EML’s Favorite Songs – MARTY ROBBINS: “El Paso”

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I’ve always liked songs with great stories, and no music genre excels at storytelling more than Country. One of the best story songs of all time has to be the haunting ballad “El Paso” by Country legend Marty Robbins. My parents had his greatest hits album, so as a young kid I heard a lot of Marty Robbins. Born Martin David Robinson in the Phoenix, Arizona suburb of Glendale, he was one of the most popular artists of what back then was called ‘Country and Western’ music. In addition to his singing career, he also acted in several films and was a successful race car driver, competing in 35 NASCAR national races, with six top 10 finishes.

“El Paso” was written by Robbins, and tells the story of a guy who meets and falls in love with a beautiful woman named Felina in an El Paso cantina. Even though she resists his advances, he becomes jealous when another guy hits on her, and challenges him to a duel, ending up shooting and killing the man. He flees for his life, but can’t stop thinking about Felina. And so, despite the danger, he decides to return to El Paso to see her, only to be shot and killed by cowboys on the lookout. The song was released in October 1959 and shot (no pun intended) to the top of both the Billboard Country and Pop charts in early 1960. It went on to win a Grammy for Best Country & Western Recording in 1961, and remains Robbins’ biggest hit and best-known song.

It’s considered one of the greatest Country music classics for its gripping narrative that ends in the death of its protagonist, Robbins’ beautiful vocals, as well as the sublime backing harmonies by Bobby Sykes and Jim Glaser, and the distinctive Spanish guitar accompaniment by Grady Martin that gives the song a Tex-Mex feel (having grown up in Arizona, Robbins was fond of Mexican music, and wanted the flavor of a Mexican guitar used in the song).

The song runs well over four minutes, far longer than most singles played on the radio at the time, which generally ran 2:30-3 minutes. Robbins’ label Columbia Records was unsure whether radio stations would play it, so released a shorter, three-minute-long version which obviously omitted quite a few lyrics. Most of the record-buying public, however, as well as most DJs, overwhelmingly preferred the full-length version. An interesting aspect of the song is that it has no chorus, but rather one stanza following the next as the saga unfolds.

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican girl
Nighttime would find me in Rosa’s cantina
Music would play and Felina would whirl

Blacker than night were the eyes of Felina
Wicked and evil while casting a spell
My love was deep for this Mexican maiden
I was in love, but in vain I could tell

One night a wild young cowboy came in
Wild as the West Texas wind
Dashing and daring, a drink he was sharing
With wicked Felina, the girl that I loved

So in anger I challenged his right for the love of this maiden
Down went his hand for the gun that he wore
My challenge was answered in less than a heartbeat
The handsome young stranger lay dead on the floor

Just for a moment I stood there in silence
Shocked by the foul evil deed I had done
Many thoughts raced through my mind as I stood there
I had but one chance and that was to run

Out through the back door of Rosa’s I ran
Out where the horses were tied
I caught a good one, it looked like it could run
Up on its back and away I did ride
Just as fast as I could from the West Texas town of El Paso
Out to the badlands of New Mexico

Back in El Paso my life would be worthless
Everything’s gone in life nothing is left
It’s been so long since I’ve seen the young maiden
My love is stronger than my fear of death

I saddled up and away I did go
Riding alone in the dark
Maybe tomorrow a bullet may find me
Tonight nothing’s worse than this pain in my heart

And at last here I am on the hill overlooking El Paso
I can see Rosa’s Cantina below
My love is strong and it pushes me onward
Down off the hill to Felina I go

Off to my right I see five mounted cowboys
Off to my left ride a dozen or more
Shouting and shooting, I can’t let them catch me
I have to make it to Rosa’s back door

Something is dreadfully wrong, for I feel
A deep burning pain in my side
Though I am trying to stay in the saddle
I’m getting weary, unable to ride

But my love for Felina is strong and I rise where I’ve fallen
Though I am weary, I can’t stop to rest
I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle
I feel the bullet go deep in my chest

From out of nowhere Felina has found me
Kissing my cheek as she kneels by my side
Cradled by two loving arms that I’ll die for
One little kiss, then Felina good-bye

6 thoughts on “EML’s Favorite Songs – MARTY ROBBINS: “El Paso”

  1. El Paso really is a great song-I was surprised to find out that Neil Peart of RUSH is a big fan of this song and claimed that El Paso was the song that inspired him to become a lyricist. Also the DEAD did great versions of this song live.

    Liked by 1 person

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