You remember that kid? What was his name? The one from El Paso? Cocky, but quiet…Had an air about him. Not so much a strut but an attitude.
You know who I’m talking about…Cute. Played the guitar. Could sing too. Sounded a lot like Buddy Holly…Yeah! That’s who I’m talkin’ about. He played at PJ’s…Packed the house and broke Dick Dale’s record. Pissed Dale off…
He did that song…
Yeah! ‘I Fought the Law.’ That’s it! The Bobby Fuller Four! It came out about ’65 or ’66. That song was boss! Just good old rock and roll. Mia Farrow used to do the The Jerk to it…Yeah. She was a go-go dancer at PJ’s back then. Remember?…That’s where she met Sinatra. Everybody hung out there…Sam Cooke…
Too bad what happened to him…No…Well, yeah him too, but I’m talking about Bobby Fuller. Remember? They said it was an accident, but nobody believed it…
A kid like that huffing gas? Are you kidding? No way. He was murdered. Just like Sam Cooke…The boys got him. The M-A-F-I-A…
I heard it was about copyrights. Royalties…And he was so young. Twenty-one, twenty-two…So sad.
If nothing else, Bob Keane had an eye for talent. He spotted Sam Cooke when the singer was strictly gospel and signed him to his own label–Keen Records.
The song You Send Me? He put that out. It sold well over a million copies. But he didn’t see a dime from it. His business partner (the Greek, they called him) John Siamas and Siamas’ brother, Alex, screwed him. Royally. So what if they financed the label? All three of them were partners. He found the talent; they put up the money. They had a verbal agreement. Shook hands on it. A lot of good that did.
At least that was Keane’s version of it.
But he rebounded from that. He found another investor and rounded up some more talent–did pretty good too. Well enough that he was able to buy out the investor and, once again, financed his own label. Del-Fi Records.
Then lighting struck again and he discovered another talent of a lifetime. The Chicano rockabilly star and fellow Angeleno Richie Valens. Keane loved that kid. He really did. He nurtured Valens’ career, acting as both manager and producer. Even got him to change his name; it was Valenzuela.
Things were going really well for him and Valens. They were making lots of money and putting out legacy making hits like Donna, Come on let’s Go and La Bamba. Then tragedy struck. Richie went down in a plane with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper.
Keane was devastated–in fact, he never got over it–but undeterred. He put his nose to the grindstone, plugging away with Del-Fi and subsidiary labels Donna, Bronco and Mustang Records where he had success with some R&B acts and surf/hot rod bands. He developed a reputation as a creative producer with an open door policy. His motto: I’ll listen to anybody. If they can’t walk, bring ’em in on a stretcher.
That’s how he met Bobby Fuller. The guy just waltzed in off the street and played him some demos. Keane’s ears perked up. Boy could this kid wring the heck out of that Stratocaster. Could sing too. The band was tight.
Now this could be special, he thought.
And Keane was right. Bobby Fuller was special. He was an musical genius, able to read and write music, capable of playing any instrument from the moment he picked it up. Fuller produced his own records too, in a studio that he piecemealed together in the basement of his parents home in nowheresville El Paso where he was the biggest thing since sliced bread.
And this, perhaps the most important thing: Bobby Fuller was naive.
Important, because on the surface Keane was a successful recording industry impresario, possessing all the obligatory accouterments: expensive clothes, exotic sports car and money clip stuffed with C notes. He was on a first name basis with the staff at PJ’s, the mobbed up nightclub that catered to everybody that was anybody in Hollywood, and women–especially young, impressionable women–thought him quite attractive. But underneath the facade his personal life and finances were spiraling out of control. His marriage was on the skids and he was up to his neck in the triple D’s–debauchery, drugs and debt.
Even worse, because of the triple D’s, he was on the bad end of a bust out. Now he was little more than a figurehead of the record label he founded and his “silent” partners were very demanding. He needed a hit from a gullible, compliant artist. And he needed it fast.
Some people called Bobby Fuller arrogant. He wasn’t. He was sure of himself.
Some said he was stuck up. Not so. He was introverted.
So what if he was a bit of a contrarian? He was a rugged individualist who’d rather get run over by a bandwagon than jump on it.
Take that cross that glinted outside his collared shirts. The one that some people called a Nazi cross…
“It’s not a Nazi cross,” he assured his worried mother who had moved to Los Angeles to watch over her sons. “It’s a surfer’s cross.”
Some of the guys in his favorite surf bands like The Chantays, The Ventures and The Surfaris wore them. They wore the cross for the same reason he did–as a symbol of solidarity among American musicians against the British invasion in general and The Beatles in particular.
