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Liner Notables: Best of the Bobby Fuller Four

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Why, it seems like only yesterday [cue harp and wavy, out-of-focus  visuals] when you could pore over an album’s liner notes and not have to squint to garner an embarrassment of riches and a treasure trove of tidbits…

I got my first real six-string, bought it at the five-and-dime…

Hold on, hold on: Why is Bryan Adams’ life flashing before my eyes?

In any case, it was actually a cheap electric guitar my mom bought for me at the local Zody’s – a kinda K-Mart wannabe – and it wasn’t even the “Summer of ’69.” It was the summer of 1966, I was 10 years old, much too young to join a band and hit the road, and even too young to die and have a good-lookin’ corpse to leave and be lapped up for a cosmic switcheroo’d existence flashed before the wrong person’s eyes.

But I digress (before I’ve begun). This isn’t about the guitar, other than the fact that in my wayback way I was tagging along with my mother on a shopping trip to discreetly (hah!) guide her down the musical instrument department and drop some serious hints about sunburst finish gotta-have-it gift ideas and upcoming birthdays, and tying the two ever tighter.

That day’s firmed-up knot, however, became increasingly one big loose end when it turned out that I fought an in-store appearance and the in-store appearance won. For there was Bobby Fuller himself, Four-less, or Three-less rather, up on a high-rise platform, signing records, autographing anything, chatting with the fans in line but also having a good time with a lot of cheery back-and-forth banter with the clamoring crowd.

I instantly became one of the crowding-in clamorers, but as I was just a grade-school kid lost in the midst of tall pre-disaffected youth (next summer, the Summer of Love, would be the gateway season to drugs and cynicism), without anything to be autographed or any money to buy something to be autographed, I was odd man, er boy, out. But I was a fascinated odd boy out, in awe, in intermittent tippy-toed glimpses, not only of my first flesh-and-blood rock ‘n’ roll star, but the flesh-and-blood rock ‘n’ roll star responsible for such driving hits as the now classic “I Fought the Law,” the infectious “Another Sad and Lonely Night,” and one of my all-time pop-powered faves, the exuberant “Let Her Dance.”

They’re all on Best of the Bobby Fuller Four, a 1981 Del-Fi compilation of the original Mustang Records recordings, distributed by Rhino Records. It’s one of those irresistible “all-killer no-filler” career compiations of the group’s records, infused as they are with holdover traces of such influences as Buddy Holly and Eddy Cochran. Appropriately enough, the liner notes offer a biographical overview that, while it touches upon the conspiratorial aspects of Fuller’s mysterious death that ’66 summer – officially ruled a suicide — it doesn’t dwell in detail on such unsubstantiated claims regarding homicide (which round up such usual suspects as the LAPD, the mob, and Charles Manson).

In the weeks leading up to the July 18 day he was found dead ostensibly from swallowing gasoline in his automobile parked outside his Hollywood apartment, Fuller had entered a less stressful period in his life. His manager Bob Keane, in an effort to fulfill Fuller’s desire for more time and ability to focus on studio work and songwriting, gave Fuller a reprieve (limiting him to performances in the Los Angeles area only) from the increasing disenchantment of touring club after club – where the group, said Fuller, “might as well have been a juke box up there, for all the difference it made.

“I was with him all the time,” said Paul Politi, a promotion man for Mustang in the mid-‘60s,

“and I thought he was happy. There was a family atmosphere at Mustang. When Bobby recorded, his mother was always there, knitting in the corner. If he was planning to commit suicide … why would he have planned to buy a Corvette the day it happened?”…

…“Things just didn’t add up. The police never impounded the car or dusted for fingerprints. He was beaten up, but that was never made public – nothing added up.”

And to this day, with no resolution that satisfies everyone, still nothing figures.

The only sure thing you could count on was the music, which, to paraphrase a sly line, constituted different notes for different folks: The Best’s annotations, credited to Lisa Fancher and Harold Bronson, makes the point that the hit-making achievement of the Bobby Fuller Four consisted more of regional successes than a on any Billboard blitz on the national charts. Fuller’s own composition “Let Her Dance,” for example, was a big hit in Los Angeles where I lived at the time, but I was unfamiliar with his Texas-size Holly-penned hit version in Dallas and elsewhere, “Love’s Made a Fool of You.”

Politi offers up a quick musical and personal sketch:

“Bobby was a true genius. He could play every instrument himself and play it really well – that was rare for those days – and he was very into electronics. As a person, he was an introvert, but a very giving person. He was the most serious person about his music I’ve ever met.”

With such a personal foundation of level-headedness and talent going for him, it was a sure bet that Fuller could ride out the rough beginnings from the time, in the early ‘60s, that he converted his parents’ garage at their El Paso home into a demo studio. But, as Fancher and Bronson explain in a familiar refrain, when Fuller went to Hollywood to spur some record company interest, he was met with some resistance in these easily-distracted days of the British Invasion.

Not one to go home to lick his wounds, however, Bobby Fuller waited out some of that first wave, using his time to hone his musical and studio skills – releasing his songs with his own sound on minor local labels like Eastwood, Todd, Yucca, and Exeter (which released the first version of “I Fought the Law”). In addition, Fuller further developed his already innate sense of professionalism when he started running his own night club, called the Rendezvous, and he saw not only visiting musicians’ lackluster performances due to the affects of drugs and alcohol, but also through their “lack or competency or due to the studio effects needed in making the original recording.”

“Later on Bobby insisted on making records that sounded exactly like the band sounded live. Many inspired overdubs were erased when the song proved too complicated to be recreated live. The self-imposed handicap insured that no one was very disappointed with the bands’ live performance.”

In 1964, ready for another go at “Hollywood and the big time,” Fuller gathered together his first incarnation of the Bobby Fuller Four (with brother Randall on bass, Dwayne Quirico on drums, Jim Reece on rhythm guitar), and was met with a recording industry in transition, but also more encouragement.

“While there was considerably more interest this time around, Bobby was more discerning. The major labels – then still being staffed by old liners with bland pop tastes – lacked a sensitivity to the new rock music. On the other hand, Bobby was attracted to [future manager] Bob Keane’s Mustang Records label, in part because Ritchie Valens had been the star of Keane’s previous Del Fi label.”

Keane’s state-of-the art technology and recordings also drew Fuller:

“The Mustang studio, situated over a bank vault in a Hollywood building, was equipped with two of the first three 8-track recording machines to operate in Los Angeles. It was not uncommon for King to master a record 30 times in order to get it right. It was in this environment that the sound of he Bobby Fuller Four was realized.”

The commentary in the Best of the Bobby Fuller Four goes on later to note how the success of Fuller was still in the process of being realized at the time of his death, remarking upon his “invaluable contribution to rock music,” but that he had “just touched upon what he could do.” Bobby Fuller very much inspired that level of confidence: “If he were alive today, those who knew him speculate, there’s no doubt he would be very big.” And not doing in-stores at Zody’s.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch