Irwin Robertson was born in Peking, China 1922 to O.H. and
Ruth Robertson. His father, a noted physician and medical scientist
(developer of the first Blood Bank), was then head of the Department
of Medicine at Peking Union Medical College. His mother, herself
a talented pianist and poet/playwright, noticing his interest in
the piano, started him on lessons at age four. He began composing
simple songs around age seven.
Don was fascinated by all kinds of music from cowboy songs to the
symphonic music that nightly issued from his father's vast record
library, as well as for the hymns he sang in the church choir on
Chicago's South Side. Today, among his manuscripts, you will find
everything from jazz to symphonic works.
In order to join the high school band (which did not use piano)
Don also learned to play brass instruments and joined the marching
band playing trombone and tenor horn. During high school and college
he played piano in local dance orchestras and was earning money
at it by age 14. In college, beset with conflicts, he was torn between
following in his father's footsteps (as both his brothers did) and
his love of music. He enrolled as a pre-med major and music minor
at the University of Chicago, where his father was Professor of
Medicine, but dropped out before completing pre-med and subsequently,
through the help of musician friends, piano & organ team Harry
Frohman & Dick Platt, he landed a job as musical arranger at
Chicago Radio Station WGN, arranging for a girl's trio, the Brandt
[In the early 1930s, the Robertsons began
spending summer vacations at Birchwood Beach in Harbert, Michigan,
near the home (and farm) of the Carl Sandburg family on the
dunes overlooking Lake Michigan. The families became friends.
Don and one of the Sandburg daughters, Helga, sometimes went
horseback riding together.
the time when I used to visit the Sandburg home, he was working
on a collection of folk songs which later was published in
a book called The American Song Bag. Carl often played
guitar and sang. One time he showed me a few chords for me
to play on my $6 Sears&Roebuck guitar. My parents didn't
think much of cowboy songs but they admired Sandburg,
and Sandburg loved those songs. That was inspiring to me.
In 1945 he travelled to Los Angeles, as accompanist and arranger
with another Chicago girls's trio, the Dinning Sisters. For a time,
he played in Los Angeles area night clubs and, along with Lou Dinning, made demo records for publishers and songwriters.
In the early fifties he worked for several years as a rehearsal
pianist at Capitol Records in Hollywood, occasionally playing on
record sessions as a keyboard sideman.
Don dates his professional career as a songwriter from about 1953,
when he began collaborating with Hal Blair. In 1954 he scored his
first major hit with I REALLY DON'T
WANT TO KNOW (co-written with Howard Barnes and first recorded
by Eddy Arnold). Close to two-hundred different versions by major
artists have been recorded on this song since, with combined sales
of dozens of millions. That same year,
I DON'T HURT ANYMORE (Hank Snow), co-written with Jack Rollins,
was the top selling song on the Country Charts for half a year.
In this same period he also scored with: CONDEMNED WITHOUT TRIAL
(Eddy Arnold); GO BACK YOU FOOL (Faron Young); BORN
TO BE WITH YOU (The Chordettes); YOU'RE
FREE TO GO (Carl Smith); HUMMINGBIRD
(Les Paul & Mary Ford); and I'M
COUNTING ON YOU (Kitty Wells, Elvis Presley).
In 1956 Don had a hit record of his own on Capitol with THE
In 1958 my son, Donnie, came home from school with a children’s
joke about “what flies, has one eye & eats people?”
You can sort of make it up as you go. I told the joke this
way to my good friend, songwriter & actor Sheb Wooley:
“What flies, has one eye, one horn & eats people?”
Answer: “A flying one-eyed, one-horned people eater?”
Sheb wrote a song using that idea adding his favorite color,
purple, to the title line. He called me and suggested we write
it together. I said Sheb was so much better at writing novelties
and urged him to write it alone (which he did). Later, Sheb
recorded one of my ballads for
the flip side... a nice “thank you” for giving
him the idea.
In a newspaper article, Bob Nafius wrote: “It wasn’t
the first time Robertson has unconsciously handed away a musical
goldmine.” (referring to Don’s creation of the
so-called ‘Floyd Cramer Style’).
In 1960 PLEASE HELP ME I'M FALLING,
co-written with Hal Blair, was one of the biggest country hits of
the year and was a Top Ten Pop Hit as well. It has since become
a country standard. Don's piano and voice demo on this song also
spawned the so-called Floyd Cramer piano style.
