El Paso Rock Volume 2:
More Early Recordings
Never To Be Forgotten
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.
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.
In all, Fuller released seven singles (four on his own labels, Exeter and Eastwood) and recorded a mass of outtakes and alternates in Texas through 1964. These tracks were released comprehensively on Del-Fi's Shakedown!, and appear in scattershot fashion on Norton's two El Paso Rock volumes. (A dispute over the rights to the Texas material led to an exchange of lawsuits between Norton and Del-Fi in 1996; the hassle has been settled, and both labels inexplicably continue to pursue their own releases.)
Mostly recorded in the den of the Fuller home (with a window cut into an adjacent garage to effect a “control room”), Fuller's originals and covers reflected tastes running from Holly and Roy Orbison to the Beatles, and a behind-the-board obsessiveness found in the records of another of the young Texan's idols, singer-songwriter-guitarist-producer Eddie Cochran. This “studio” work sports its own crude charm, but Norton's CDs – especially the second volume, which contains 12 live tracks – also afford a revealing picture of the Fuller band in a club setting. The first Norton volume contains the most serious jolt of Fuller firepower, a punch-out version of Long John Hunter's showpiece “El Paso Rock,” but Volume 2 offers the more complete measure of the group's onstage instrumental talents.
What's most astonishing about these sides is the Fuller group's prowess as a surf band. In 1963, Fuller and his group took a gig at the Biltmore Hotel in Hermosa Beach, and witnessed the frenzy stirred by surf supremo Dick Dale at the nearby Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa. (On his return to El Paso, Fuller went so far as to name his own weekend teen club the Rendezvous.) The band absorbed their lessons well: Fuller and Reese are heard trading fiery surf licks on covers of Dale's “Misirlou” (melded with another Dale barnburner, “Hava Nagila”), the Ventures' “2,000 Lb. Bee,” the Beach Boys' “The Lonely Sea” (the latter mated with Nelson Riddle's “yeah-yeah” theme for Lolita) and the Pyramids' “Penetration” (inexcusably misidentified by Norton as the Chantays' “Pipeline”).
Other rock & roll strains are bared in Fuller's choices of covers. The group smokes through the Jimmy Forrest funk classic “Night Train”; “Shanghaied,” an instro by the Tacoma, Washington, combo the Wailers; and Jerry Lee Lewis' “Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On.” Fuller's deepest roots are revealed in a seamless medley of Holly's “Peggy Sue” and the original “Pamela.” And, as if to prove they were right on top of the current thing, the band tries on the Beatles' “Things We Said Today.” Amazingly, all of this diverse material is essayed with panache, and with a toughness that strikes one as entirely Bobby Fuller's own.
At home, Fuller cut a cover that proved prophetic: Ritchie Valens' “Donna.” During his '63 sojourn in Southern California, the musician brought his homemade tapes to Bob Keane, who had made Valens a star on Del-Fi before the Latino singer died in the same 1959 plane crash that claimed Buddy Holly. Keane told Fuller to come back when he had some hits. The second time around, in late 1964, Keane welcomed aboard Fuller and his group, which now included drummer DeWayne Quirico. Known variously as the Fanatics and the Shindigs, and finally as the Bobby Fuller Four, the quartet cut 10 singles, plus two in Randy Fuller's name, and two albums for Keane. The first 45 appeared on Del-Fi's Donna subsidiary, and then Keane coined the Mustang imprint for Fuller, creating a handle well suited to the musician's untamed brand of Wild West rock & roll.
Fuller endlessly recycled his Texas recordings for Keane. The B-side of his first single, the crisp surf instrumental “Our Favorite Martian,” was actually cut in Texas, as a remake of an earlier, less focused instro called “The Chase.” Fuller's Lone Star roots were also showing on his fourth single, “Let Her Dance”: Also a remake, of the lumpy “Keep On Dancing,” it sported a fresh, rolling Tex-Mex rhythm and a defiant fuck-you-girl plotline.
