LifeNotes: Classic Songwriter Don Robertson Passes

Don Robertson

Don Robertson. Photo: donrobertson.com

Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Don Robertson has passed away at age 92.

Robertson created classic songs for Elvis Presley, Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow, Charley Pride and dozens of other stars. He died in California on March 16.

Among his standards are “I Really Don’t Want to Know,” “Born to Be with You,” “Please Help Me I’m Falling” and “I Don’t Hurt Anymore.” Robertson was also a successful recording artist.

He was born Donald Irwin Robertson in Peking, China on December 5, 1922. His physician father, who developed the first blood bank, was then the head of the Department of Medicine at Peking Union College.

His mother was a pianist and poet. She began giving Robertson piano lessons when he was 4 years old, and he was composing his first songs just three years later.

The family returned to the United States, and Don Robertson was raised in Chicago. By age 14, he was earning money as a piano player in local dance bands. During his college years at the University of Chicago, he landed a job as the musical arranger at radio station WGN for its singing trio The Brandt Sisters.

Even bigger stars were The Dinning Sisters at the rival radio powerhouse WLS and its “National Barn Dance.” In 1945, he travelled to Los Angeles as the accompanist and arranger for the Dinnings, who had signed with Capitol Records. (The sisters soon scored major hits for the company with 1947’s “My Adobe Hacienda” and 1948’s “Buttons and Bows.”)

He married the trio’s Lou Dinning. Robertson took a job as a rehearsal pianist at Capitol, worked as a nightclub artist and occasionally played on recording sessions. Both he and Lou Dinning soon had solo recording contracts at Capitol. They also recorded for the label as a duo.

Don Robertson’s first big songwriting success was with his co-written “I Really Don’t Want to Know.” It became a No. 1 country hit for Eddy Arnold in 1954, as well as a simultaneous pop success for Les Paul & Mary Ford. Elvis Presley revived the song in 1971, and it has been recorded by nearly 200 others.

Hank Snow hit the top of the country charts with Robertson’s co-written “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” in 1954, with Dinah Washington scoring a No. 3 r&b smash with the same song that year. This song has also been recorded by Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Rodney Crowell, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Martina McBride, Dottie West, Hank Thompson and many other artists.

In 1955, both Frankie Laine and Les Paul & Mary Ford had pop hits with Robertson’s “Hummingbird.” In country music, Carl Smith had a top-10 hit in 1955 with the songwriter’s “You’re Free to Go.”

As an artist, Robertson had a top-10 pop hit with his Capitol Records disc of “The Happy Whistler” in 1956.

The Chordettes also scored a 1956 top-10 pop success with Robertson’s “Born to Be with You.” As one half of The Echoes (with Bonnie Guitar), Robertson re-recorded his tune in 1960. Then Sonny James revived it as a No. 1 country hit in 1968. Dion, Dave Edmunds, Bing Crosby, Anne Murray, Duane Eddy and The Browns are among the dozens who have subsequently recorded “Born to Be with You.”

Don Robertson with Waylon Jennings and Jack Clement

Don Robertson with Waylon Jennings and Jack Clement. Photo: Don Robertson Music Corporation

Other notable Don Robertson songs of the 1950s included “Go Back You Fool” (Faron Young, 1955), “Condemned Without Trial” (Eddy Arnold, 1953) and “I’m Counting on You” (Kitty Wells, 1957). In 1960, Della Reese brought Robertson’s “Not One Minute More” to pop fame. In the country field, Hank Locklin’s 1960 No. 1 hit “Please Help Me I’m Falling” crossed over to become a top-10 pop success as well. Skeeter Davis recorded its “answer” song, “I Can’t Help You (I’m Falling Too).” Janie Fricke revived the song as a country hit in 1978.

“Please Help Me I’m Falling” also brought Don Robertson’s distinctive piano style to prominence. He pioneered the “slip-note” style of playing that was later nationally popularized by Floyd Cramer.

In 1964, Bonanza TV star Lorne Greene recorded Robertson’s western-saga song “Ringo,” which became a No. 1 pop smash. Pop crooner Al Martino had a big hit with Robertson’s “I Love You More and More Every Day” in 1964, and this was revived on the country charts in 1973 by Sonny James.

In 1965, Don Robertson returned to solo recording with the RCA Nashville LP Heart on My Sleeve. It contained his own versions of some of the hits he’d written.

Elvis Presley scored with the songwriter’s “I’m Yours” that same year. During his career, Presley recorded 15 Don Robertson songs, many as soundtrack numbers for the superstar’s films.

During the 1960s, Hank Snow landed three more hits with Robertson songs — “I Stepped Over the Line” (1964), “The Queen of Draw Poker Town” (1965) and “Ninety Miles an Hour (Down a Dead End Street)” (1963). (The star’s popular 1956 recording of “With This Ring I Thee Wed” is also a Robertson song.)

Don and Irene Robertson with Priscilla Presley  at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1996. Photo: donrobertson.com

Don and Irene Robertson with Priscilla Presley
at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1996. Photo: donrobertson.com

Robertson co-wrote and played piano on Charley Pride’s 1967 hit “Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger.” He has also been the piano accompanist for Chet Atkins, Jessi Colter, Nat King Cole, Ann-Margret, John Prine, Jerry Wallace, Nancy Wilson and Presley, among others.

Don Robertson was placed in the Nashville Walkway of Stars in 1967 and inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972.

Next, he wrote the 1979 Ray Price hit “There’s Always Me,” and resurfaced in 1982-83 as the co-writer of Billy Swan’s “With Their Kind of Money and Our Kind of Love,” “Your Picture Still Loves Me” and “Yes.”

Over the years, millions have heard Don Robertson playing his song “Pianjo” as “Gomer,” the animatronic bear opening the “Country Bear Jamboree” attraction at Disneyland and Disney World.

The songwriting legend has lived in Lake Sherwood, Calif., since 1960. He is survived by his wife of 53 years, Irene, by their sons Bobby and Jim, by five grandchildren and by a great-granddaughter.

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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