end, because he didn't want to take the money from that guy."
A 1973 magazine article described Robbins at a race as follows: "The boots he wears, with two-inch stacked heels, just boost him up to about 5-feet 9-inches. He's short and wiry, hard-muscled ... his hair's getting longer now, mussed and matted and sun-bleached to a color that's almost strawberry roan; the mustache barely slips around the corners of his mouth.... His eyes, even hidden behind the bronze-tinted glasses, are open and honest."
Robbins combined singing and racing interests when he wrote and recorded a ballad called "Twentieth Century Drifter." It honored the dedicated race car drivers who barely earn enough money to feed their families but keep dreaming of an eventual win. It also captured a yearning of Robbins himself. When asked in 1981 if he had everything he'd always wanted, the country music superstar replied, "No, no. I want security. I don't have it yet."
Such an answer might surprise anyone unfamiliar with the history of Martin David Robinson, the son of a hardworking frontier mother and abusive alcoholic father. After a childhood of moving from shack to tent to shack in the Arizona desert, he spent his early teens in trouble with the law. Then came World War II combat in the South Pacific, followed by an assortment of short-term jobs before being hired as a singer and guitar player in 1947. The shy young man walked onstage singing because he was too nervous to talk. His only words during those early performances were, "My next song is ..." and "Thank you."
He changed his name to Marty Robbins, developed a stage presence, and established himself as an entertainer, songwriter, and NASCAR driver. Although still searching for security, he was adored by thousands of fans around the world.
Chapter Two Child of the Arizona Desert
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 its mouth. Grandma said the doctor had come during the night and brought two little twin babies." When Lillie asked which was the boy, Grandma Heckle proudly pointed, and Lillie covered the baby's face with the blanket. She didn't want another brother. Three were enough.
She says she didn't know she was "covering the face of a future great country and western singer and composer." With his father's charm and his mother's work ethic and integrity, the boy would someday be Marty Robbins.
Emma, born in 1890, was a daughter of Texas Bob and Anna Heckle. Raised on the Arizona frontier, she and her twelve siblings learned to ride and rope, while sharing chores and struggling to make a living. At nineteen, Emma married Dan Cavaness because she was pregnant and her father insisted on a wedding. Two years later Cavaness returned to his family ranch, leaving Emma with a toddler, Robert (nicknamed Pat), and an infant, Anna Mae.
Jack Joe Maczinski, born of Polish immigrants in 1890, left his home state of Michigan to avoid the World War I draft. He moved to Arizona and changed his name to Robinson. In February 1917, he met Emma Heckle Cavaness, divorced and working at a boarding house in Phoenix. An attractive man with brown hair and mustache, Jack matched curly-headed Emma in height, approximately five-eight. They married three months later. Lillie was born in 1918, followed by Johnny in 1920 and George in 1922.
The Robinson family lived a nomadic existence. Jack's attempts to provide for his growing family were hampered by his alcoholism, his temper, and his thievery. His skills were carpentry, mechanics, and smooth talk. Emma's relatives often found jobs for him or offered his family a place to stay. But he would get in an argument or steal something, and they would move again.
"This must have been humiliating to my mother," Mamie says, "who had the pride of a generation that, even though they grew up in the hills, took care of their own. Dad, being an Easterner with a totally different background—and I think of a larcenous nature—was not blessed or burdened with this virtue. That Mom's family tolerated him at all was a miracle, and probably due to pity and love for Mom and her brood."
Martin and Mamie were born in a shack on the desert eight miles north of Glendale, a town established three decades earlier when the Arizona Canal project brought water to the desert. Jack had dismantled an abandoned shack and hauled the pieces in his old pickup to an unclaimed spot near a bridge along the main road to Glendale. Then called Lateral Eighteen of the Arizona Canal, the road was later renamed 59th Avenue. Pregnant Emma and teenaged Pat helped build one main room to serve as the parents' bedroom and dining room. They added a smaller room for the children's bedroom and a lean-to for the kitchen. Jack constructed beds from discarded lumber and old bed springs he found in deserted houses. "He wasn't always particular whether a place was deserted or not, especially if something was in sight and he could haul it," Lillie remembers.
One day Jack drove home in a stolen car, chained it to the house, and hid himself in a mesquite thicket upon seeing a sheriff's car arriving. When the deputies found the car and left to get an arrest warrant, Jack escaped in the stolen car. He told Emma he would send for the family. Eventually he did, and Emma's brother moved her and the children to join Jack at a ranch on the Agua Fria River, east of Prescott.
They later moved to Humboldt where Jack got a job at a smelter. Around spring 1929, Lillie recalls, "A car drove into the yard and, as usual, Daddy ran and climbed under the house." The men looking for him left when told he was gone, and Jack escaped that night in his car. Emma ran out of money and food during the next few weeks, but she refused to ask for help. When Lillie confessed to her teacher she had no lunch and had not eaten breakfast, the teacher fed the Robinson children. That evening, visitors brought a supply of groceries. Although Emma gave Lillie one of her worst spankings, Lillie considered it worth the price.
