Sonny Curtis threw down a musical gauntlet known as “I Fought The Law” in 1958 and a legion of rock ‘n’ rollers have picked it up since, from the Bobby Fuller Four, who had a hit single with it in 1965, to the Clash, Roy Orbison, Steve Earle and even the Dead Kennedys. Scott Schinder spoke with Sonny Curtis, Randy Fuller (of the Bobby Fuller Four), Joe Ely and others to track the song’s rise from a quickly written country tune for the Buddy Holly-less Crickets to a rock ‘n’ roll standard.
“Some songs have their own life,” says Sonny Curtis. “You do your best and then send them out into the world, and sometimes they surprise you.”
More than half a century after it first stormed the airwaves, “I Fought the Law” remains one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most enduring declarations of rebellion. Curtis wrote the infectious outlaw anthem in 1958, and recorded it the following year as a member of the post-Buddy Holly Crickets. But it was the 1965 version by fellow Texans the Bobby Fuller Four that became a Top Ten hit and remains one of rock’s classics.
In a hit parade dominated by the Beatles and Motown, the Bobby Fuller Four version of “I Fought the Law” stood out, not just for its sleek, driving update of ’50s rockabilly but also for its genuinely dangerous edge. Although Curtis’ lyrics seem to carry a cautionary message, there’s no mistaking the exuberance in Fuller’s voice, even as he admits his ultimate defeat when singing “I fought the law and the law won.” The surging exhilaration of the band’s instrumental performance accentuates the track’s celebratory vibe.
One measure of the song’s iconic status is the fact that it’s been covered by a remarkably diverse assortment of acts, including Hank Williams Jr., Roy Orbison, Doug Sahm, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Grateful Dead, the Ventures, Nanci Griffith, Bryan Adams, the Stray Cats and Steve Earle, as well as innumerable forgotten garage combos.
“I think it took about fifteen minutes to write it, and I wrote it as a country song” – Sonny Curtis
Not surprisingly for a song that presaged punk rock’s defiant stance, “I Fought the Law” has emerged as a punk standard. The Clash’s reading—initially on their 1979 British EP The Cost of Living and subsequently added to the belated U.S. edition of the band’s eponymous debut album—gave the tune a rough-edged update that struck a chord with a new generation of listeners.
“I Fought the Law” – The Clash, live at the Lyceum in London, 1979:
“I Fought the Law” has since been cut by such punk-inspired acts as Green Day, Social Distortion’s Mike Ness and German revivalists Die Toten Hosen. The Dead Kennedys’ 1986 version (included on the band’s album Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death) altered the lyrics to comment on the murder of gay activist Harvey Milk.
Sonny Curtis was born on May 9, 1937 into a struggling, musically-inclined cotton-farming family in the small town of Meadow, Texas, just outside of Lubbock. A child musical prodigy, he began performing in public at the age of ten, playing fiddle alongside two older brothers.
Curtis subsequently joined forces with his friend Buddy Holly in 1954, when both were sophomores at Lubbock High School. Two years later, he traveled with Buddy to Nashville to play on Holly’s first recording sessions, during which Sonny is reputed to have been the first musician to record using a Fender Stratocaster. The same year, Curtis, still in his teens, achieved a career breakthrough when his composition “Someday” became a hit for country star Webb Pierce.
By the time Holly formed the Crickets in 1957, Curtis had moved on to gigs playing guitar with Slim Whitman and on cigarette company Philip Morris’ all-star country music roadshow. In late 1958, Curtis, then just 21, joined drummer Jerry “J.I.” Allison and bassist Joe B. Mauldin, who’d just split with Holly—who would die in a plane crash the following February—in a regrouped Crickets.
When the new Crickets lineup made its first post-Buddy album In Style with the Crickets for the Coral label, Curtis brought along a backlog of material including “I Fought the Law,” which he’d written a few months earlier.
“I think it took about fifteen minutes to write it, and I wrote it as a country song,” Curtis recalls. “I lived over in Slaton, Texas at the time, and I was sitting in my living room at about four in the afternoon. It was a hot, dusty day, and we were having one of those West Texas sandstorms. The song just came to me all at once, and I don’t remember ever writing it down.
“At the time, I thought of myself more as a guitar player and a singer than a songwriter, so I used to come up with songs and just keep ’em in my head. I was young and didn’t have much life experience to draw on, so I just made up things.”
