When a Rockin’ Know-all thinks about a record company that through its record releases brought the Southern states its own brand of Rock’n’roll over the airwaves, he (or maybe she) thinks of Sun Records in Memphis.
Sun were there, because in order to survive like most independant all over the States they catered for markets not generally seved by the Majors ; in the process they gave the white youth the sounds they wanted to jitterbug and bop to. Whilst it s true to say that Majors were doing big business with pop artists, they were pretty well involved with country (and/or Rhythm’n’blues) from fairly early on. In fact Columbia’s C&W output in the ’50’s was run from Nashville and under the cortrol of Mitch Miller. Certainly, when given the lead, Columbia Broadcasting quickly latched onto the potential of what was virually a more raucous version of country music. They soon amassed a Rockabilly catalog second only to Sun.
Of course, in the early ’50s, Columbia had recorded country boogies, which had a great beat for dancing, but still had hillbilly vocals (« Wild Cat Boogie » – Johnny Bond, 21160 – « Rock Me » – Little Jimmy Dickens, 21206, « Go Boy Go » – Carl Smith, 21266 and « Mama!» – Lefty Frizzell, 21328 are typical examples)

It was not until a certain truck driver from Tupelo recorded « That’s All Right Mama», that true Rockabilly look off. Columbia covered the song with a version by Marty Robbins. Whilst others did cut sides without the hillbilly vocals (« Juke Joint Johnny » – Lattie Moore on Speed for example), they were sparse and generally on very minor labels with local distribution. It was Elwood Pretzel that brought it to wider attention, in fact the South and the vast country areas of the Northern States were more than ready ; in 1954 during a Cash Box interview Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records stated that from 1952 white high school and college kids in the South were picking up R&B records primarily to dance to. The trend was started by youthful hillbilly fans rather than the pop bobby-soxers, who just followed right along.

Robbins, of Polish ancestry, was born on September 26th 1925 at Glendale, Arizona. 1937 saw his family move to Phoenix, where he attended high school. Then at 19 he signed up wit the Navy for a 3 years stint. Posted on the Pacific, he developped an interest in the guitar until he got to the stage of composing his own songs. This eventually led him to perform professionnally after his discharge with one of his friends who had a band, and they performed at a local night club. He served his apprenticship in he mid-40’s playing in small around Arizona. He joined Columbia Records in 1952, recording solo performances as well as duetting with his manager Llee Emerson, in a style reminiscent of early Eddy Arnold, featuring a semi-crooning vocal and sparse instrumentation.

Marty Robbins and band – 1950’s

It was at Jim Beck’s studio (Dallas) in September 1953 that Robbins recorded « It’s A Long, Long Ride ». It wasn’t Rock’n’Roll of course, but Robbins’ performance had a restless energy, presaging much that followed.The drums, still rarely heard on Nashville recodings, gave an added edge to the performance. During the first break, the fiddle player hums in unison with his instrument, a trchnique that Slam Stewart and others had popularized with the bowed upright bass during the ’30s, but one rarely heard in country music.

Ray & Roy

Pain And Misery

by Ray Edenton & Marty Robbins

between Dallas and Nashville (1954)

Much bluesier was « Pain And Misery », an anomalous duet that Robbins recorded in May 1954 with Ray Edenton. It was logged in the Columbia files with three other songs under the artist-name «Ray & Roy ». None of the cuts were released at the time, although « Pain And Msery » was later re-cast by Robbins as « Mean Mama Blues ».
Aside of the cloak of anonymity, wasn’t really surprising is the hard-edged blues feel. The use of two electric guitars – one of which takes an unusually aggressive solo (Chet Atkins or Louie Innis)– points unerringly towards future developments. “Call Me Up” (21291) (by Marty alone) was also a nice uptempo precursor.

