El Paso (song)
"El Paso" is a country and western ballad written and originally recorded by Marty Robbins, and first released on Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs in September 1959. It was released as a single the following month, and became a major hit on both the country and pop music charts, reaching No. 1 in both at the start of 1960. It won the Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Recording in 1961, and remains Robbins' best-known song. It is widely considered a genre classic for its gripping narrative which ends in the death of its protagonist, its shift from past to present tense, haunting harmonies by vocalists Bobby Sykes and Jim Glaser (of the Glaser Brothers) and the eloquent and varied Spanish guitar accompaniment by Grady Martin that lends the recording a distinctive Tex-Mex feel. The name of the character Felina was based upon a schoolmate of Robbins in the fifth grade; Fidelina Martinez.
El Paso by Marty Robbins
|Single by Marty Robbins|
|from the album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs|
|Released||October 26, 1959|
|Marty Robbins singles chronology|
Members of the Western Writers of America chose "El Paso" as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.
The song's storyline
There have been three versions of Robbins' original recording of "El Paso": the original full-length version, the edited version, and the abbreviated version (briefly described below), which is an alternate take in stereo. The original version is in mono and is around 4 minutes and 38 seconds in duration, far longer than most contemporary singles at the time, especially in the country genre. Robbins' longtime record company, Columbia Records, was unsure whether radio stations would play such a long song, so it released two versions of the song on a promo 45: the full-length version on one side, and an edited version on the other which was nearer to the three-minute mark. This version omitted some lyrics of the original. Most of the record-buying public, as well as most disc jockeys, overwhelmingly preferred the full-length version.
- "Out in the west Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl..."
The song is a first-person narrative told by a cowboy in El Paso, Texas, in the days of the Wild West. The singer recalls how he frequented "Rosa's Cantina" (a similarly named establishment operates in El Paso and claims to be the namesake of the fictional saloon but, according to a 2017 article, "historians of the area are skeptical"), where he became smitten with a young Mexican dancer named Felina. When the singer notices another cowboy sharing a drink with "wicked Felina", out of jealousy he challenges the newcomer to a gunfight. The singer kills the newcomer, then flees El Paso for fear of being hanged for murder or killed in revenge by his victim's friends. (The abbreviated version of the song, often found on compilations, omits a verse in which the singer expresses shock and remorse over the "foul evil deed" he had committed before realizing he must run.) In the act of escaping, the singer commits the additional and potentially hanging offense of horse theft ("I caught a good one, it looked like it could run"), further sealing his fate in El Paso. Departing the town, the singer hides out in the "badlands of New Mexico."
The song then fast-forwards to an undisclosed time later (though in the sequel, “Felina”, it is stated that only a day has passed) - the lyrics at this point change from past to present tense - when the singer describes the yearning for Felina that drives him to return, without regard for his own life, to El Paso. He states that his "love is stronger than [his] fear of death." Upon arriving, the singer races for the cantina, but is chased and fatally wounded by a posse. At the end of the song, the singer recounts how Felina has come to his side and he dies in her arms after "one little kiss".
|U.S. Billboard Hot C&W Sides||1|
|US Billboard Hot 100||1|
Coincidentally, "El Paso" was followed in the Hot 100 No. 1 position by Johnny Preston's "Running Bear", another song in which the protagonist of the song dies although the story of Running Bear is not told in the first person.
As mentioned earlier, the full-length version of "El Paso" runs just over four and a half minutes long and was mixed in mono only. The original stereo version as heard on the Gunfighter Ballads album is slightly shorter, cutting a brief line immediately following the narrator's murder of the rival cowboy. The single version is an even shorter edit, running approximately three minutes long.
"El Paso" frequently was performed by the Grateful Dead in concert. The song entered the band's repertoire in 1969, and remained there until the band's demise in 1995; in total, it was performed 389 times. It was sung by rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, with Jerry Garcia contributing harmony vocals. On the album Ladies and Gentlemen... The Grateful Dead, Bob Weir introduces the song as the Dead's "most requested number".
The alternative country band Old 97's have also covered this song but instead of in the traditional 3/4 time, they hammered it out in 4/4. Their cover appears on Hit by a Train: The Best of Old 97's as well as the King of the Hill original TV soundtrack.
After Lolita along with her Western Trio had a hit in the US with Seemann (Deine Heimat ist das Meer) she reciprocated by recording a German version of the song which became a hit in the German world and contributed to a long series of bi-national songs such as Wenn der Sommer Kommt and two songs which would top the U.S. country charts thirteen years later as performed by Marie Osmond Lieber Jonny, Komm doch Wieder and Das einsame Haus in Waikiki.