The Crickets’ original reading of “I Fought the Law” is more amiable than transgressive, driven by Curtis’ crafty riffing and Allison’s clattering beat. The song itself is a marvel of directness and economy, offering a series of simple, vivid images that reveal the protagonist’s plight, with each revelation followed by the simple but rousing chorus “I fought the law and the law won.”
I Fought The Law – The Crickets:
The Crickets—at the time a quartet comprised of Curtis, Allison, Mauldin and singer Earl Sinks—recorded “I Fought the Law” with producer Jack Hansen at New York’s Bell Sound studios on May 18, 1959.
“We left for New York right after Buddy’s funeral, and we really needed material for the album,” Curtis remembers. “We were on the road driving to New York, and J.I. and I wrote ‘More Than I Can Say’ in the back seat, which we recorded on that album. That’s when I thought of ‘I Fought the Law.’ I said, ‘I’ve got this country song,’ and I sang it, and we started working on it. I transposed it to give it more of a rock feel, J.I. put some quarter-note triplet gunshots at the front, and we had us a rock ‘n’ roll song.
“I think we recorded it on three-track,” Curtis says, adding, “Our records weren’t that pristine. They’d start the machine, and we’d count it off and play it, and when we were done, we were done. I think we may have overdubbed some background vocals on ‘I Fought the Law,’ but otherwise it was a live track. At the time, I don’t think we thought of it as anything more special than any of the other songs on the album. We just played it, Coral put the album out, and that was it.”
“It’s a perfect song,” Ely states. “It has everything that a great song should have. It tells the story without giving you too many details; it paints the picture and lets you fill in the blanks.”
The Crickets’ version of “I Fought the Law” came and went without causing much of a stir, but a 1962 cover by Paul Stefen and the Royal Lancers was a minor regional hit around the Midwest. “It bubbled under in Billboard, but that’s as far as it got,” Curtis says of the Stefen version.
Although Curtis couldn’t anticipate the lengthy shelf life that “I Fought the Law” would ultimately have, within a few years the song would emerge as a standard.
“The Crickets’ style was simple,” Curtis says. “The songs were very singable and hummable, and I think that’s what made ‘I Fought the Law’ something that guitar players could pick up and play almost immediately. And it had that rebel message, which seemed to appeal to young people.”
The genial, self-effacing Curtis seems like an unlikely candidate to have written one of rock’s definitive outlaw anthems. “I was really just creating a character and putting myself in his shoes,” states the law-abiding tunesmith.
Still, he points out, “It’s hard to be in rock ‘n’ roll this long and not have a few brushes with the law. I remember one time around ’64 that the Crickets had been out touring in the Midwest, and we were heading back to L.A. We’d been driving all night, and we stopped early in the morning for breakfast in Richfield, Utah.
“Back in those days, we were playing dances where it cost a dollar or two to get in, so J.I. had a briefcase with about $3,000 in ones and fives. The waitress noticed it and called the cops. As soon as we left, this guy pulled us over. We had to show him our publicity pictures to get him to let us go. That’s about as close as I ever got to being an outlaw.”
While the Crickets were working to escape from Buddy Holly’s long shadow, Bobby Fuller was drawing on Holly’s inspiration to become a local hero in his hometown of El Paso. Born on October 22, 1942 in Baytown, TX, Fuller was a talented and charismatic singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist who’d filtered his reverence for Holly through the contemporary electricity of surf music, R&B and rockabilly.
In addition to leading his band, the Fanatics, and operating his teen club, The Rendezvous, Bobby was an early D.I.Y. recording prodigy who’d set up a studio, complete with echo chamber, in his supportive parents’ house. It was there, after some early recording efforts—including a session at producer Norman Petty’s NorVaJak studios, where Holly had recorded most of his classics— that Fuller made a series of locally released singles.
One of those releases was a raw early version of “I Fought the Law,” released in 1964 on Fuller’s own Exeter label. That version appears on the first volume of Norton Records’ archival Fuller series El Paso Rock, with alternate takes of the song included on the second and third volumes.
Fuller and band would later cover two more songs from In Style, the Curtis-penned “Baby My Heart” and the Holly composition “Love’s Made A Fool of You/” but “I Fought the Law” is the one that stuck. It’s possible that Bobby and Randy may have related the song to their deceased older half-brother Jack Leflar, who had had multiple encounters with the authorities, and who was murdered in February 1961.
