El Paso (song)
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|
"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 number one 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 Feleena was based upon a schoolmate of Robbins in the fifth grade — Fidelina Martinez.
"El Paso" was, at four minutes and 38 seconds in duration, far longer than most contemporary singles at the time. Robbins' record company was unsure if radio stations would play such a long song, and so released two versions of the song: the full-length version on one side, and an edited version on the other which was nearer to the three-minute mark. The full-length version was overwhelmingly preferred.
- "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 who is in El Paso, Texas, in the days of the Wild West. He recalls how he fell in love with a young Mexican woman, Feleena, a dancer at "Rosa's Cantina". When another cowboy made advances on "wicked Feleena," the narrator demanded that the other cowboy draw his gun; when the other cowboy did so, gunned down the challenger, then fled El Paso for fear of being hanged for murder or killed in revenge by his victim's friends. (The truncated version of the song, often found on compilations, omits a verse in which the narrator expresses shock and remorse over the killing before realizing he has to flee.) Exiting El Paso, he hides out in the "badlands of New Mexico."
The narrator switches from the past to the present for the remainder of the song, describing the yearning that drives him to return to El Paso: "It's been so long since I've seen the young maiden / My love is stronger than my fear of death." Upon entering the town, he is attacked and fatally wounded by a posse or his victim's friends. At the end of the song, the cowboy recounts (or hallucinates) that he is found by Feleena, and he dies in her arms.
Six years later, Robbins wrote a sequel to "El Paso," telling the story from Feleena's point of view (see below). This song confirmed that the cowboy does indeed die in Feleena's arms, although in the original song her eyes were described as "wicked and evil," lending support for the hallucination ending when "El Paso" was originally written.
Another thought for consideration is that of 'sour grapes.' The narrator fell in love with Feleena who, likely was not 'wicked and evil' at that time. Feleena's eyes, 'wicked and evil, while casting their spell' would be better called 'hypnotic,' though it would not fit the rhyme scheme of the poem. This part of the story is being recalled from an earlier time. With the advent of the 'handsome young cowboy' and (perhaps) flirtatious behavior from Feleena, the narrator's perceived slight colored his opinion, rendering Feleena's eyes 'wicked and evil.'
|U.S. Billboard Hot C&W Sides||1|
|U.S. Billboard Hot 100||1|
"El Paso" was frequently covered 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." It was also recorded by The Mills Brothers.
Blaine L. Reininger, a founding musician of San Francisco band Tuxedomoon, covered this song on his 1989 solo album Book of Hours.
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.)
Feleena (From El Paso)
In 1966, Robbins recorded "Feleena (From El Paso)", telling the life story of Feleena, 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, Feleena runs away from home at 17, living off her charms for a year in Santa Fe, 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, before shooting another man with whom she was flirting through "insane jealousy" in a retelling of the key moment in the original song. Her lover's return to El Paso comes only a day after his flight (the original song suggests a longer timeframe 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, Feleena 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 Feleena the town".
El Paso City
In 1976 Robbins released another reworking, "El Paso City", in which the narrator is on an airplane over El Paso and remembers 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 number one. 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 fourteen 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.
In popular culture
- For his TV special Comedy is Not Pretty, Steve Martin created a music video for the song, in which he plays the cowboy. The rest of the cast are chimpanzees and an orangutan. Martin's first "horse" is a miniature pony; he later rides an elephant to escape the posse.
- In 2013, the song was featured in "Felina", the series finale of the hit TV series Breaking Bad. Series creator Vince Gilligan admitted that he had taken some liberties with the episode's spelling in order to make it an anagram for "finale".
- Liner notes by Rich Keinzle, July 1991, to The Essential Marty Robbins: 1951-1982 Columbia Records 468909-2
- Steve Martin video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12ZTMG7xxmg
- Diane Diekman (2012), Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins, University of Illinois Press, p. 17, ISBN 9780252094200
- Marty Robbins interviewed on the Pop Chronicles (1969)
- The spelling Feleena (occasionally "Faleena"), rather than Felina as in Spanish, appears in the title of Faleena (from El Paso) on the tracklist of Robbins' 1966 album The Drifter.
- (Vince Gilligan on the Breaking Bad Insider Podcast, Episode 516.)
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