Ah, yes…The Beatles. They were a sore spot with Bobby. He waged his own personal war against them–not that it did any good. By 1966, less than two years from their debut, The Beatles recorded an astonishing seventeen top ten hits–ten of them going all the way to number one. Turn on the radio in the mid 60s and it was pretty much all you heard. All Beatles, all of the time.
Despite this–probably because of this–Bobby soldiered on, insisting that The Beatles were overrated, complaining to anyone who’d listen that all their songs sounded the same. He got into lots of arguments about it.
“I don’t get it,” he’d say. “What’s the big deal?”
But he didn’t mean it. He was a musician extraordinaire. As such, he knew better than most just how special The Beatles were.
What he didn’t like–what he hated, as a matter of fact–was how everybody said they were the saviors of rock and roll.
The saviors of rock and roll?…Just what did rock and roll need to be saved from?
Ray Charles?…Link Wray?…Roy Orbison?
And then there was the way that just about every band in the world copied them. And how all the record labels wanted British invasion stuff and only British invasion stuff.
That really got on his nerves.
So yeah, despite what he said and how he acted, he liked The Beatles. How could he not?It was just that he liked Buddy Holly more. A lot more. Buddy Holly was his idol. That’s why he recorded I Fought the Law even though it was a cover.
I Fought the Law was written for Buddy Holly by his long time friend Sonny Curtis, who took over as singer and lead guitar of The Crickets after the superstar was killed. The Crickets, fronted by Curtis, recorded it in 1960 but the song and album went nowhere.
Bobby loved the album, especially I Fought the Law. His younger brother, Randy, the bassist of The Bobby Fuller Four, convinced him to record it in his El Paso recording studio. It took off and became a regional hit, even causing riots in some of the West Texas ballrooms they played in. When Bob Keane heard the recording he immediately signed them.
At first Bobby was happy with Keane. After all, he had discovered Richie Valens and The Surfaris. But it wasn’t long before the two began to clash.
Like most producers and A&R men, Keane had his nose in the charts. Bobby understood that. He also understood that Keane wanted hits. Shoot, he wanted them too, but not so badly that he would allow novelty song gimmicks in his music. No siree Bob Keane. He fanatically rejected any technique that came even remotely close to that.
Case in point, Phil Spector (yes, that Phil Spector) loved Bobby Fuller. He even sat in with the BF4, sometimes playing keyboard with them at the Ambassador Lounge and at PJ’s, where they routinely packed the house.
Spector talked with Bobby about producing him, with or without the BF4 and encouraged him to leave Del-Fi. Of course Bobby was flattered, but Spector’s style was just too different from his own. That whole wall of sound stuff went against his grain. He refused to do anything in the studio that he couldn’t duplicate live on the stage.
And if Bobby wouldn’t work with Phil Spector, he wasn’t about to follow any here today gone tomorrow music fads—and that’s just what Bob Keane wanted. He wanted the BF4 to do Motown sounding stuff.
What’s more Del-Fi records was in turmoil. Bob Keane was having trouble keeping people in the front office and the staff that stayed walked around on eggshells with worried faces. But nobody said anything. It was like they were afraid to talk.
Bobby and his brother suspected that had something to do with a record executive from Roulette Records that had been snooping around Del-Fi. Ron Roessler was his name. He was real chummy with Keane’s “silent” partner Larry Nunes.
Everybody in the music business knew about Roulette. It was owned by Morris Levy. And Morris Levy was a very dangerous man. He was mobbed up. Big time. Rumor had it that Levy had bodies on him. Yet Bob Keane kept assuring Bobby and the band that everything was groovy when it obviously wasn’t–which made it decidedly un-groovy. Which made it absurd.
Still, on March 12, 1966, I Fought the Law by The Bobby Fuller Four, on Mustang Records, reached number nine on the Top 40 charts. It was just what Bob Keane wanted, what he had to have–a big, glorious top ten hit setting right up there, on the same charts, with Nowhere Man by the The Beatles. But more importantly–at least to the finicky, ultra-talented purist from El Paso Texas–it was something to be proud of.
Though I Fought the Law would climb no further on the charts, it would sell well over a million records. Nowhere Man would stall out at number three.
And while The Beatles would chalk up fourteen more top ten hits before they disbanded four years later, Bobby Fuller would never hit the top ten again. Even so, I Fought the Law would become an anthem of rebellion to both rock and punk rock devotees. It would be covered by many bands, most notably The Clash. But it would be The Bobby Fuller Four version that would become iconic, ranked as one of the greatest songs ever recorded by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Tragically Bobby would never know those accolades. In fact, he wouldn’t even get a whiff of them. That’s because less than six months after I Fought the Law charted, Bobby would be found dead in his mother’s Oldsmobile. His death was ruled a suicide and then, later, an accidental death–though nobody really believed that.
Bobby Fuller was twenty-three at the time.
To be continued…