Bobby Fuller Four, covering Buddy Holly’s “Love’s Made a Fool of You”:
Covering “I Fought the Law” was the suggestion of Bobby’s brother Randy, the Fanatics’ bassist. “In ’62 or ’63,” Randy explains, “Bobby played the Crickets album for me and asked if there was anything on it that I thought we should record. The only one I could hear on there that I thought had any bearing on what we were doing was ‘I Fought the Law.’ I thought it was a little old-sounding compared to what we were doing, so we started adapting it to our style.
“I related to the song because I always felt like an outlaw,” asserts Randy, whose parents had sent him to military school in an effort to curb his budding career as a juvenile delinquent. “I always thought it could be a hit. We cut it in El Paso two or three times and tried it a few different ways, but we were never completely happy with the sound of it. It’s such a simple song, and we were getting more complex in our music, so we had a lot of trouble getting it right.”
Whatever the band’s dissatisfaction with this embryonic incarnation of “I Fought the Law,” the original Exeter single became a local hit in El Paso and Tucson, increasing Fuller and company’s regional notoriety. But the fact that it, like Fuller’s prior releases, gained little attention outside of Texas also served as a reminder that the band needed to be closer to the mainstream music business to have a shot at advancing its career.
By the end of 1964, the Fanatics had relocated to Los Angeles. There, the foursome—Bobby and Randy, plus guitarist Jim Reese and drummer Dewayne Quirico, who’d recently joined after predecessor Dalton Powell decided not to make the move west—quickly developed a reputation as a high-energy live act, thanks to their regular performances in front of wildly dancing crowds at the Hollywood nightspot P.J.’s.
The band’s popularity as a live attraction helped to win them a deal with veteran music-biz sharpie and Del-Fi Records chief Bob Keane, a former big-band clarinetist who’d worked with Sam Cooke and mentored Ritchie Valens. Renamed the Bobby Fuller Four by Keane—who launched a new Del-Fi imprint, Mustang, to issue their music—the quartet released a series of mostly Fuller-penned singles that failed to generate much chart action (although the Fuller original “Let Her Dance” became a local hit in L.A.).
That all changed after the band revisited “I Fought the Law.” By the time they recut the song in the summer of 1965 at Keane’s studio in Hollywood, the foursome, according to Randy Fuller, “really needed a hit. I really pushed to record ‘I Fought the Law’ again, because it always went down well when we played it live, and I knew it could be a hit.
“The song had everything; it just needed to be arranged for the times,” he continues. “It’s a real simple song, and it’s easier to build on a simple song than it is to make a complicated song simple. And it’s a sing-along, which people always respond to. We worked really hard on it, trying to figure out what we had to do to make it a hit. You can definitely hear the Hollywood influence, with Bob Keane’s ideas and other things going into it.”
Although Keane is credited as producer, the Mustang version of “I Fought the Law” isn’t a drastic departure from the takes that Fuller and the band had cut on their own in El Paso. What Keane and the band brought to the Hollywood remake was a substantially souped-up sound, with expansive vocal harmonies and a punchier bottom end.
The track establishes a sense of urgency in its opening seconds, with Fuller establishing the protagonist’s plight with the opening line “Breakin’ rocks in the hot sun.” Fuller knows he’s been beaten, but his enthusiasm makes it clear that he wouldn’t change a thing. The infectious guitar hook is matched by a galloping groove driven by Randy’s propulsive bass and Quirico’s explosive drumming.
The Mustang “I Fought the Law” packs its two minutes and eighteen seconds with a wealth of memorable moments, from the irresistible sing-along of the title phrase to the split-second pause when Fuller sings “Robbin’ people with a…,” before Quirico fires a volley of shots and Fuller jumps back in with “six gun.”
Curtis’ original line was actually “Robbin’ people with a zip gun,” a zip gun being a homemade pistol popular with ’50s delinquents. Fuller’s substitution of “six gun”—a change that’s been picked up by most subsequent artists who’ve covered the song—suggests the more romantic image of a western outlaw.
Although “I Fought the Law” had been a popular highlight of the Bobby Fuller Four’s sets at P.J.’s, most of the new arrangement ideas on the hit version were worked out in the studio rather than on stage.