In 1964 RINGO, co-written with Hal
Blair and recorded by LORNE GREENE, went to #1 on the Billboard
Pop Hot 100.
In 1967 DOES MY RING HURT YOUR FINGER,
co-written with Jack Clement and John Crutchfield, went to #1 Country
and earned a Grammy Nomination for best C&W song of the year.
The artist was CHARLEY PRIDE. Don also played piano on Pride's RCA
recording, produced by Jack Clement.
Don had a total of 14 songs recorded by ELVIS PRESLEY, six of which
are in Presley movies.
As a pianist, probably Don's greatest contribution to the music
world to date is the creation of the unique piano style now known
as "Slip-Note Piano" or "Nashville Piano" (a misnomer, as it originated
in Don's studio in Los Angeles), which was first adopted and popularized
by, and is associated, as noted above, with the name of pianist
Don has also played piano or other keyboards for many top recording
artists including: CHET ATKINS, NAT KING COLE, JESSI COLTER, DUANE
EDDY, WAYLON JENNINGS, ANN MARGRET, AL MARTINO, ELVIS PRESLEY, RAY
PRICE, CHARLEY PRIDE, JOHN PRINE, JERRY WALLACE, NANCY WILSON.
Repeat successes written by Don include: THERE'S
ALWAYS ME (Ray Price); PLEASE
HELP ME I'M FALLING (Janie Fricke); BORN
TO BE WITH YOU (Sonny James, Sandy Posey); YOU'RE
FREE TO GO (Sonny James); I DON'T
HURT ANYMORE (Dinah Washington) and in the Hot Hundred for the
sixth time, I REALLY DON'T WANT TO KNOW
(Elvis Presley). On her album, "Burlap and Satin", Dolly Parton
teamed up with Willie Nelson for a particularly beautiful rendition
of I REALLY DON'T WANT TO KNOW.
As with this song, many of Don's songs have been repeat hits abroad
as well as in the U.S. Some have been translated into as many as
In addition to 25 singles, Don recorded an album for RCA: "Heart
On My Sleeve" in which he sings and plays 12 of his hits.
For many years, visitors to Disneyland in California and Disney
World in Florida and Disney Parks in Japan and France could hear
Don (in his disguise as Gomer the computerized bear) featured at
the piano playing his own innovative composition, PIANJO, in the
opening number of the "Country Bear Jamboree."
Elvis first recorded one of Don's songs, I'M COUNTING
ON YOU, in 1956 for his first RCA album. A few years
later, Elvis invited Don to come to Radio Recorders in Hollywood
to meet with him. They met and talked and hit it off. After
the session he invited Don to come up to his house for the
evening. This was the first of many get togethers in Hollywood,
Bel Air and Las Vegas. Elvis not only admired Don as a songwriter,
but also as a pianist.
Don can be heard accompanying Elvis on piano, organ and electric
piano on the soundtrack of the movie, It Happened At The
In the mid-eighties Don teamed up with Billy Swan (famous for I
CAN HELP) and their efforts produced three National Country Chart
songs, via Billy Swan recordings on Epic Records: WITH
THEIR KIND OF MONEY AND OUR KIND OF LOVE; YOUR
PICTURE STILL LOVES ME (co-written with John Crutchfield) and
Over the years, Don collaborated many times with Sheb Wooley
(of PURPLE PEOPLE EATER fame). Sheb's outstanding CD, "Tales from
How The West Was Won," includes several of these songs.
Don describes the present era as a golden age for keyboard players,
since nearly every instrumental sound known can be reproduced via
the keyboard. In 1984 he also arranged, performed and recorded sound
tracks for two short films, in one of which he appears as a piano
His activities in past years also include appearances with
the Waylon Jennings show (playing piano for Jessi Colter) at the
Sahara Tahoe, with the Kris Kristofferson show (working with Billy
Swan) at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, and appearances at Nashville
clubs playing keyboards for such artists as Jack Clement, Johnny
Cash and June Carter Cash, and Sheb Wooley.
In 1967 his name was added to the Walkway of Stars at Nashville's
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum where some of his
work was put on permanent exhibit.
In 1972, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters
Hall of Fame.