In the world of rock and roll, it’s interesting that we start the Sixties decade with a country and western song. And “El Paso” kind of leans toward the western part of that phrase. Marty Robbins wrote this song as a western song. He says that El Paso, Texas is where the west begins.
Marty was born September 26, 1935 in Arizona where he grew up. He was multi-talented, being a singer, a songwriter, an actor and a racing driver. He had a total of sixteen number ones on the country chart, but this was his only number one on the pop chart, although many of his songs did cross over.
Marty Robbins was a well-established country singer by 1960. He had been recording and charting since 1952 and had five number ones on the country charts before “El Paso.” The song kicked off a period in rock and roll history when songs were obsessed with death, with often the protagonist of the song being killed during the song. Our hero in “El Paso” sees the girl Feleena (sometimes spelled Faleena) in Rose’s Cantina in El Paso, falls in love with her and then kills another man to defend her honor. He is now a wanted fugitive and has to flee, but his love for Feleena is so great, he must return to her where the authorities kill him and he literally dies in the arms of Feleena. This is one of the great “story” songs of country music. It is said that Marty’s inspiration for Feleena was a friend of his in high school named Fidelina Martinez.
“El Paso” won the Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Recording in 1961. It is reported to be one of the longest song ever to hit number one, coming in at just under five minutes. In fact, it was so long that Columbia Records didn’t want to release it as a single, but, instead put it on Marty’s album. The album cut began to get air play and people began to demand that it be released as a single, so Columbia did and I think they are glad.
“El Paso” is the first of what is called the “El Paso Trilogy.” The second song is called “Feleena” and is over eight minutes long and tells the story of Feleena before and during her love affair with the handsome cowboy. The saga continues with the third song called “El Paso City, 1976.” All three are on YouTube and it takes sixteen minutes to listen to all three.
“El Paso” entered the pop charts on November 30, 1959, hit number one on January 4, 1960 and stayed there for two weeks. It also stayed at the top of the country chart for seven weeks.