Twentieth Century Drifter

In three decades as a singer and songwriter Robbins placed a staggering 94 songs on Billboard’s country music charts. His musical style ranged from rockabilly rave-ups to pop standards and even Hawaiian songs. Fulfilling another dream, Robbins spent time on the NASCAR circuit. He also published songs and took a shot at acting with Western comedies like Buffalo Gun and the car-racing drama Hell on Wheels.

Born on this date in Glendale, Arizona, Robbins had a rough childhood as part of a family of ten children. His parents divorced when he was twelve. Five years later, he left home to serve in the Navy in World War II, where he learned guitar to pass the time. His first big hit, “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation,” brought him a gold record and set the stage for “El Paso,” a Number One pop hit in 1959 and still a revered classic today. Prosperity and lifelong fame followed.

But, as Diane Diekman makes clear, success never came easy. In Twentieth Century Drifter, the acclaimed biography of Robbins, Diekman shares a wealth of stories about the future star’s battles to break through. Alas, that included the bane of many a performer—the unwanted nickname:

Because of his many heartbreak songs, Marty became known as “the boy with the teardrop in his voice,” a title he credited to Jolly Joe Nixon, a Fort Worth disc jockey. The term first appeared in print as a magazine quote in late 1953. “At the time I was a boy,” Marty told an interviewer years later. “I was just a young man, but it always embarrassed me when somebody’d say ‘Mr. Teardrop.’ It used to be rumored that every time I would sing a song I would cry. I might get more emotion into a song maybe than some people do, but I don’t cry. I was asked many times in the early part of my career, ‘Do you really cry on your recording sessions?’ No, I don’t really cry on my recording sessions.”

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