“I really loved The Clash’s recording of it,” Curtis says.
“It took about five takes to get it,” Randy Fuller recalls. “We’d been playing it the old way every night at P.J.’s, but when we got into the studio, we started changing it around and trying different things. I came up with the idea to do a simpler bass line, like a straight boom-boom-boom Motown kind of thing. And it just locked together real quick. By that point, the band was so tight you couldn’t drive a toothpick up our ass with a sledgehammer, because we’d played together so much that we never had to rehearse. So it didn’t take long for us to nail it.
“I think the Crickets had thought of the song as an album cut, and in those days you didn’t really spend a lot of time on the album cuts,” Randy notes. “But we recorded ‘I Fought the Law’ with the attitude of ‘We’re not gonna stop until this thing’s a hit.’ And when we finally got it down to where we felt like it was a hit, Bob Keane called in Phil Spector and said ‘This thing sounds like a hit, why don’t you come over and try to help us figure out what else we need to do to it.’ Spector came in and said ‘It doesn’t need anything.’ That‘s when we knew it was a hit.”
After its release in October 1965, the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law” initially broke out in the L.A. area, taking another four months to reach the national Top Ten. The single peaked at Number 9 on February 12, 1966, establishing Fuller as a rising star.
But “I Fought the Law” was fated to be Fuller’s only major hit. Just five months after the song entered the Top Ten, the 23-year-old artist would be found dead in a parked car near his home, under decidedly mysterious circumstances. Although his death was officially ruled a suicide, most of Fuller’s friends and family continue to believe that he was murdered, and the case remains one of music’s enduring mysteries.
While his creative potential would go unrealized, Bobby Fuller nonetheless left behind an extraordinary body of music that leaves little doubt that he possessed the talent and vision to achieve long-term stardom.
One of the many ’60s kids whose imagination was captured by the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law” was future music journalist and Creem editor Bill Holdship.
“Growing up in Bad Axe, Michigan, I remember that “I Fought The Law” sounded totally different from anything else you could hear on the AM airwaves in late 1965/early ’66,” Holdship wrote. “When I got older, I realized that the song was probably the grand culmination of all those ’50s rebel-rockers coming to roost in one place—but at the time, I just knew that the song sounded tough… ‘Robbin’ people with a—BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!—six gun.’ This was scary-sounding stuff to a nine-year-old… It was like nothing I’d ever heard before.”
Meanwhile, in Fuller’s home state, “I Fought the Law” caught the ear of Lubbock native and future Lone Star rock ‘n’ roll icon Joe Ely.
“Certain songs have carved an indelible tattoo in my soul, and that’s one of ’em,” says Ely. “I completely related to it, because when I was growing up in Lubbock, there was a police sergeant who’d see me walking down the street and pull over to the curb and ask me if I had five dollars in my pocket. Of course I never did, so he’d take me down to the police station for having no visible means of support. All the way down, he’d brag about how great the Texas vagrancy laws were.
“I grew up in that dusty old part of West Texas,” Ely says. “And finding out about all that music and all of the players that came from there, meeting the Crickets and meeting Sonny Curtis, I realized that there’s a special thing about all of that music that relates to where it’s from.”
Ely regards “I Fought the Law” as a marvel of economy and simplicity.
“It’s a perfect song,” Ely states. “It has everything that a great song should have. It tells the story without giving you too many details; it paints the picture and lets you fill in the blanks. The first line—’Breakin’ rocks in the hot sun’—tells you everything you need to know in six words. And the line ‘I needed money cos I had none’ is one of the best lines ever written. And the Bobby Fuller recording is perfect in every respect; you just can’t imagine how it could possibly be any better.”
In 1980, Ely toured Britain with The Clash, who’d just had a hit with their version of “I Fought the Law,” and who shared Ely’s affinity for West Texas rock ‘n’ roll. During the tour, Ely joined The Clash on stage to perform the song. At one point in the trip, Ely and his band teamed with The Clash in an East London studio for an informal (and never-released) recording session that included an Ely-sung “I Fought the Law.”
When The Clash later visited Texas, they called upon Ely to show them around his fabled hometown. “They wanted to see Lubbock because of Buddy Holly and Sonny Curtis, and because they loved ‘I Fought the Law’ so much. And when they saw it, it was kind of a shock. Because it wasn’t like the romantic notion of West Texas that they had in their heads because of the songs they’d heard.
