Listen to this track by Texan first-generation rock ‘n’ roll revivalist Bobby Fuller, and his three compatriots, making up the Bobby Fuller Four. It’s “Let Her Dance”, their June of 1965 single. This song was a local-to-Los Angeles hit that served as an example of authentic Tex-Mex flavoured rock ‘n’ roll in the spirit of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens.
“Let Her Dance” proves that rock ‘n’ roll was not a forgotten form in America that only British groups were bringing to the table by the early to mid 1960s. It’s true that American rock ‘n’ roll had morphed somewhat by the early 1960s, with a number of other “Bobby’s” on hand that were more of the teen idol persuasion rather than inheritors of Buddy Holly’s independent rock ‘n’ roll songwriting spirit. But, Bobby Fuller wasn’t like them. Like Holly, Fuller was a songwriter, singer, guitar player, bandleader, and an enthusiastic record maker.
Yet, he is also a musical figure surrounded by mystery, and tragedy.
But first, the good news: “Let Her Dance”.
This song just shimmers with aural optimism, with an irregular beat and a simple, yet totally effective guitar riff that serves as an engine to the whole thing. It seems to incorporate a number of musical ingredients, from latin music, to country, to surf music. And the echo-drenched call and response vocals from Fuller and his bandmates seem to evoke the innocence that marked the times. This is a song about youthful heartbreak, and youthful resilience, maybe with a bit of hormonal confusion thrown in.
What’s more rock ‘n’ roll than that?
“Let Her Dance” was a single, and would later appear on his second album in February 1966; I Fought The Law, which was effectively a compilation album. The title track of that album (written by Cricket member Sonny Curtis, no less) had done even better, scoring a place in the Billboard top 100. That single’s success may be why the album was cobbled together under that title, and with “Let Her Dance” leading it off. It seemed things were looking up for Bobby Fuller, who was only 23 at the time.
But there would be a gruesome shadow over the proceedings when it came to what would unfold after Fuller’s career gained traction. Fuller would be found dead from asphyxiation in his car in July of 1966, the year after “Let Her Dance” was released as a single, and mere months after the success of “I Fought The Law”. The cause of his death would be characterized more by questions than by answers. To this day, the strange case of Fuller’s death remains unsolved.
But, his music would live beyond him, even if the life of the band was cut short, along with that of its leader. In 1979, The Clash would record “I Fought The Law” based on the Bobby Fuller Four version. This song, “Let Her Dance” would feature in Wes Anderson’s 2009 film The Fantastic Mr. Fox as the song that plays over the final and celebratory scene, also appearing on the soundtrack album. In addition, Fuller who popularized that scrappy, Tex-Mex sound would be namechecked in song by many, from Lou Reed, to The Knack, to John Mellancamp, to Metric.
Still, at 23, Bobby Fuller had his whole life ahead of him. It makes one wonder what he would have done if he’d been allowed to create other songs for people to dance to. I think he’d be more widely recognized as bridging that Texas to L.A musical gap from Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens to what would come later with Doug Sahm, Little Feat, ZZ Top, and Los Lobos.
And maybe despite his early demise, his music does that anyway.
For more information, read this article about the life and mysterious death of Bobby Fuller.