There is a possibly apocryphal story about Loretta Lynn’s classic “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Supposedly, Lynn’s original version of the song included ten (or eight or twelve) verses. Hearing it, her producer Owen Bradley said something along the order of, “Loretta, there’s already been one ‘El Paso,’ and that’s all there’s ever gonna be.”
“El Paso” clocked in at 4:37, an Illiad-like length for the radio industry of the time. Mind you, listeners wanted story songs. In 1959 alone, Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans” and Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” finished numbers one and two (respectively) on Billboard’s Top 100 for the year. Story songs did even better business on the country charts where Robbins had found a home. But radio had decided it had to be a short story and Robbins had come up with a tragic, if tuneful, novel.
The epic running time convinced Columbia exec Don Law, a man in the business of getting hits on the radio, to decline. As Diane Diekman writes in Twentieth Century Drifter, her biography of Robbins, out went “El Paso.” For a time. Sideman Jim Glaser recalled:
“Marty carried a little ukulele with him, and to pass the miles, he used to sing every song he could think of and Bobby Sykes and I would put harmony on them. Just to be doing something.” The songs they sang included “El Paso.” According to Glaser, “We’d get out in the middle of Texas somewhere, and he’d get his ukulele and teach us the new part of the song. He’d come on tour and he’d have a new piece of it finished. It was several tours before we knew what was going to happen in the song. I’d lay out the harmony for Bobby and me. So by the time we went into the studio, we had it down pat.”
Robbins had wanted to record an album of cowboy songs for years. He finally got Law behind the project, though Robbins admitted, “Don, this album won’t sell five hundred records.”
But it sold a lot more than that, thanks to the inclusion of a story song about a crime of passion and a woman named Feleena. “El Paso” won awards, sold millions, crossed over to the pop charts, and became Robbins’ signature performance. As with many classics, the fact that “El Paso” ever saw the light of day seems like pure luck, for Robbins and the rest of us.
Right at that moment, a line popped into his mind: “Out in the west Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl.” In later years, he enjoyed telling the story of writing the song. “It was a funny sensation,” he said in an interview. “I’m driving across the desert from El Paso to Phoenix as I’m writing, y’see. The song came out like a motion picture, and I could never forget the words to it. I put them down after I got to Phoenix, but I couldn’t forget it because it was like a motion picture. I didn’t know how it was going to end. It just kept on coming out, and coming out, and the tune was coming out at the same time.”
“I was rushing real quick trying to get through it, saying the words as fast as I could because they were just coming out.” He told Ralph Emery, “It was real exciting, and I kept waiting for the end to come to see what was going to happen. Finally it ended when it wanted to. I really didn’t have too much to do with that song. It just came out.”