John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Curious Case of “I Fought The Law”

A Crickets song without Buddy Holly became hit for young singer who suffered grisly death.

By - Feb 7th, 2019 11:20 am
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Buddy Holly. Photo is in the Public Domain.

Buddy Holly. Photo is in the Public Domain.

Buddy Holly is a long time gone. Sixty years this week, matter of fact. He played his last dates in Iowa before plunging to the ground near the Minnesota border. The same airplane crash took the life of Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. But you know all that. Less has been written about the collateral damage that left his former backing band, The Crickets without anyone to back. The man with the oversize glasses and greatest hiccups ever was their leader — it’s hard to overrate just how good he was.

Unlike the Packers without Aaron Rodgers, a team that turned flat footed when the job was taken over by Brett Hundley, Buddy Holly left a pretty good band behind in the Crickets. Listening to Holly records is instructive. He played a Fender Stratocaster when that guitar was still a novelty, writing the playbook for cool licks and becoming a model for rockers everywhere. But the band did their part and did it well. Jerry Allison their solid drummer and Joe B Mauldin, the stand-up bassist, sat the last tour out and were planning to rejoin Holly on the next one. Like Waylon Jennings, who gave up his seat on that night, they lived to tell the tale. They were recording with Sonny Curtis, a singer and songwriter (not the modern confessional kind, mind you), when word came of the crash.

They decided to continue. Curtis and a singer with the very un-show biz name Earl Sinks joined up and gave it their best. Here’s one of their concoctions, “A Sweet Love,”  a nice song, performed well— it sounds not unlike something you might’ve heard Holly sing. It seems that In Curtis they had stumbled upon a pretty good writer who could just about fill Buddy’s shoes. But the world had moved on and The Crickets without Holly were left with his shadow hanging over them. Then Sonny struck gold.

A song he wrote, “I Fought The Law”, here in its original recording, would have legs and then some. It is as fine and memorable as anything the original Crickets cut. It’s completely fleshed out here and every little idea in the arrangement would be repeated by anyone with sense enough to cut it. The solo is as memorable as any in rock — a blazing jangle of crisply played chords. It sound simple, but take it from me, it’s not easy to play. The song became a huge hit for The Bobby Fuller Four in 1965, and it’s that one that is the definitive version. Though true to the original in every way it has 20 percent more sparkle and packs a devastating wallop. What really makes it the version though, is Bobby Fuller. Illustrating the difference between stars and mere writers, he gleefully steals the song from its originators.

He had talent and promise on a Holly scale, but it didn’t last. Fuller met a gruesome death at age 23. He was found dead — beaten and drenched in gasoline — in his car. Somehow, it was ruled a suicide. It’s a heartbreaking story; he was about to become a major star and had the talent to do it. Like Holly, he left way to soon. In this video from 1966 you’ll notice his rhythm guitarist is starting to a Beatle comb — caught between the 50’s and the 60’s. Here’s a review of a book that explores the strange circumstances of his death, and here are the lyrics to this still punchy song:

A-breakin’ rocks in the hot sun
I fought the law and the law won
I fought the law and the law won

I miss my baby and a good fun
I fought the law and the law won
I fought the law and the law won

I left my baby and I feel so bad
Guess my race is run
She’s the best girl that I’ve ever had
I fought the law and the law won
I fought the law and the law won

A-robbin’ people with the zip gun
I fought the law and the law won
I fought the law and the law won

I needed money ’cause I had none
I fought the law and the law won
I fought the law and the law won

I left my baby and I feel so bad
Guess my race is run
She’s the best girl that I’ve ever had
I fought the law and the law won
I fought the law and the law won

© Sonny Curtis

Can this be right? A-robbin’ people with the zip gun? Would you want to go up against the police with a homemade weapon? There’s your reason for why they won. Also… a zip gun does not work at all with the now famous six shots to the snare on every version ever done!  I did find some sources that say ‘six-gun’, but zip wins three to one. I read that Fuller sang ‘six’ and The Crickets ‘zip.’

I mentioned this song had legs. I think we’re all familiar with The Clash version, it is, as they say, very robust. I’m not surprised they covered it: it more or less screams punk even if it was written by a guy their parents’ age. Sonny Curtis would have one very un-punk success later writing the theme song to ”The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” That’s range, although I think you can guess which one I prefer.

Buddy Holly finished his career in Wisconsin, including a gig at the Eagles Ballroom in Kenosha. A photographer shooting a wedding in a different part of the building ran upstairs on a break and got some great shots of him and the Big Bopper. Then his boss said they weren’t his to use and they argued about it for 50 years. The pictures finally came to light after that was settled, I wonder what they’re worth? In them, Buddy looks happy and relaxed. I imagine it must have been a lot of fun to play those songs he wrote. Holly and Chuck Berry were groundbreaking in writing and performing their own material long before The Beatles. Later it became an unwritten obligation for bands to do so, even when that wasn’t such a good idea.

(A special thanks to Dick Beverly for alerting me to the song “A Sweet Love” at just the right time of year and leading me to this column.)

One thought on “Sieger on Songs: The Curious Case of “I Fought The Law””

  1. Thomas Martinsen says:

    Like Buddy Holly, Bobby Fuller died too young. Bobby Fuller’s I FOUGHT THE LAW still inspires listeners. Fuller’s “mysterious death” continues to cast suspicion on the possible involvement or lack of involvement of THE LAW in his demise.

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