Few country performers — few performers, period — have been blessed with the kind of talent and taste that Marty Robbins had. He could do it all, and thus never saw any reason why he shouldn’t. Robbins recorded honky-tonk and postwar country, teen-dream pop, western, rockabilly, Nashville Sound, folk songs, Tex-Mex, country covers of rock ‘n’ roll hits, and so much more, all of it wedded to an unerring pop sensibility that not only made him one of country music’s most loved singers, but one who could, for a time, land his recordings near the top of the pop charts as well.
In fact, three of his 15 country chart-toppers — “White Sport Coat”, “El Paso” and “Don’t Worry” (1957, ’59 and ’61, respectively) — also climbed into the pop Top 5. In 1962, though, Robbins took his love of pop styles a step further, recording an album of impeccably crooned standards that must be heard to be believed. Marty After Midnight is a masterpiece of swinging, after-hours jazz-pop.
Marty After Midnight remains important primarily because it seems to have been the obvious precedent for Willie Nelson’s more acclaimed and better remembered collection of pop songs, 1978’s Stardust. It’s probably no coincidence, then, that Nelson, like Robbins 16 years earlier, chose to record a version of the Tin Pan Alley standard “On The Sunny Side Of The Street”. But where Nelson’s version lurches a bit stiffly, Robbins’ rendition flat-out swings, thanks largely to a jazzy little combo that included guitarist Grady Martin and legendary pedal steel player Jerry Byrd driving the groove on bass.
Cut after cut shows off the kind of swingy jazz elegance that all those smoky, late-night jams down in Printer’s Alley, featuring Nashville’s A-team session men, must surely have had. On a cover of Brook Benton’s “Looking Back”, the group lays down a supper-club blues that sounds like the prototype for Ray Price’s landmark “Night Life”, recorded the next year.
But the real attraction is simply Robbins himself, crooning emotionally, easily, gorgeously. During “On The Sunny Side Of The Street”, he’s so giddy in love that he can’t help but scream for joy at the bridge. But such rocking outbursts are atypical here. Instead, Robbins employs a sense of jazz phrasing that is subtle and surprisingly sophisticated to performances that are usually technically restrained but emotionally never less than over the top — just as they should be.
Everything works. His reading of Gershwin’s “Summertime” actually matches Sam Cooke’s exquisite version for sheer pop elegance, and his dreamy run through the Cahn/Van Heusen standard “All The Way” is nearly as moving as any I’ve heard. Robbins even pulls off a few minor miracles along the way: He re-creates smarmy war horses such as “I’m In the Mood For Love” and “Misty” into romantic declarations that are once again sincere and fresh. His cooking “Pennies From Heaven” may not have you checking the skies for falling change, but it will leave you counting your blessings, which is the whole point of the thing.
But the standout performance on Marty After Midnight is clearly “Don’t Throw Me Away”. It sounds like one more Tin Pan Alley standard, but Robbins not only sings the hell out of it (you’ve never heard such beautiful begging), he also wrote it. Indeed, Marty Robbins could do it all.