On January 1, 1960, near the beginning of what some say is the best decade in the history of rock music, Frankie Avalon's Why was sitting at the top of the record charts. Three days later it was replaced in the number one position by a song that had been written and recorded by established country/rock singer Marty Robbins. Following is the story of how that song, El Paso, came to be.
Marty Robbins had been born Martin David Robinson in Glendale, Arizona in 1925. He grew up in the desert in Arizona, served in the U.S. Navy and worked as a truck driver, as a ranch hand, and at other jobs before turning his attention to a career in music. He had a radio show on KPHO in Mesa in 1948 and played in some clubs around Arizona, and had his own TV show titled Western Caravan on KPHO in Phoenix in 1951. He became acquainted with the diminutive contemporary country singer Little Jimmy Dickens, who helped Marty to secure a recording contract with Columbia Records. Robbins' third single, I'll Go On Alone, was a success and helped to establish him as a country music singer in 1953. Later that year he joined the Grand Old Opry in Nashville, starting a run that would last for nearly thirty years.
Robbins continued to record country songs, some of which began to cross over to the pop charts. He recorded Singing The Blues, a song that was a bigger pop hit for Guy Mitchell than it was for Marty but which nevertheless made the top twenty pop and number one on the country charts. He followed it in 1957 with his most successful song to date, A White Sport Coat [And A Pink Carnation], which was number one country and number two pop. Eventually Marty Robbins would become one of the most versatile -- and most successful -- artists in all of country music.
He heard Johnny Horton's highly successful song, The Battle Of New Orleans, and began to think along the lines of doing his own historical saga. He had another subject in mind on which he had wanted to do a song: cowboys. In the late 50's, cowboy shows were prominent on televison, and they seemed to appeal to everyone, young and old alike. Such shows as Gunsmoke, Wyatt Earp, and of course, Bonanza were watched by millions every week. Cowboy stars such as Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger and Annie Oakley were among the heroes of the day. Toys, TV shows, games -- it was as if a whole generation was caught up in the cowboy phenomenon. In addition, Marty Robbins' maternal grandfather "Texas" Bob Heckle had been a cowboy, and Marty had grown up hearing tales of range wars and cantina fights from someone who had experienced such a lifestyle.
He decided that the border town of El Paso would make a good setting for his song; it was a place he had visited on numerous occasions and one where he enjoyed the blending of American and Mexican culture. El Paso is situated in the extreme western tip of Texas, on the north bank of the Rio Grande River, just across the border from Mexico. Today it is the fourth largest city in Texas and one of the twenty-five largest cities in the United States. For his song Robbins invented three characters: a cowboy, a beautiful Mexican girl, and a gunslinger.
He wrote the song, naming it El Paso, while riding in the car with his family across Texas on the way to Arizona. A recording session was set up at Bradley Studios in Nashville. It was accompanied by simple Spanish-style instrumentation with Grady Martin on lead guitar and Robbins' own lead vocal. Robbins brought it to his producers at Columbia and soon found out that no one wanted anything to do with the song. He had violated a strict unwritten rule in the music business of the late 50's: you don't make a record that is longer than three minutes. Mitch Miller was the new head of pop A& R at Columbia, and although he liked the song, he rejected it because of its length. A song should have a catchy melody, few words and words which could be easily remembered, and it should feature lots of repetition. Marty's song was none of these things. The song told a story, and although it was ficticious, it was a story that its author wanted the world to hear.
Inspired by the success of Horton's The Battle Of New Orleans, Robbins managed to persuade the Columbia executives to give it a try. He felt that although it told a tragic tale, El Paso was not a depressing song. He also reasoned that the public would be receptive to a cowboy song. Robbins worked to convince some disk jockeys to give it air time, claiming that it would draw new listeners in to country music radio stations.
Johnny Horton in the meantime had become a national sensation. The Battle Of New Orleans had been at the number one position for six weeks in the Summer of 1959 and was the top selling record of the year. It spawned a period in rock history when songs related to historical events did quite well. Stonewall Jackson's Waterloo reached the top ten that Summer. Horton followed with Johnny Reb, Sink The Bismarck, and other similar songs. In the Fall of 1959, Columbia shipped El Paso; Marty Robbins felt that the timing was just right for such a song.
Right after Christmas El Paso reached the top of the country charts and held its position for seven weeks; just after New Year's it topped the pop charts for two weeks. Robbins went back in the studio and cut Big Iron, which did well on both charts but not nearly as well as El Paso had done. Robbins eventually made three more records that did even better on the country charts, but he would always be identified primarily with his masterpiece, El Paso.
In 1976 Marty Robbins took a plane ride over the city of El Paso and wrote a follow-up which he called El Paso City. The song was more-or-less a rehash of the original, and it topped the country charts once again.
Marty Robbins suffered a heart attack and died after his kidneys and lungs failed following a quadruple-bypass operation in 1982. Marty's El Paso captured the flavor of the West as well as any song that has been recorded, and has never really lost its popularity.
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