R.I.P. 1922 - 2015

Donald Irwin Robertson was born in Beijing, 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.

Songs for ElvisA CD containing many of Don's original demos, entitled "Songs For Elvis" was released on Bear Family Records (August, 2003), along with an extensive booklet describing his career. [Click to buy Don Robertson: And Then I Wrote...Songs For Elvis]

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 Sisters.

[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.
 At 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 HAPPY WHISTLER.

 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 fo r 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 Floyd Cramer.


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 eight languages.

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 p ianist. Don can be heard accompanying Elvis on piano, organ and electric piano on the soundtrack of the movie, It Happened At The World's Fair.

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 YES.

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 described 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 bar entertainer.

His activities in past years also included 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 Association's Songwriter's Hall of Fame.

Information regarding Don can also be found in:
"WHO'S WHO COUNTRY & WESTERN MUSIC" (Windsor Publications)
ASCAP Biographical Dictionary (R.R. Bowker)
Biographical Dictionary of American Music (Parker Publishing)
Golden Guitars: The Story of Country Music (Four Winds Press)
Country Music: The Encyclopedia Grelun Landon
Elvis: His Life from A to Z (Contemporary Books)
ELVIS PRESLEY - WRITING FOR THE KING (The Stories Of the Songwriters) by Ken Sharp
Country Music, U.S.A. (University of Texas Press)
"THE COMPLETE ELVIS" (Delilah Books)
"WHO WROTE THAT SONG?" (Writer's Digest Books)
Elvis Up Close: In the Words of Those Who Knew Him Best (Turner Publishing Inc.)
The Ultimate Elvis: Elvis Presley Day by Day (Patricia Jobe Pierce)
Elvis Presley: A Life in Music: The Complete Recording Sessions (St. Martin's Press);
"AMERICAN KEYBOARD ARTISTS" (Chicago Biographical Center)
Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Goralnick (Little Brown & Co.)
and other publications

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