By the end of 1954 all of Robbins’ sessions were being held in Nashville, and on November 7, he cut a cover version of « That’s All Right ». Elvis Presley had released it in July, and although it did no more than crack a few local charts, it created a buzz. Robbins had heard the record and figured Presley was black. In October, Robbins discovered that he wasn’t when Presley okayd a less-than-successful guest spot on the Opry. By November, Presley had his second record on the market, but Robbins decided to cover « That’s All Right » ayway. It became a fair-sized hit for him, peaking at number 7 in the Spring of 1955.

Cash Box Jan. 6, 1955

August 9, 1955. Nashville, Tennessee: the pure rockabilly recording session

Chuck Berry’s « Maybellene » mispelled « Maybelline » by Columbia, hadn’t even cracked the R&B charts when Robbins covered it. He had obviously started tuning the car radio to the R&B stations, sensing the coming storm.
If there’s ever a need to illustrate the difference between uptempo country and rockabilly, then Robbins’ versions of « That’s All Right » and « Maybelline »will show the demarcation line. It was more than the addition of drums, there was a twitchy energy to « Maybelline » that announced the dawn of a new era.

Cash Box Nov. 5, 1955

Cash Box, Jan. 7, 1956

November 3rd, 1955. More rockabilly and country. After Robbins had met Melvin Endsley, he adopted the latter’s “Singing The Blues”, which proved a million seller for him.

If there’s ever a need to illustrate the difference between uptempo country and rockabilly, then Robbins’ versions of « That’s All Right » and « Maybelline »will show the demarcation line. It was more than the addition of drums, there was a twitchy energy to « Maybelline » that announced the dawn of a new era.

Columbia didn’t have much faith in « Singing Te Blues », possibly thinking it was too country. It was kept in the can for eight months, and two other singles were dhipped in the interim. In November 1956 though, « Singing The Blues » beat out « Hound Dog » for the number one slot on the country charts, and it remained there until February 1957.

Before « Singing The Blues » was released, Robbins went back into the studio with two more uptempo songs on the schedule. The first was a cover of Little Richard’s « Long Tall Sally », which hadn’t even cracked the R&B charts ; the other was an odd original, « Respectfully Miss Brooks » with an organ piping way in the background.

Robbins decided it was time to revisit the Melvin Endsley songbook. He cut « Knee Deep In The Blues », which proved to be his ticket back to the charts, but unfortunately was beaten by Guy Mitchell’s pop version.

From Late 1955 thru’ 1956 he performed Rockabilly on stage as this was in demand with audiences. Did he in fact rock the joint ? – well, there is in fact an LP of Marty Robbins on the Artco label (LPC 110LD) which is described as coming from « The Hall Of Fame » motion pictures soundtrack. In truth it’s almost certainly some form of live concert which is from around 1956. All 12 tracks are different to recorded versions, the latest of which are « Mr. Teardrop » and « I Can’t Quit » – significantly no « Singing The Blues ». Other tracks include « Pretty Mama », « Tennessee Toddy », « Pretty Words », Castle In The Sky », « Times Goes By ». « Tennessee Toddy » and « Pretty Mama » not to mention « I Can’t Quit » are all superb : yes Marty did really rock.

However Marty wasnt really a rocker ; he was just cashing in on a trend, and he soon left for pop/country records. These are anyhow some reat stady backings in « Knee Deep In The Blues », « Long Gone Lonesome Blues », although « Moanin’ The Blues » and « Loveick Blues » are in the same great style.

Sources: main article set up from an article by Bob Airlie, originally published (June 1977) by “New Kommotion”, then from the notes by Colin Escott for Bear Family “Rockin’ Rollin’ Robbins” triple CD (1999); music primarily from Willem Agenant site ‘Columbia 20 000 serie’, many thanks to him. Remaining music and videos from YouTube.Thanks Uncle Gil for his help, providing sound files.
Labels from 45cat and 78worlds sites.Discographical details from Praguefrank great site.

Several boppers have been excluded, because lack of space. Otherwise the article would have been double sized. Anyway they all are well worth seeking, songs like: “I’ll Love You Till The Day U ie” (21414), “Time Goes By” (21324) or “Where’d Ja Go” (40868) with Lee Emerson.