Music News

Guarding a Legacy

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In the process, he'd written "A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation," which turned out to be the cream of the crop of that whole session. It was a No. 1 country hit and a No. 2 pop hit. "Guy Mitchell didn't cover him on that one," says Ronny, laughing.

At those same sessions, Mitch Miller produced "The Story of My Life," which turned out to be the first hit for songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David. This led to more pop-oriented songs, including a second Bacharach/David tune called "Sittin' in a Tree House." While Robbins turns in a fine vocal performance, the big problem here was casting. By now Robbins had appeared on enough TV programs for people to know he was a grown man of 32 years. It's one thing for an older man to sing about the story of his life. It's quite another to have the same grown man rushing out after supper to go kiss his "favorite girl" in a tree house -- it makes him seem like either a pervert or, worse, a cheap date. To add the finishing touch, Mitch Miller, apparently envious of Alvin's recent chart success, grafted chipmunk background vocals onto the song. Six months after "Sittin' in a Tree House," Robbins would be noticeably more comfortable dangling from "The Hanging Tree."

"Teen songs, that was where the market was," Ronny says. "American Bandstand was out, all these national teen dance shows were on. "White Sport Coat' got that all started, and when that ran dry, he did "The Hanging Tree.' That kind of gave him a little insight, because that's something he thoroughly enjoyed doing; it took him back home. He saw there was a market for western songs and felt CBS owed him an album, because he had done well with the other ones. They owed him a chance to do something he wanted to do."

CBS, determined to strong-arm "El Paso" into 1959 commercial standards, issued a "Special Edition Radio Version" to DJs which had a radically butchered two-minute, 58-second version while relegating the complete four-minute, 37-second cut to the flip side. But no DJ with two working ears could've aired that unlistenable shortened rendering.

Ronny always thought that the only edited "El Paso" that existed was the four-minute-and-19-second one that appeared on the original Gunfighter album. Gunfighter marked perhaps the only time an album version proved shorter than the single version; it excised just one verse, the one in which Robbins shows remorse for having shot the handsome young stranger.

Ronny says his father was incensed about the truncated version, and the younger Robbins thought he was complaining about the 18-second cut on the Gunfighter album. It turns out Marty was carping about the much shorter DJ edit. "It makes me upset just listening to it now," Ronny says. "It's not only butchered, they sped it up a third so he sounded like Mickey Mouse. It wasn't even edited properly; some of the splicing is just pathetic."

Never commercially available, the radically condensed version came to Ronny's attention on a cassette a fan sent him. Don't bother looking for it on the Sony/Legacy reissue -- or mentioned in the liner notes, either. "I'm not sure they even have that mix, but I hope they microwaved it or something," he says with a laugh. "I think what they did remastering it, it does really sound good."

But after you remaster a masterpiece, what next? "El Paso" -- the movie!

"I have been talking about an "El Paso' movie on and off for years, but the timing hasn't been right and the deal hasn't been right," says Ronny. You may think you've already seen an "El Paso" movie in which Marty Robbins starred, but that was actually called Ballad of the Gunfighter. "El Paso" was used as its orchestrated opening theme music, but the story was based on his song "San Angelo," which was actually written as a sequel to "El Paso" and appeared on the predictably titled album More Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.

Ronny picks up the story. "Felina was a bartender who owned a saloon in San Angelo, and during the movie she recollects this young cowboy 20, 25 years ago. The little girl Secora who works at the saloon falls in love with an outlaw who robs stagecoaches and takes the money to a monastery, a Robin Hood type. It was pretty much a B-movie."

"El Paso" may also extend its shelf life as the spokessong for Old El Paso, maker of fine packaged Mexican foods. "That's something I pursued 15 years ago," says Ronny. "They pooh-poohed it then because they were trying to update their image. But I'm thinking, "Old El Paso? It's not a particularly updated image that you'd want.' So that's kind of being regenerated. It's something I had to look at long and hard because they are asking to change the lyrics. It could be a substantial amount of income, but on the other hand the song gets diluted in the process. Over a period of time, it could turn into, "Hey, good lookin', whatcha got cookin', how's about cookin' something up with cheese?'"

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic