The Bobby Fuller Four


Dawn Eden
March 11, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

The strange saga of Bobby Fuller -- and the hold he retains on listeners more than 30 years after his lone Top-10 hit, "I Fought the Law" -- could only have started in Hollywood. It was there, in 1964, that the bright-eyed Texan and his group signed with Del-Fi Records, the label that had brought forth Ritchie Valens. It was there, in 1965, that they became the darlings of the discothhque set, performing their high-powered rock 'n' roll night after night before packed audiences that included celebrities like Ann-Margret and Nancy Sinatra. And it was there, in 1966, that Fuller's bloodied body was found, covered in gasoline, in the front seat of his mother's Oldsmobile.

"Never to Be Forgotten," Del-Fi's new Bobby Fuller Four box, doesn't explain how Fuller died, but it does show why his music has survived. The set of three CDs, including a live disc, was clearly done with love -- from the top-notch sound quality to the photo-laden booklet, which includes three essays and an interview with Fuller's brother and bandmate, Randy. Unfortunately, the booklet does not include session dates and track-by-track song commentary, both of which are standard in reissues of this kind.

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When the British Invasion hit in 1964, England's rockers reeducated Americans who had long neglected their musical heritage. But while most American bands were happy to learn about Carl Perkins, the Crickets and other homegrown heroes via the Beatles, Fuller went straight to the source. An El Paso native, Fuller started playing plain and simple rock 'n' roll while fellow Texan Buddy Holly was alive and stuck with it even after the music died. By the time the Brits brought back the beat, the singer/lead guitarist and his band were ready to show America that a group didn't need pointy boots to play kick-ass rock and roll.

While Del-Fi's 1996 two-CD box "Shakedown! The Texas Tapes Revisited" covered Fuller's years in the Lone Star State, "Never to Be Forgotten" includes nearly all the recordings he made after moving to Los Angeles in 1964. The Bobby Fuller Four's first few Del-Fi singles failed, and it's easy to see why. Although Fuller would later prove himself an excellent songwriter, at that point the group had yet to find its own sound, instead taking cues from contemporaries like Dick Dale, the Four Seasons and even the Beatles. After hearing those fair-to-middling 45s, disc jockeys must have been totally unprepared for what was to follow. "Let Her Dance" was an exuberant rocker, containing elements of practically every dance-floor classic to date -- from Valens' "La Bamba" to Bobby Freeman's "Do You Wanna Dance" and the Beach Boys' "Dance, Dance, Dance." It promptly topped the L.A. charts, making the group stars in the land of stars.

The group followed with the superb "Never to Be Forgotten," packed with twangy guitars and enough reverb to fill the Carlsbad Caverns. But it was their next release that would put them over the top. "I Fought the Law" originally appeared on a post-Holly Crickets album and was penned by the group's guitarist, Sonny Curtis, who would later write "Love Is All Around," the immortal theme from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Released in October 1965, the Bobby Fuller Four's version, with its tight production and unrelenting beat, took their fame far beyond the West Coast. Come January, the group found itself sharing Billboard's Top 10 with the likes of the Beatles and the Stones.

Although the Bobby Fuller Four managed a minor follow-up hit with another cover, Holly's "Love's Made a Fool of You," most of the American public remained unaware of Fuller's own songwriting talent. By then, his compositions had evolved from pleasant emulations of his '50s idols ("Julie") to finely wrought tunes, catchy yet meaty, that were worthy of Gerry Goffin and Carole King ("Another Sad and Lonely Night"). However, Del-Fi did not believe that Fuller's originals were at the Brill Building level, so the group's next single was a bona fide Brill Building tune, "The Magic Touch." When it missed the charts entirely, things began to fall apart.

In July 1966, Fuller returned home to L.A. after a long and stressful tour. His band was on the verge of mutiny. The West Coast music scene was changing rapidly, with nascent stirrings of psychedelia. Fuller was uncertain of his next move. However, his friends and family did not think him suicidal. The discovery of his body on July 18 shocked everyone.

Everyone, that is, except his murderer. The LAPD ruled Fuller's death a suicide, citing "no evidence of foul play," despite the fact that he had been beaten. Randy Fuller claims that the police never even checked the car for fingerprints. The booklet for "Never to Be Forgotten" includes an essay that details six different theories about the still-unsolved case, including that of one man who saw it profiled on TV's "Unsolved Mysteries." He phoned the show's hot line and explained, quite seriously, that Elvis did it.

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Dawn Eden

Dawn Eden is a New York writer and music critic.

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