A few days later the children came home to find their mother in the midst of packing, a not uncommon scene in their young lives. Jack arrived after dark in a Ford Model T with headlights turned off and drove behind the house to load their belongings.
The twins were almost four years old, and Mamie vaguely remembers stopping for several days along Black Canyon Highway when the truck broke down. They took shelter under a huge tree with dense branches hanging down to form a room. Emma set up a stove and placed cots and lanterns all around.
"I was enjoying everything about this playhouse," Mamie says, "so I was real surprised when the 'roof ' leaked and everything and everyone began to get a soaking." Jack stretched a tarp over the back of the truck, and the family huddled there until the rain stopped.
Their next home was near Cave Creek Dam, where Emma's brother-in-law helped Jack get hired at White's Mine. Emma and her sister cooked for the miners. Following a confrontation between the two men, Jack took his family back to the house where Martin and Mamie had been born; later, they moved to Phoenix when he found a new job.
Emma took in washing and ironing to help feed the family. Lillie, Johnny, and George attended Longfellow school in Phoenix. The children enjoyed living along the railroad tracks and getting acquainted with the hobos, who cooked over a campfire and made delicious soup. "There were many days the family would not have eaten had it not been for the hobos," Lillie recalls. "Some of them were always bringing something for the family, maybe a sack of onions or day-old bread."
When the Robinsons left that house, they moved to an empty lot in the same school district. At 1701 East Madison Street, Jack constructed a shelter consisting of a tent for sleeping quarters and a spot for cooking. Using tin and lumber scrounged from the city dump and wherever else he could find it, he added a room that became the kitchen and the parents' bedroom. The twins slept with Emma, and Jack had his own bed. Their "house of advertising" was covered with soft drink signs—Coca Cola, Whistle Soda, Delaware Punch, and others. With no hobos to bring food, they sometimes had little to eat.
Emma managed to retain a sense of humor in spite of work and stress. Lillie remembers coming home from school one day and sitting on the kitchen stool while her mother made supper. She described what she'd learned in English class, and Emma asked her what part of speech "but" was. Lillie replied, "A conjunction." Emma told her, "Get your conjunction off my stool and set the table for supper."
Jack supported his family by operating a garbage-hauling route. The 1930 U.S. census lists him as a business owner and a truck driver in the garbage industry. He brought home vegetables plucked from the garbage, and generous customers on the route often provided toys and clothing. Emma used her old Singer treadle sewing machine to remake items into clothing for her children. Jack built an additional room onto the front of their dirt-floor shack, and he designed an oil heater that burned used oil collected from service stations.
When twins Harley and Charley were born in June 1930, a neighbor lady acted as midwife. The Robinsons could not afford doctors, and their only way of receiving assistance for medical emergencies was to contact county health authorities.
Martin began playing a harmonica at age four. "He was always making some kind of music," Mamie says. "Just sitting at the table he'd take a knife or fork and hit on everything and try different sounds." One of his uncles encouraged him, often playing the fiddle for Martin to accompany with his harmonica. Emma had an old wind-up Victrola record player, and she enjoyed listening to records while she fixed dinner. One of her favorites was a Jimmie Rodgers tune, "All Around the Water Tank (Waiting for a Train)." Martin sang along, to his mother's great pride.
The family attended Open Door Mission Church, a large tent with sawdust spread over the ground, located at the corner of 17th and Washington Streets. Mamie remembers five-year-old Martin being coaxed to sing and play his harmonica. The offer of a nickel or dime would overcome his shyness, and he then enjoyed the attention he received. "I was always in his shadow," Mamie says, "but that suited me just fine. Whatever good happened to him made me just as happy as it did him. We were always together, making our own conversation and good times." Their eldest sister, Ann, taught their Sunday School class, and she frequently had her five students sing for the congregation. One day she was teaching them a new song, and Martin said, "Ah, Sis, you just tell us the words and we'll do the singing." At age five Martin was awarded a Bible for singing in church.
Christmas celebrations would have been few, according to Lillie, if not for the Masonic Lodge. Masons brought presents and groceries. When Jack worked at the smelter in Humboldt, he bought Christmas presents at the company store, on credit, before losing his job. A man from the store came after Christmas to take the toys back. One year the children searched the desert until they found a creosote bush shaped like a pine tree. Emma helped them decorate it. "We did all we could to make this scraggy desert plant look festive," Mamie recalls. "It wasn't long till we had the spirit of the season."
Marty once told an interviewer, "I had a little iron truck when I was about six years old. I played with it all the time, see. About two weeks before Christmas, it disappeared. Christmas morning I opened up this package and here's a little green truck, looked just like the red one." He said he received the same toy wrecker five years in a row, painted a different color and looking new every year. In Mamie's version, Emma had the children fix and wrap their old toys themselves. Emma then wrote names on the packages and placed them under the tree on Christmas Eve. The surprise was seeing which package each child would open.
Excerpted from Twentieth Century Drifter by Diane Diekman Copyright © 2012 by Diane Diekman. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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