THE BOBBY FULLER FOUR: Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four (Rhino, 1981)
In 1966, my brother Art had a red Alfa Romeo. I'm told it was kind of a crappy car, really, and I remember its ignominious final days in his possession: a scarlet husk parked, prone, lying in state beyond the shed at the end of our back yard. Collecting dust, collecting rust. A tow truck ultimately came to whisk this luckless red Alfa Romeo to the promised land.
But my prevailing principle memory of this doomed vehicle is a happy one. I believe the memory involves the consumption of Royal Crown Cola, or possibly a root beer and Teen Burger at the nearby A & W Drive-In. The memory absolutely involves the car's one true immortal virtue: its radio.
That radio? When I was six years old, I may have thought that radio was magic.
I mean, it must have been magic. There were songs I heard on that car's radio that I never seemed to hear anywhere else. I should ask Art if he listened to Syracuse's 1260 WNDR in '66, or if it was WOLF instead, or even the less-fabled WFBL. Whatever it was, it played "I Like It Like That" by The Dave Clark Five, a record that--to me--only existed on the AM dial of Art's star-crossed Alfa Romeo. Even better, it played--often!--another irresistible exclusive: "I Fought The Law" by The Bobby Fuller Four. To this day, more than five decades later, my visceral memory of that terrific song is inextricably linked to those moments in my brother's Alfa Romeo, of drums, guitars, and a singer bemoaning his fate of Breakin' rocks in the hot sun, all pouring forth from the little car's speakers as my big brother cruised suburban streets with his pesky kid brother on board. It's indelible, and I embrace and cherish its vivid image.
A decade and change passed. In 1978, I was finishing my freshman year in college, and immersing myself in the rockin' pop of the '60s and the then-contemporary sounds of punk, new wave, and power pop. It was all one big ol' ball of pop music to me, from The Monkees to The Sex Pistols, The Romantics to The Beau Brummels, The Ramones to Joey Ramone's fave raves The Who and Herman's Hermits. Oh, and The Kinks to The Kinks, "You Really Got Me" to "Rock And Roll Fantasy." In this joyous crucible of discovery and rediscovery, "I Fought The Law" was ripe to reclaim. I think I found an oldies 45 reissue, but I found something lacking in its sound--couldn't match the magic of the Alfa Romeo, lemme tell ya! I bought a various-artists LP called 15 Original Rock N' Roll Biggies Vol. 2, an oddball set that gave me "I Fought The Law," familiar old gold from The Platters and Little Anthony & the Imperials (and, incongruously, "Day By Day" from Godspell), and some archival stuff that was brand-new to me, by names like The Standells, The E-Types, and Chocolate Watchband. I played "I Fought The Law" and the two Standells tracks--"Why Pick On Me" and "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White"--a lot in that music-filled summer of '78.
I don't know if it occurred to me that The Bobby Fuller Four might have had more than just one great song. Hell, my "I Fought The Law" 45 had only contained one BF4 track, its flip occupied by The Seeds' "Pushin' Too Hard." Nor did I know that Bobby Fuller himself was dead, and I certainly didn't know anything at all about the suspicious circumstances surrounding his demise. The opportunity to learn about all of this would not present itself until after I graduated from college in 1980.
The specific sequence of events is cluttered and imprecise in my recollection. In 1981, my girlfriend and I were living in an apartment in Brockport. She would graduate that spring, and I'd already leveraged my Bachelor of Arts degree into full-time employment at McDonald's--success! And rent money, as well as cash for beer and food and beer, and to keep buying music at Main Street Records. At Main Street, my dovetailing interests in punk and pop led me to Pebbles, the essential Nuggets-inspired series of possibly-not-fully-authorized compilations of '60s garage and psych. I started with Pebbles' second volume, which introduced me to The Choir's "It's Cold Outside" and The Moving Sidewalks' "99th Floor," and to The Electric Prunes' unforgettable commercial for Vox wah-wah pedals. It's the NOW sound! It's what's happening!
Pebbles, Volume 2 also offered my first exposure to a Bobby Fuller song that was not about robbing people with a WHOMP-WHOMP-WHOMP six-gun: the relatively nondescript "Wine Wine Wine." Fuller remained a one-hit wonder to me for just a little bit longer.
Within this same time frame, Phil Seymour (formerly of The Dwight Twilley Band, and a collaborator with ace combos like Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and 20/20) released his first solo album. My favorite track on Phil Seymour was his version of "Let Her Dance," an incredible pop confection first recorded by--you guessed it!--The Bobby Fuller Four. Something nagging at the edges of my memory insists that I did hear the original version before hearing Seymour's cover, but I can't imagine where I heard it. Either way, I loved the song. I was ready and eager to dive more deeply into Fuller's c.v.
I probably snapped up Rhino Records' Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four the first time I saw it on the shelf at Main Street; if not, it wasn't long thereafter. I knew, at best, two songs. It was high time to know more.
