El Paso (song)

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This article is about the Marty Robbins song. For the Taking Back Sunday song, see Taking Back Sunday (album).
"El Paso"
El Paso by Marty Robbins
Single by Marty Robbins
from the album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs
B-side "Running Gun"
Released October 26, 1959
Format 7"
Recorded April 1959
Genre Country, Pop
Length 4:38
Label Columbia
Writer(s) Marty Robbins
Producer(s) Don Law
Marty Robbins singles chronology
"Cap and Gown"
(1959)
"El Paso"
(1959)
"Big Iron"
(1960)
Audio sample
file info · help

"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 Faleena was based upon a schoolmate of Robbins in the fifth grade — Fidelina Martinez.[1]

Members of the Western Writers of America chose El Paso as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.[2]

The song[edit]

"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:[3] 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, Faleena,[4] a dancer at "Rosa's Cantina". When another cowboy made advances on "wicked Faleena," 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."[3] 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 Faleena, and he dies in her arms.

Chart performance[edit]

Chart (1959) Peak
position
U.S. Billboard Hot C&W Sides 1
U.S. 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.

Other versions[edit]

"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.[5] 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.

Grady Martin released an instrumental version in 1965 on his Instrumentally Yours album.[6]

The alternative country band Old 97's have also covered this song, with it appearing on their album Hit by a Train: The Best of Old 97's. In addition, it has been covered by Jason and the Scorchers.

A parody version, "El Pizza" by H. B. Barnum, was a radio hit in 1960. It moved the action to Azusa, California, where Rosa's Cantina became a pizza place where Faleena worked as a waitress.

Blaine L. Reininger, a founding musician of San Francisco band Tuxedomoon, covered 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.

Sequels[edit]

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.)

Faleena (From El Paso)[edit]

In 1966, Robbins recorded "Faleena (From El Paso)", telling the life story of Faleena, 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, Faleena 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, Faleena 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 Faleena the town".

El Paso City[edit]

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[edit]

  • 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 spelling of Faleena's name in order to make it an anagram for "finale".[7]

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Diane Diekman (2012), Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins, University of Illinois Press, p. 17, ISBN 9780252094200 
  2. ^ Western Writers of America. "The Top 100 Western Songs". American Cowboy. Retrieved 2014-08-08. 
  3. ^ a b Marty Robbins interviewed on the Pop Chronicles (1969)
  4. ^ The spelling Faleena (occasionally "Feleena"), rather than Felina as in Spanish, appears in the title of Faleena (from El Paso) on the tracklist of Robbins' 1966 album The Drifter.
  5. ^ setlists.net
  6. ^ http://www.allmusic.com/album/mw0001443273
  7. ^ (Vince Gilligan on the Breaking Bad Insider Podcast, Episode 516.)

External links[edit]

Preceded by
"The Same Old Me" by Ray Price
Billboard Hot C&W Sides number-one single
December 21, 1959 - February 1, 1960
Succeeded by
"He'll Have to Go" by Jim Reeves
Preceded by
"Why" by Frankie Avalon
Billboard Hot 100 number-one single
December 29, 1959 – January 11, 1960 (2 weeks)
Succeeded by
"Running Bear" by Johnny Preston