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The story of Marty Robbins' "El Paso"

The history of the epic gunslinger ballad that changed radio forever

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The story of Marty Robbins'

The original US 45 sleeve for "El Paso"

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El Paso by Marty Robbins

Written by: Marty Robbins

Recorded: April 7, 1959 (Studio 2, Bradley Studios, Nashville, TN)

Length: 4:19 (album version); 2:58 (single a-side); 4:38 (single b-side)
Takes: unknown
Produced by: Don Law

Musicians:

Marty Robbins: lead vocal, acoustic rhythm guitar (unknown)
Grady Martin: lead guitar (1952 Bigsby Doubleneck)
Jack Pruett: acoustic rhythm guitar (unknown)
Bob Moore: standup acoustic bass (unknown Italian vintage)
Jim Glaser, Bobby Sykes: harmony vocals

Releases:

Single: Columbia 4-41511 (October 26, 1959; b-side, "Running Gun")
Album: Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, Columbia CL 1349 (September 1959)

History:

  • Marty Robbins was already one of the nation's most popular country singers in late 1959, having scored four C&W #1 hits, including the first hit version of "Singing the Blues" and his own composition "A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation" (which became a huge pop hit as well). The release of "El Paso" nevertheless propelled him to true superstardom, giving him a signature song that cemented his legacy; yet Robbins composed the mammoth hit in a few hours while in the back seat of a car, and only then after years of procrastination.
  • It was while making the journey from Nashville to his Phoenix home just before Christmas 1956 that Robbins first came up with the idea of writing a song about the town he was passing through; accompanied by his wife and son, however, he was soon distracted enough to forget the inspiration. But having grown up a big fan of Gene Autry, "The Singing Cowboy," Marty had been looking to move into that genre for some time, and the next year while making the same trip, he remembered the idea -- then promptly forgot it all over again. Finally, in 1958, on the family's third pass through El Paso in his turquoise Cadillac, he began to compose the tune in his head.
  • Taking a rest stop, he got out near a cantina called Rosa's, but finding it closed for the holiday, he began to ask locals about the center of town, and was told that the hills behind Rosa's were actually the "badlands of New Mexico." Both details made it into the song, which he wrote on his guitar in the Cadillac's backseat while his wife Marizona drove.
  • Consisting of one repeated melody and a slightly altered bridge, Marty found the tune so simple and yet compelling that the verses came to him one after the other -- fourteen of them, to be exact, laid out like a novel or a film. (Indeed, Robbins has said he had no idea how the epic tale would end when he began it.) When he arrived at the county seat of Deming, NM a few hours later, the song was already complete, a tale of a cowboy who kills a man over the love of a woman named "Feleena," then escapes justice, only to return to El Paso to die in his woman's arms.
  • Sessions were a fairly simple affair, but only out of sheer necessity: his label Columbia, which had originally paired him with producer Mitch Miller and marketed Robbins as a pop act, was not at all sure cowboy songs would be a good fit for his career. Robbins instead indulged his obsession in the spring of 1959 by recording "The Hanging Tree," a Western standard Marty cut for a film soundtrack. When it went to #15 on the country charts in April, the singer was finally allowed to cut the album of gunfighter songs he'd longed for. Columbia still hedged their bets, however, giving him only a day in which to record the whole LP, including the future hit. Backed by the famed Nashville sessionmen known as the "A-Team," he managed to finish the album in less than five hours. It would prove to be a landmark in country music.
  • And yet, Marty still had to fight Columbia on the length of "El Paso" itself, despite the fact that every verse was necessary to the song: for the album, the label excised the most graphic verse where Robbins stands over his victim's body, then hastily edited the 4:19 remainder down to 2:58. A crafty Robbins got them to put the full length song on the b-side, however, and most DJs much preferred the longer version. "El Paso" not only became the first #1 song of the 1960s, it presciently ushered in a new era of hit songs that ran longer than four minutes.

Trivia:

  • The final episode of AMC's hit TV drama Breaking Bad is called "Felina," causing many fans to speculate that, like the narrator in Robbins' song, lead character Walter White dies at the end. Walt is a chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin who spends plenty of time in the "badlands of New Mexico" during the course of the series, and at the start of the last episode is planning to return home, possibly to see the love of his life, his wife Skyler. ("Felina" is a more culturally appropriate spelling of Marty's "Feleena.") The armed DEA agents who have been on the case for years are headquartered in... El Paso.
  • Rosa's Cantina, which was only a few years old when Robbins stopped to get his inspiration there, is still open and thriving just off of what is now Interstate 85 in El Paso. The original owners sold it to a local in 2007, who changed little about the place; the original "El Paso" is the first song listed on the jukebox, causing tourists to play it nonstop all day long.
  • The success of "El Paso" paved the way for longer songs to be played on AM radio; in the summer of 1964, the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun" made it to #1 in the UK, though the #1 version released in the US was edited. (Many DJs simply played the longer British single anyway.) "Rising Sun," like "El Paso," ran about 2:58 edited.
  • Not only did Robbins follow up on the success of "El Paso" and Gunfighter Ballads with more Western songs and albums, he penned two followup songs to the hit: 1966's "Feleena (From El Paso)," which tells the life story of the woman at the center of the first hit, and 1976's "El Paso City," in which a third person recalls the original song and wonders if he was the gunfighter in a previous life.
  • "El Paso" went to Number One on both the Pop and Country charts, and the following year won the first-ever Grammy given in the field of country music. Robbins closed every concert with the song forever after.

Covered by: The Grateful Dead, Old 97's, Kirsty MacColl, Don McLean, Elvis Presley, John Denver, Percy Faith, Chet Baker, Chet Atkins, Jim Ed Brown, Pat Boone, Hank Snow, The Mills Brothers, Johnny Horton, Bobby Vee, X

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