The L.A. success of that 45 set the stage for yet a another remake, of Sonny Curtis' slice of criminal life, “I Fought the Law,” which had blown up into a national smash by early 1966. The blueprint for the Mustang version of the 1961 Crickets tune is wholly apparent in Fuller's 1964 Exeter version, but Keane tautened the original arrangement in his bright stereo recording of the song. One line also underwent a slight but significant change: “A-robbin' people with a zip gun,” Curtis' street-punk original, became “A-robbin' people with a six-gun” in the more picturesque Mustang version. (In an alternate made in Texas, the well-armed protagonist hefts a shotgun.)
Six months after “I Fought the Law” made the Top 10, Fuller was dead, and few buyers latched on to the like-titled follow-up album, which spent only two weeks in the lower reaches of the LP charts. But, though few knew it, Fuller cut a broad spectrum of exciting material for Mustang, and Never To Be Forgotten contains all the goods.
Fuller brought his fetishes with him to Mustang. He recorded Holly's “Love's Made a Fool of You” and “Think It Over,” as well as such Holly-inspired numbers as “Only When I Dream,” “A New Shade of Blue” and “Fool of Love.” His “Saturday Night” was a virtual ringer for Cochran's “C'mon Everybody.” He recut Bob Taylor's hit El Paso instrumental “Thunder” surf-style as “Thunder Reef.” He proved equally capable with complementary drag-strip-themed material: His first album, a KRLA tie-in that featured the L.A. radio station's dragster on its cover, featured such topnotch instros as “Wolfman” (another Texas remake), “The Lonely Dragster” and, of course, “KRLA Top Eliminator” (a high-speed cover of “El Paso Rock” with drag-strip FX added).
But the Mustang sides moved beyond the expected. “Never To Be Forgotten” was a rumbling piece of power-ballad work with Tex-Mex underpinnings and a bold rhythm lifted from the theme song to TV's Bonanza. “Take My Word” was a brisk piece of Anglo-pop with rhythm guitars ripped from the Beatles songbook and an angular closing vocal chord right out of “She Loves You.” The unreleased “Cheat and Lie” was a keyboard-based venom-spitter bearing much in common with the screaming garage-punk excrescences of Tacoma's Sonics. Another unreleased track, the splendid “Baby My Heart,” morphed a nondescript Sonny Curtis tune into a fuzzed-out psychedelic bombshell. Even when forced to record a tune virtually at gunpoint, Fuller could show compelling commitment to an unfamiliar style: “The Magic Touch,” a Motown-style composition pushed on Fuller by Keane, becomes a silky piece of blue-eyed soul in the group's hands.
The Fuller Four's genre-hopping approach is explicit on the unreleased live album Celebrity Night at PJ's, cut on December 3, 1965, at the titular nightclub at Santa Monica and Crescent Heights (and not, as the liner notes claim, “on the fabulous Sunset Strip”). It's easy to see why Keane left the album in the can: The sound is dim and dull, and there's a palpable lack of electricity as the band struggles to amuse an unresponsive crowd. But the group refuses to lie down and die, gamely performing a set comprising a handful of its own hits, plus beaucoup covers – Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Rivieras, Chuck Willis, Sam the Sham, Bobby Freeman, Them, Larry Williams, Tommy Tucker, Barrett Strong, the Beatles and, of course, Buddy Holly. And there's nary a clinker in the bunch.
Yes, Bobby Fuller could play just about anything, brilliantly, but death brought his career to a startling close just as he was beginning his ascendancy. On July 18, 1966, his battered, gasoline-soaked body was found in a car outside his apartment near the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Incredibly, the L.A. coroner ruled the death a suicide. (Sure, most rising rock stars snuff themselves by chugging gas after beating themselves up . . .)
The world simply never got a chance to experience the full extent of Fuller's amazing abilities. Lou Whitney, bassist of Springfield, Missouri's esteemed roots-rock band the Skeletons, recently told me, “Bobby Fuller's one of the most underrated rockers of all time.” Happily, the righteously definitive proof of that knowledgeable statement may now be heard on the invaluable Norton and Mustang reissues. Pick them up, and discover the star who might have been.