Monday, June 23, 2008

Marty Robbins and the El Paso Saga

“Here’s a piece of trivia for you,” said Lee Hazlewood challenging his interviewer, Richard Hawley, “Who covered Elvis Presley and beat him?” Hawley didn’t know. Hazlewood, who had been a DJ in Phoenix at the time, may have felt some sort of local pride as he told him “Marty Robbins! Elvis had That’s All Right on Sun Records and Marty Robbins, he’s from Phoenix, and he came right along and covered it and knocked the hell out of it.”

By December 7th 1954, when Robbins recorded That’s All Right, Presley’s version had sold somewhere in the region of 25,000 copies and Presley’s second Sun single Good Rockin’ Tonight had already been issued. Still the fact remains it was Robbins, not Presley, who steered the song to the charts. Robbins’ version got to number 7 on the Disk Jockey chart and number 9 on the Best Selling chart in 1955.

Robbins had been signed to Columbia Records by Art Satherley, in 1951 on Little Jimmy Dickens recommendation. Dickens had been impressed by Robbins talent after appearing as a guest on a local Phoenix TV show that Robbins hosted.

English man Satherley is widely recognised as one of the architects of country music having brought, in addition to Robbins, Bob Wills, Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe and, Robbins’ boyhood idol, Gene Autry to the Columbia label. Satherley left Columbia the year after signing Robbins, in May 1952. Despite this, except for a three year hiatus in the early seventies, Robbins would stay on the Columbia label throughout his career.

The relationship between label and artist was not always a happy one.

In late 1955, the year that Robbins’ That’s All Right hit the charts, Robbins recorded Singing The Blues, at Owen Bradley's famous studio with Owen Bradley himself playing the piano. It became a country smash the following year and was making in roads on the pop charts when Columbia, to Robbins’ irritation gave the song to label mate Guy Mitchell to record as a pop song. Mitchell went on to sell some 3 million copies.

A lesson learnt, Robbins went to New York to work with Mitchell’s producer, Mitch Miller, and arranger, Ray Conniff. Whilst there Robbins recorded his own teen pop composition A White Sports Coat And a Pink Carnation , which went to number two in the pop charts and The Story Of My Life which gave Burt Bacharach and Hal David their first taste of chart success reaching number one in the country charts and number fifteen in the Billboard charts in 1957.

Also in 1957 Robbins founded his own label, Robbins, among whose first signings were Tompall & the Glaser Brothers'. Robbins was impressed by the brothers’ tight harmonies and duly released their first single Five Penny Nickel which was written by Chuck Glaser. Although the brothers signed with Decca in ’59, Robbins remained a fan.

1959 saw the release of Robbins first foray into Western songs: The Hanging Tree recorded whilst still in New York with Ray Conniff's orchestra for the Gary Cooper movie of the same name. Written by Jerry Livingston and Mack David The Hanging Tree’ hit the charts in March and was nominated for an Best Music, Original Song Oscar in 1960.

Perhaps with a confidence inspired by that records success Robbins returned to Nashville the next month and began work on an album of Western Songs despite the reservations of some senior Columbia record personnel.

Recorded on 7th April 1959 the album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs contained twelve western themed numbers including one, Running Gun, written by Tompall and Jim Glaser and four of Robbins own compositions Big Iron, In The Valley, The Masters Call and, of course, the Grammy award winning El Paso.

Robbins recalled in the sleeve notes to CBS’ 1982 release Marty Robbins Biggest Hits: "El Paso was a song that I had threatened to write for almost three years. As I was going through El Paso one Christmas I happened to see the sign El Paso City Limits and I thought to myself that’s a beautiful name, I’d like to write a song about it. Then the next year when I went through El Paso the name caught my attention again and I remembered my idea of wanting to write a song. The same thing happened, I forgot about it. So the third year through there I thought to myself, this is the third time I’ve said I’m going to write a song about this city, and the words and the melody just started rolling out of my head… I didn’t stop to write it down; I wrote it in my mind. In fact it was like watching a movie.”

El Paso was released as a single in October 1959, a month after the album’s release, and reached number 1 in the country charts on December 21 that year and the top of the pop charts in January 1960, all this despite a running time of 4.19 minutes in an era when radio stations demanded that songs didn’t exceed three minutes. Columbia was so worried about the songs running time that they did release a special radio only single which had the full song on one side and a shorter “radio friendly” (2.58) version on the other. Most stations had the good taste to play the full version.

It’s hard to imagine how Columbia edited El Paso. So elegantly is it written that not a word or note is superfluous.

“I probably wrote it less time than the songs actual length, which is 4.37, ’cause the words were coming so fast. But it was exciting ‘cause I really didn’t know how it was going to end. I kept waiting to get to the end, and finally, when I did, I remembered it ‘cause it was just like a movie. All of this came to me about nine in the evening, and I sang it over and over in the car all night long until I got to Phoenix the next day where I wrote the words down.” wrote Robbins for Marty Robbins Biggest Hits.

When Gene Autry sang of South of the Border it was a place of Mexicali Rose’s and Gay Ranchero’s. Robbins’ El Paso, is an altogether darker place.

Told in the first person it is the tale of a cowboy who falls for a “Mexican maiden”, Feleena who works as a dancer in Rosa’s Cantina in El Paso. So consumed with jealously is he, and despite his great love, he views Feleena as some kind of wicked Siren.

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

One day she is entertaining another, “a handsome young stranger”; he challenges the stranger to a duel and shoots him.

In the wake of this action Robbins, in the character of the songs protagonist, in a moment of terrible clarity and tells us:

Just for a moment I stood there in silence
Shocked by the foul, evil deed I had done

It’s a masterful touch, increasing our sympathy for the killer who we now see as an essentially good, if flawed, man.

Then its back to the action, thoughts of racing and running dominate as the cowboy flees into the “bad lands of New Mexico”.

Unable to return to El Paso and his loved one the cowboy reflects on the emptiness of his life. He pines, before resolving: “My love is stronger than my fear of death”.

So the cowboy, taking his life in his hands he returns to El Paso intent on seeing Feleena again despite the dangers. Sure enough the town’s law enforcement people are waiting, despite knowing this he urges his horse on to Rosa’s until…

Something is dreadfully wrong for I feel
A deep burning pain in my side

And the way Robbins sings “side” rising to a falsetto tells us as much as the lyrics about that first bullet finding its way into the cowboys body.

Now fallen from his horse he is staggering to the back door of Rosa’s (the same back door that he had fled through four or five verses earlier, the songs sure sense of place is one of its great strengths.) when a second bullet goes “deep in my chest”.

In the final verse Feleena, “from out of nowhere” finds her dying beau and so the cowboy enjoys (in the songs final line) “one little kiss and Feleena, goodbye”.

Nashville A Team guitar-slinger Grady Martin played the Tex-Mex flavoured nylon string guitar that is so integral the songs haunting quality.

"Grady Martin could play three or four notes, and they'd mean 100 times more than any other person that would play 100 notes, he'd just make so much out of everything he played - the best taste you've ever heard." the Nashville A Team bass player Bob Moore who also played on El Paso recalled in an interview for The Tennessean newspaper.

Expanding on this theme, Bob’s wife, Kittra Moore, told listees at “Bob says of all the guitarists he's known and/or worked with, Grady Martin had the most commercial ear of any guitarist EVER. Grady knew what the public could understand and what they wanted to hear. Assertive guitar breaks that made you say "wow" then, back into the meat of the song.”

The Glaser Brothers supplied background vocals.

El Paso must have still haunted Robbins’ imagination and six years later he returned to the story, this time, in the third person, Robbins tells Feleena’s story. Feleena (From El Paso) appeared on Robbins’ The Drifter album and clocks in at a whopping 8.18 minutes, but again not a word is wasted.

This time the supernatural undercurrent that had been hinted at in El Paso is expanded on. We are told that Feleena was born during a stormy night, a storm that ceased at the sound of the childs cries..

Amid streaks of lightning and loud desert thunder
To a young Mexican couple, a baby was born;
Just as the baby cried, thunder and lightning died.

The tempest proves prophetic and Feleena grows to be as restless and capricious as the elements themselves;

When she was seventeen, bothered by crazy dreams
She ran away from the shack and left them to roam

Arriving first in Santa Fe, Feleena discovers how to profit from her charms but still that fateful restlessness won’t let her be:

Restless in Sante Fe, she had to get away
To any town where the lights had a much brighter glow
One cowboy mentioned the town of El Paso

Arriving in El Paso Feleena makes her way to Rosa’s Cantina. With its playful internal rhymes that are just a joy, Robbins’ tells us:

It was the same way, it was back in Sante Fe
Men would make fools of themselves at the thought of romance
Rosa took heed of, the place was in need of
This kind of excitement, so she paid Feleena to dance

And so some 4.30 minutes in and the stage is set for the story we know from El Paso. Robbins’ dispatchs the story in a few verses but if El Paso is a western Othello with the hero brought low by his own jealousy Feleena (From El Paso) is more like a western Romeo and Juliet...

