Today I spotted a blog by Peter Rozovsky on the Detectives Beyond Borders site, in which he proclaimed He Hit Me by the Crystals to be the greatest noir song ever written. I’d never heard the song before, so I listened to it and it was plenty dark, let me tell you. Peter didn’t mention that the Crystals also recorded Then He Kissed Me, so maybe they were into some kind of career-long story arc, but I’ll leave that for the Crystals purists to dwell on.

It got me thinking about noir songs in general, and after considerable thought, I would nominate the Marty Robbins classic, El Paso, as the greatest noir song of all time.  Written and recorded by Robbins in 1959, it’s set in the lawless West of the late 19th century. Don’t let that fool you, though. This tune is strictly noir from start to finish.

Guy walks into a bar, spots a hot-blooded Mexican babe, watches her dance, gets ideas. Of course, in true noir fashion, you know he’s totally fucked right out of the chute.  Anyway, after a few drinks, he argues over her with another guy. The quarrel escalates until BANG!  Our guy shoots him dead. The dead guy has friends, though, and they begin to move in on our noir protagonist. He runs out the back, steals a horse, and rides away into the night, followed by this makeshift posse.

He gets away clean and is headed for New Mexico when he’s overcome with pangs of love/lust for the girl. Finding that he just can’t bring himself to leave her forever, he heads back to El Paso and to the cantina where she dances. As he does, he’s surrounded by his pursuers, who shoot him down. Mortally wounded, he lies there as the girl rushes to his fallen figure. As he takes his final breath, she kisses him goodbye.

Fade to black.

Cut! Print it!

What makes this even more compelling is this little followup story.

Many years ago, when I was playing music for a living, I did a show with Marty Robbins and he told me he believed that he was that cowboy/central character in a former life! As in “reincarnated”, and he said his memories of that incident were so clear, so strong, that he was able to write a timeless song like El Paso, giving it such a vivid feel. He explained to me exactly what it felt like to watch the girl dance and how he got excited over her, then how shocked he was immediately after killing the other guy during their argument.

I have a noir novel coming out this year called The Take, and I don’t mind admitting that it was heavily influenced by two lines in El Paso:

Blacker than night were the eyes of Felina, wicked and evil while casting a spell.

My love was deep for this Mexican maiden. I was in love, but in vain I could tell.

I even named the girl in my novel Felina.

Come on, you’ll have to admit, that’s pretty noirish. But maybe you’ve got a nomination or two for Greatest Noir Song of All Time.

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  1. Great pick. I was raised on country and western music, and knew the words to EL PASO by the time I was six. A couple of years ago I bought a USB turntable to turn old records into CDs. The first one I did wa s Marty Robbins’s GUNFIGHTER BALLADS, with EL PASO.

  2. I grew up on that classic Marty Robbins ballad but now look at it in a new light.

  3. Yous guys made me look up the lyrics … city folk don’t know from El Paso but I did recognize it … from television commercials back in the day …

    Great lyrics …

  4. Mike Dennis

    Dana, David, & Charlie–It’s great to know that others appreciate this profoundly noir song, which IMHO will continue to resonate through countless generations in the future.

  5. Patti Abbott

    The really dark part of HE HIT ME was the second line “And if felt like a kiss.’
    WOW! I guess that rebel is never gonna be any good.

  6. What’s cool is Marty does his “reincarnation” take on the El Paso story in his follow up song “El Paso City”

    I love both of those songs,, along with the third in the El Paso trilogy “Feleena”

  7. Mike Dennis

    Patti–I’d forgotten all about HE’S A REBEL.Fits right in with the Crystals’ story arc.

    Ben–I like EL PASO CiTY too. It has a much different feel to it than EL PASO, but It works.

  8. Joyce Ann

    Teenangel; Where have all the flowers gone? Eve of Destruction; Leader of the Pack (look out!, look out! look out! look out!) Eleanor Rigby; But you don’t know me–all I can think of on short notice. Great noir T.V. Series: Breaking Bad (try to see the first few seasons before the new one begins March 30.)

  9. Joyce Ann

    Oh good grief what was I thinking: For what it’s worth by The Buffalo Springfield and dozens of Viet Nam War protest songs

  10. Joyce Ann

    Ode to Billy Joe

  11. Mike Dennis

    Some great suggestions, Joyce Ann. I especially like ELEANOR RIGBY and ODE TO BILLIE JOE. In fact, ELEANOR RIGBY may creep right up into the second spot, closely behind EL PASO.

  12. Joyce Ann Fugit

    Well, if you thought Eleanor Rigby was noir what about Norwegian Wood (this bird has flown)?

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