Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Bobby Fuller Four - I Fought the Law: The Best of the Bobby Fuller Four (Rhino, 2001)

Bobby Fuller is best known for his mysterious death and his defining rendition of “I Fought the Law”, yet perhaps he ought to be most remembered as one of the few true American rock n’ rollers of the early 1960s. I Fought the Law: The Best of the Bobby Fuller Four is far from a comprehensive summation of the truly excellent music left behind by the man and his band. But at a lean 12 tracks, it’s got most of the essential tunes from a group that combined the best aspects of traditional rockabilly and the British Invasion.

American rock n’ roll didn’t completely die in 1959, but it would find itself on life support for a good five years. Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens were dead. The previous year, Elvis Presley had gone off to the Army and Jerry Lee Lewis had found that marrying one’s 13-year-old cousin was a perfect way to destroy a career. Embroiled in serious trouble with the law, Chuck Berry would have zero Top 40 hits between 1960 and ’63. Little Richard had found God and quit rock n’ roll. Clean-cut teen idols would be the new face of popular music, and American bands would not really start rocking again until they began imitating the new English bands who themselves were imitating the old American ones. But there were exceptions. The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, and Del Shannon – to name a few – held to the traditions of early rock n’ roll and found chart success in the early ‘60s. And Bobby Fuller, who took the world by storm in 1965, had been releasing rockin’, Buddy Holly influenced records since 1961.

The Fanatics, after re-locating from El Paso to Los Angeles in 1964, signed to Bob Keane’s Mustang Records (subsidiary of the legendary label Del-Fi). Keane quickly changed the band’s name to the Bobby Fuller Four to take advantage of the singer/guitarist’s talent and charisma. By this time, the British Invasion was in full swing and new bands were popping up all over the place doing their own take on the Fab Four’s throwback rock n’ roll. Fuller and his band, who’d already been playing that kind of music for years, fit right in with the ‘beat craze. The Fuller-penned “Let Her Dance” was a regional smash and hit the national charts in 1965. Another minor hit followed in “Never To Be Forgotten”, but it was the next BFF single that would make history. The Fuller Four had previously covered “I Fought the Law”, a 1959 tune by Sonny Curtis and the Crickets. The group re-cut the track for Mustang and scored a top ten hit in January of ’66. Another single - a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Love’s Made a Fool of You”- went Top 40. But it would be Fuller’s last hit. On July 18th, 1966, Fuller was found dead in the front seat of his mother’s car, his body severely beaten and a gas-soaked rag stuffed into his mouth. He was just 23. The LAPD bizarrely ruled his death a “suicide”, and for decades theories have abounded given alleged connections between organized crime, a lady friend of Fuller’s, and a “business associate” of Keane’s.

If Fuller is ultimately remembered as a Buddy Holly imitator, he at least ought to be remembered as one of the greatest of such imitators. He was a talented songwriter in his own right. And his voice, although styled much like Holly’s, was wonderful. If you’re wondering what kind of music Holly would have made had he survived into the ‘60s, I Fought the Law gives you 12 really good examples. Moreover, the collection demonstrates that Fuller was a genuinely unique artist, as adept at pure pop and pretty ballads as he was at old style rockabilly and proto garage rock. For legal/contractual reasons, the disc is forced to omit classic tracks like “Never To Be Forgotten” and high energy rockers like “Saturday Night”. And while that’s a damn shame, it’s a testament to Fuller’s unheralded greatness that 12 songs are simply not enough. Of course “I Fought the Law” alone justifies the price of admission. But “Let Her Dance”, with its plaintive melody and homespun harmonies, is a bona fide rock n’ roll classic. British Invasion fans will go nuts for the Beatle-esque gem “Another Sad and Lonely Night” and the bouncy “Take My Word” (which could almost pass for a Herman’s Hermits B-side!). Some of the LP cuts are pure gold as well, like the poppy “She’s My Girl”. And “Julie” may be the second-best song ever penned by Chip “Wild Thing” Taylor. Even with so many essential songs missing, this is a fine starter kit for any aspiring Fuller Four fan. Turntable owners would be well advised to seek out some older, vinyl LP best-ofs, and you wouldn’t be crazy to spring for the Never To Be Forgotten box set, which compiles the entirety of Fuller’s Mustang recordings and a rare live LP. Basically, go out and pick up anything you can find with Fuller’s name on it. If you consider him a one-hit-wonder, you need some serious schooling.

-Josh Rutledge

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