Quickly she grabbed for, the six-gun that he wore
And screamin' in anger and placin' the gun to her breast
Bury us both deep and maybe we'll find peace
And pullin' the trigger, she fell 'cross the dead cowboy's chest”.

Then in a final mythic flourish Robbins adds:

Out in El Paso, whenever the wind blows
If you listen closely at night, you'll hear in the wind
A woman is crying, it's not the wind sighing
Old timers tell you, Feleena is calling for him

In death Feleena has returned to the elements that raged at her birth and so, together with that of her cowboy escort, Feleena’s restless spirit still haunts El Paso.

Robbins’ returned to the Columbia label in 1976 and for his first single, on his old label, returned once again to El Paso.

El Paso City the final part of the “El Paso Trilogy” apparently came to Robbins in a manner similar to the first. It reminds me of High Plains Drifter, the Clint Eastwood western, released three years previously.

Directed by Eastwood High Plains Drifter revisits the Man With No Name character from A Fistful Of Dollars that had helped to make Eastwood a star, it plays with and complements the myth both of that character and the Leone movies and, like El Paso City it also has a supernatural element to the tale.

El Paso City doesn’t feature any of the previous songs protagonists. Instead the songs first person narrator is in an aeroplane flying over El Paso and recalls Robbins own 1960 hit song:

I don't recall who sang the song but I recall a story that I heard
And as I look down on this city I remember each and every word

Despite singing in the first person, as in El Paso, the songs narrator is clearly not Robbins who, after all, could not plausibly have forgotten the song that furnished him with one of his biggest hits.

The narrator character is increasingly troubled by the memory of the song and its subject with which he feels a closer than usual kinship

" My mind is down there somewhere as I fly above the badlands of New Mexico
I can't explain why I should know the very trail he rode back to El Paso"

Talking to himself begins to muse on the possibility of reincarnation:

"Can it be that man can disappear from life and live another time
And does the mystery deepen 'cause you think that you yourself lived in that other time"

El Paso City, unlike the two previous songs in this saga does not end with a death, though the thought of death haunts the narrator as he muses

"A voice tells me to go and seek;
another voice keeps telling me
Maybe death awaits me in El Paso"

We never find out.

Robbins was, perhaps, satisfied simply to have brought the saga into the present with this last mystic musing and was able, finally, to lie to rest the myths of El Paso.

Writing in the sleeve notes to CBS’ 1984 release Marty Robbins Long, Long Ago the Chicago Tribune journalist Jack Hurst complains that in the wake of El Paso there was a “tendency ever after to view (Robbins) primarily as a cowboy balladeer” yet as he goes on to point out “his magnificent voice could handle any kind of music with ease and his mind could devise any kind of song it wanted to sing.”

Mort Goode in the liner notes to Hallmark records 1972 release Marty Robbins Favourites makes the point “(Robbins) has made his success singing Country and Western, ballads, blues Hawaiian, Spanish and gospel and is always able to move emotionally between songs that may be totally different in nature and message”.

Certainly its true that Robbins talent both as a singer and writer was too great to be satisfied with only one style but as I grew up listening to Robbins it was the western songs that really caught my boyhood ears, even songs that had no particular cowboy elements, such as I’ll Be Alright, seemed to me, to come straight from the wild west to our family cars tape deck.

In the very late seventies or early eighties when I was twelve or thirteen years old I was lucky enough to see Robbins at the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool, a stop off on the way to a big annual country festival at Wembley. I was uncomfortable at the idea of going to a gig with my parents and was more interested in punk music than western songs by this time. I wore, I remember, a Crass patch on my t-shirt and was generally a sulky unpleasant presence.

A few songs into the show and the audience began to shout out requests and Robbins and the band would play them. On, I think, Mr Shorty Robbins played alone as the band didn’t know it and when he finished he made some remark about wishing his doctors could’ve seen him then!

Even a sulky-snot-nosed-wannabe-punk like me knew when he'd seen a great show (although I didn’t know then that this sort of request taking was a staple of Robbins Grand Ole Opry appearances).

Marty Robbins died of a heart attack on December 8 1982.

Further reading here