The album begins with the lone hit, Sonny Curtis' "I Fought The Law," originally recorded by The Crickets, later covered successfully by The Clash. I've always considered The Bobby Fuller's version to be definitive. I still do. By the early '80s, I would have been more than skeptical of the idea that it could ever be demoted to something like my fourth or even fifth favorite BF4 track. But that revelation was mere grooves away.
Granted, nothing else on Side 1 of Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four really threatens to challenge the primacy of "I Fought The Law." "King Of The Wheels," the LP's second track, is its weakest, an amiable but unremarkable car tune. The rest of the side is pretty damned good, with the pure pop likes of "The Magic Touch," "It's Love, Come What May, "Only When I Dream," "Don't Let Me Know," and Buddy Holly's "Love's Made A Fool Of You" combining to build the case that maybe these one-hit wonders deserved greater notoriety than the one hit that defined them. In particular, "Don't Let Me Know" seems like it should have at least been a hit single, perhaps capable of cracking the lower end of the Top 20 while never quite matching the Top 10 status of "I Fought The Law."
But Side Two...!
Side Two opens with "Let Her Dance," a bona fide gem later covered by Marshall Crenshaw, and I don't think I've ever heard a bad version of it. The BF4's original is the equal of "I Fought The Law," perhaps its superior. "Another Sad And Lonely Night" is even better, a lovelorn lament that all too few recognize as the essential classic it is. "My True Love," "I'm A Lucky Guy," and the Eddie Cochran ripof...er, tribute "Saturday Night" keep things moving at a mere-mortal (but terrific!) level. By this point, Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four has already proven the group to be worthy of repeated play beyond just its best-known song.
"Fool Of Love" is the icing on this cake, a cruel-love compatriot to "Another Sad And Lonely Night," both of them simultaneously shiny and devastating in their resigned, boppin' acceptance of the heart's tear-stained pursuit of an elusive happiness. The two tracks politely take turns as my all-time top Bobby Fuller Four track. The haunting "Never To Be Forgotten" brings the program proper to a close, the heart's quest yet unfulfilled, but its lonely plight comforted by the warmth of the stereo. An unlisted bonus track--the group's radio spot for The Big Kahuna, a popular DJ on L.A.'s KHJ-AM, sung to the tune of "I Fought The Law"--finally ends the LP on a gloriously exuberant note.
I was 21 years old in 1981. I lived inside my pop music. I was also living in the (overrated) real world for the first time, trying to reconcile the frequently conflicting promise of art and the demands of responsibility, adulthood. It can be a difficult line to tread, an ongoing balancing act between the dreams we dream and the clocks we punch. Doing what we have to keeps things going; doing what we want to keeps us going.
Bobby Fuller wasn't much older than that when he died in the summer of '66, a pop star three months shy of his twenty-fourth birthday, a West Texas kid who hit the big time, a rockin' pop success story with a Billboard smash on his resumé and the world at his feet. The liner notes to Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four offered my first hint of his tragic story. Bobby had talent. Bobby had good looks. Bobby had a string of pretty young things on his arm. And on July 18th, 1966, Bobby's body was found slumped in his car outside his apartment in Hollywood. He had been beaten. He had been doused with gasoline. The authorities ruled his death a suicide (later amended to "accidental").
The record business is big and brutal. And wherever there's money, there are criminals, and there is often the mob. Ask Tommy James. Or ask Miriam Linna, co-author (with Bobby's brother Randell Fuller) of the book I Fought The Law: The Life And Strange Death Of Bobby Fuller. Linna and Fuller believe Bobby was murdered by the mob. Sound crazy? Really, crazier than suicide by beating oneself and bathing in gasoline? I'm not one for conspiracy theories. Elvis is dead. Paul is alive. Neil Armstrong did indeed walk on the moon. Oswald may well have acted alone. I find tinfoil hats unbecoming. And I also believe that the mob killed Bobby Fuller, whether over business (likely) or for revenge on Bobby for dallying with a pretty young thing whose dallying allegiance was presumed to already belong exclusively to an underworld boss. The latter scenario was, as I recall, favored in the liner notes of Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four. Whatever actually happened to Fuller, it's a safe bet it wasn't self-inflicted.
The sordid tale of Fuller's end, as sad and frustrating as it remains, can't dilute the prevailing appeal of his music. Listening to Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four was my first real evidence that there could be more--much more--to an act that show biz writes off as a one-hit wonder. I no longer own my copy of that LP; it was replaced many years ago by a CD that contained even more great Bobby Fuller tracks, and that CD was replaced by the five discs of Bobby Fuller material that now sit proudly on my shelf at home. Fool of love. Another sad and lonely night. Let her dance all night long.
My road to appreciating the bounty of The Bobby Fuller Four began in earnest with Best Of The Bobby Fuller Four in 1981. But the road truly began on the road, literally, back in '66: when the magic radio in my brother's unreliable but intrepid red Alfa Romeo played a song I could never hear anywhere else. The law didn't win this one, I fear. But the music plays on. Never to be forgotten.
(And, for a fictional take inspired by Bobby Fuller's murder, check out the blurb for my story idea The Beat And The Sting.)
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