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Bobby Fuller, beyond "I Fought the Law"

Wednesday, Mar 11 1998
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BOBBY FULLER El Paso Rock Volume 2: More Early Recordings (Norton)

THE BOBBY FULLER FOUR Never To Be Forgotten (Mustang)

One recent Saturday night, I idly tuned in to the Arts & Entertainment network, the "All Crime All the Time Channel." Between a Gary Gilmore flashback and an awful TV movie about the Hillside Strangler, on came a promo for a week's worth of biography shows devoted to big-name gangsters. As mug shots of Meyer Lansky, Al Capone and Baby Face Nelson flashed by, music rose behind the stills: "I fought the law and the . . . LAW WON!"

Though this lumbering version by a hack studio band copped the Clash's self-serving 1979 cover, almost anyone catching the A&E spot would associate "I Fought the Law" with only one act - the Bobby Fuller Four. Oh, poor Bobby! Nearly 32 years after his still-mysterious death at the age of 23, the Texas rocker remains linked in the public mind with that lone song - a cover of an obscure 1961 Crickets tune - which rose to No. 9 in 1966. Few recall that Fuller enjoyed a big L.A. hit with "Let Her Dance" in 1965, and notched a second national Top 30 chart entry, a cover of Buddy Holly's "Love's Made a Fool of You," before he died in July 1966.

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History has left Bobby Fuller mired in one-hit-wonderland - a gross injustice that is only now being remedied, thanks to the sometimes redundant efforts of a couple of American independent labels, which have put the full scope of Fuller's versatility and musicianship on display in parallel reissue series. Norton Records, the New York label operated by Kicks magazine's Billy Miller and Miriam Linna, has just released its second El Paso Rock collection, which brings together early live and home-studio recordings made by Fuller before he relocated to L.A. in 1964. Producer Bob Keane's Del-Fi Records - which issued its own two-CD set of Texas studio material, Shakedown! The Texas Tapes Revisited, in 1996 - has dropped Never To Be Forgotten, a three-CD box devoted to the Bobby Fuller Four's 1964-66 studio work for Keane's Mustang label, with a previously unreleased 1965 live album thrown in for extra weight. Together, these packages uncover the full measure of Fuller's eclectic artistry, which assimilated virtually every rock & roll style imaginable.

Fuller's music was very much a product of his West Texas environment. Born outside of Houston in 1942, he moved with his family in 1956 to the Panhandle border town of El Paso. That city was only about 300 miles southwest of Lubbock, where Buddy Holly & the Crickets incubated their influential style; after Holly died in 1959, Fuller took the bespectacled rocker as his main musical avatar. He appropriated the ringing Telecaster lines and hyperactive tom-toms of Holly's singles, as well as some of the older rocker's tenor quaver and ripe romanticism, and favored both Holly's own repertoire and the songs recorded after the singer's death by the reconstituted Crickets - drummer Jerry Allison, bassist Joe B. Mauldin, vocalist Earl Sinks and latter-day guitarist-vocalist and principal writer Sonny Curtis.

Other influences lay across the border in Mexico. El Paso was a refinery town that was also home to a large U.S. Army installation, Fort Bliss, and an Air Force base; Juarez, just on the other side of the Rio Grande, became a good-time magnet for local oil and gas workers, GIs, and a contingent of teenage delinquents and musicians who could count on entry to the bars and nightclubs there without fear of being carded.

The most celebrated attraction in the Juarez joints in the early '60s was Long John Hunter, a black bluesman who fronted an all-Mexican group at the notorious Lobby Bar. Hunter was known for his extroverted performances (a recent Alligator album, his third since his rediscovery in 1993, is appropriately titled Swinging From the Rafters, which is precisely the way he played at the Lobby), but his more important legacy may have been his knack for combining American blues and R&B with the ebullient polkas and rancheras favored by his local sidemen. The wide-open Juarez scene would have a powerful impact on such El Paso groups as Bob Taylor & the Counts, a rock & roll unit that included keyboardist-guitarist Jim Reese, who went on to anchor Fuller's group, and on Fuller himself.

By 1961, Fuller (originally a drummer, by then a budding guitarist) had begun playing in a local group and recording his music in his bedroom. A small New Mexico label called Yucca released his first singles. With brother Randy on bass, Reese on guitar and one of a procession of drummers in tow, Fuller's group even made a (doubtless ceremonial) 1962 pilgrimage to producer Norman Petty's Clovis, New Mexico, studio, where Buddy Holly had cut his hits, to make some sides of their own.

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