“But that’s why songs carry so much mysticism, because they paint a picture of a time and place,” Ely says. “It’s not always really like that, but the song creates it in the moment. You go where the song takes you, and you relate it to your own situation. Somebody who’s in jail might hear ‘I Fought the Law’ and feel a lot of pain. Somebody who’s on the run might hear it and feel some freedom.”
Surprisingly, Ely’s never gotten around to releasing his own rendition of “I Fought the Law,” although he came close to recording it as a member of the Tex-Mex supergroup Los Super Seven on the 2005 album Heard It On the X. He ended up cutting “Let Her Dance” instead.
“But I’m always returning to ‘I Fought the Law,'” Ely insists, “and someday I’ll put down my version of it, or maybe dig up the one I did with The Clash if it can be found.”
Although Ely hasn’t yet become one of the legions of artists to cover “I Fought the Law,” the song remains firmly lodged in the mass musical consciousness.
“It’s had a great life,” Sonny Curtis acknowledges. “Every garage band that comes along seems to put it in their repertoire. It had already been recorded a lot, but The Clash did a lot to bring it back, and it really started to resurface after they did their version.
“I really loved The Clash’s recording of it,” Curtis says. “They were such an anti-establishment group that they wouldn’t go on the national TV shows in England, so the song didn’t become a bigger hit because they didn’t really promote it. But their version caught on anyway, and then other bands picked it up.
“Green Day did a terrific version that brings it right up to date. And the Dead Kennedys changed it to ‘I fought the law and I won.’ Hank Williams Jr. got it into the country chart in the early ’70s; that’s one of my favorite versions. And I really like Nanci Griffith’s version; I played on that one. And I recorded it again in the ’70s with some great Nashville players; it had kind of a strange arrangement, but a lot of people liked it.”
Curtis’ original tenure with the Crickets was cut short in 1961, when he received his draft notice. While in basic training at Fort Ord, California, he wrote “Walk Right Back,” which became one of the Everly Brothers’ biggest hits. He rejoined the Crickets after being stationed in France for eighteen months, after which the Crickets did some time as the Everlys’ backup band.
In the years since, Curtis has maintained a prolific songwriting career while working extensively as a solo artist and sideman, and continuing to perform and record with the Crickets. He also had a successful sideline writing commercial jingles for such clients as McDonald’s, Buick, Mattel, Honda and Bell Telephone. In the early ’70s, Curtis achieved another pop-culture milestone by writing and singing The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s iconic theme song “Love Is All Around.”
The Crickets have recut “I Fought the Law” on multiple occasions, most recently revisiting the song, with metal mook Vince Neil guesting on vocals, on the band’s guest-star-studded 2004 album The Crickets and Their Buddies.
The song remains a recurring touchstone for Randy Fuller as well. Following his brother’s death, he briefly kept their band going as the Randy Fuller Four, and he’s played with various other outfits over the years. He revisited his brother’s classic sound by forming Bobby Fuller Drive with Larry Thompson and Billy Webb, old El Paso bandmates from the Fanatics’ early days. In 2003, that outfit released Breakin’ Rocks, which included reworkings of “I Fought the Law” and other Bobby Fuller Four classics. But Randy has no illusions about improving on perfection.
“You can never tell when you’re gonna get that magic on a song and when it’s gonna become a classic,” Randy says. “Back in those days, I’d hear it and think ‘We could have gotten that better,’ because you’re always critical of what you’ve done. But I listen to it today and I can’t imagine how it could be any better. If it comes on the radio, it still grabs me.”
“You never really know what makes a song strike a nerve with people, but, man, I wish I could figure out what that is,” Sonny Curtis reflects. “I’ve said many a time that I wish I could get my head back to where I was when I wrote ‘I Fought the Law’ or ‘More Than I Can Say’ or ‘Walk Right Back,’ so I could do it again. Intellectual curiosity is a good thing, and I think you should always work to improve your craft, but sometimes I think songwriters tend to over-think and run past it, and I’m sure I’ve been guilty of that too.
“What is it about a song that connects with people? I wish I could answer that,” Curtis concludes. “Maybe there are songwriters out there who know the answer, but I sure don’t. But I still always feel real good when I finish a song, and I still think ‘How did I do that?’ It’s still a mystery to me, and it’s a thrill when it works out.”