Homer and Jethro also parodied the song ("Velvita's Cafe had standing room only; wall-to-wall drunks all the way to the door. I looked around for a place I could sit down; a lady got up, and I grabbed her char..."[not "chair"). "I asked her where have you been all my life; she answered, 'Most of it I wasn't born'".
Blaine L. Reininger, a founding musician of San Francisco band Tuxedomoon, included this song on his 1989 solo album Book of Hours.
In the late 1980s a modified version of "El Paso" (Miners Fight) became known as the official fight song of the University of Texas at El Paso Miners.
Robbins wrote two songs that are explicit sequels to "El Paso", one in 1966, one in 1976. (He also wrote other songs that told Western stories in a similar vein, but they are not sequels to "El Paso", as they involve none of the same characters.)
Felina (From El Paso)
In 1966, Robbins recorded "Felina (From El Paso)", telling the life story of Felina, the "Mexican girl" from "El Paso", in a third-person narrative. This track was over eight minutes long. Robbins wrote most of it in Phoenix, Arizona, but went to El Paso seeking inspiration for the conclusion.
Born in a desert shack in New Mexico during a thunderstorm, Felina runs away from home at 17, living off her charms for a year in Santa Fe, New Mexico, before moving to the brighter lights of El Paso to become a paid dancer. After another year, the narrator of "El Paso" arrives, the first man she did not have contempt for. He spends six weeks romancing her and then, in a retelling of the key moment in the original song, beset by "insane jealousy", he shoots another man with whom she was flirting.
Her lover's return to El Paso comes only a day after his flight (the original song suggests a longer time frame before his return) and as she goes to run to him, the cowboy motions to her to stay out of the line of fire and is shot; immediately after his dying kiss, Felina shoots herself with his gun. Their ghosts are heard to this day in the wind blowing around El Paso: "It's only the young cowboy showing Felina the town".
El Paso City
In 1976 Robbins released another reworking, "El Paso City", in which the present-day singer is a passenger on a flight over El Paso, which reminds him of a song he had heard "long ago", proceeding to summarize the original "El Paso" story. "I don't recall who sang the song," he sings, but he feels a supernatural connection to the story: "Could it be that I could be the cowboy in this mystery...," he asks, suggesting a past life. This song was a country No. 1. The arrangement includes riffs and themes from the previous two El Paso songs. Robbins wrote it while flying over El Paso in, he reported, the same amount of time it takes to sing--four minutes and 14 seconds. It was only the second time that ever happened to him; the first time was when he composed the original "El Paso" as fast as he could write it down. Robbins intended to do one more sequel, “The Mystery of Old El Paso", but he died in late 1982 before he could finish the final song.
In popular culture
In his 1980 TV special "Comedy Is Not Pretty", comedian Steve Martin spoofs the song in a skit acting out the plot with comedic elements (riding a Shetland Pony and elephant, and with a supporting cast of chimpanzees).
The series finale of the TV Show Breaking Bad contained several references to the song. The title of the episode, “Felina” is an anagram of the word “Finale” but is also pronounced the same as the woman in the song. Also, in the opening scene, as Walt steals a car, the song plays on the car stereo as he starts the vehicle.
Several plot points of the episode can also be seen as mirroring elements of the story in the song. The episode revolves around a wanted man dangerously returning to the place where he could be captured and/or killed to see someone he cares for. Later, he also dies from a bullet wound echoing the lines “something is dreadfully wrong for I feel a deep burning pain in my side.” In somewhat of a reversal, Walt is returning to his home in New Mexico as opposed to the character who had been hiding out in “the badlands of New Mexico."
- Liner notes by Rich Keinzle, July 1991, to The Essential Marty Robbins: 1951-1982 Columbia Records 468909-2
- Marty Robbins – The Drifter on discogs.com
- Diane Diekman (2012), Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins, University of Illinois Press, p. 17, ISBN 9780252094200
- Western Writers of America (2010). "The Top 100 Western Songs". American Cowboy. Archived from the original on 10 August 2014.
- Marty Robbins interviewed on the Pop Chronicles (1969)
- critic, Robert Fontenot Robert Fontenot Jr is an entertainment; Rock, Journalist Focusing on Classic; roll; Years, Published Nationally for More Than 25. "Breaking Ballad: The Story of Marty Robbins' "El Paso"". ThoughtCo. Retrieved 2019-01-16.
- Whitburn, Joel (2004). The Billboard Book Of Top 40 Country Hits: 1944-2006, Second edition. Record Research. p. 293.
- "Marty Robbins Chart History (Hot 100)". Billboard.
- "The SetList Program - Grateful Dead Setlists, Listener Experiences, and Statistics". Setlists.net. Retrieved 2016-08-29.
- "Instrumentally Yours - Grady Martin | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved 2016-08-29.