West Texan Sonny Curtis could very well be the Bo Jackson of songwriting. Instead of excelling in two sports, the 84-year-old Curtis penned two classics that are as different as football and baseball.
As a Lubbock sandstorm howled outside his window in the summer of 1958, he wrote “I Fought the Law,” one of the first rock rebellion songs, which was first recorded by the Crickets three months after Buddy Holly died. The Bobby Fuller Four made “I Fought” famous in 1965, then it was flagged as a nascent punk song by the Clash.
The other landmark composition by Curtis was the theme song on a TV program that debuted in 1970 and ran seven groundbreaking seasons. Curtis received a four-page synopsis of a show about a 30-year-old woman out on her own after an engagement breakup, and came up with “Love Is All Around,” better known today as the theme to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
The garage rock holy grail and a Minneapolis anthem that came to represent feminism with a thrown hat in the air. Two songs that had nothing in common except they came from the creative mind of Sonny Curtis, born in a dugout his daddy built on a farm outside Lubbock during the Great Depression.
Curtis also had hits with “Walk Right Back” for the Everly Brothers (which he wrote in Army basic training in 1960), “The Straight Life” for Bobby Goldsboro, “Destiny’s Child” by Waylon Jennings and “I’m No Stranger To the Rain” for Keith Whitley. Leo Sayer had a #1 hit with “More Than I Can Say.”
But even if he didn’t write a single song, Curtis would be a notable figure in rock ‘n’ roll history for his close association with Buddy Holly, less than a year older, who Curtis played guitar and fiddle with before Buddy formed the Crickets. Curtis was in the band- along with Jerry Allison on drums and Don Guess on bass- when Buddy Holly opened for Elvis Presley at Lubbock’s Fair Park Coliseum in 1956. The Lubbock newspaper was so aghast that a group of locals would jump on Presley’s “devil’s music” wagon, they blacked out the quartet’s eyes in a photo they published.
Curtis and Guess were the musicians Holly took with him to Nashville on his first recording session for Decca Records earlier that year. Not much came of the sojourn to Bradley’s Barn- two singles (“Blue Days, Black Nights,” “Modern Don Juan”) went nowhere- but Curtis made history by being the first to play the brand new Fender Stratocaster on a recording. He also got his first cut as a writer with Holly, who recorded “Rock Around With Ollie Vee.”
Needing a paying gig, Curtis left Lubbock in ‘57 to tour with country superstar Slim Whitman, but that didn’t last long. When “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue” and “Oh Boy” hit in quick succession for Buddy and the Crickets, Curtis was playing five sets a night at a Colorado ski lodge. “The pay wasn’t very good,” Curtis has said of that gig, “but the hours were long.”
Curtis was never an official member of the Crickets while Holly was alive, perhaps because the guitarist and Holly producer Norman Petty had a falling out around 1955 when Curtis backed out of joining Petty’s trio. After guitarist Nikki Sullivan left the Crickets, the group decided to continue as a trio. There was room for only one songwriter in the band.
After Holly died in a plane crash at age 22 in February 1959, Curtis joined the Crickets and played them a song he had, “I Fought the Law.” The tune was recorded in New York City and included on In Style With the Crickets, a favorite album of a young guitarist/singer in El Paso named Bobby Fuller.
A draft notice interrupted Curtis’ time in the Crickets, though he’s remained a member throughout the years and still gigged until recently with Allison and bassist Joe B. Mauldin, his neighbors in Nashville, as the Crickets.
After the Army, Curtis settled in Los Angeles, where there was songwriting and guitar playing work for hire. Curtis played guitar for Roger Miller occasionally, which ended up providing his connection to Mary Tyler Moore, who shared management with Miller. Curtis said he’d give it a try when he was asked to write the song for the intro of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” He read the synopsis at around noon one day and later that afternoon found himself in the office of show creator James L. Brooks.
“I played him ‘Love Is All Around’ and he said ‘Let me take that song with me to Minneapolis,’” Curtis said. “They were shooting the opening footage on location.”
Not many folks know that the lyrics were altered after the first season. The unforgettable first line, “Who can turn the world on with her smile?” was not in the original version. When the show debuted, the Mary Richards character had embarked on a fresh start after a breakup, but didn’t have a job or, really, any skills or experience to be more than a secretary. The theme song’s original first line was “How will you make it on your own?”
Applying for an entry level job, Richards was instead hired on Lou Grant’s whim as assistant producer of the “Six O’Clock News,” so by the end of the season a more optimistic tone was needed for the theme. Besides the new opener, the last line was changed from “You just might make it after all,” to “You’re gonna make it after all.”
Curtis had hoped that he’d also sing the theme song, but the show’s producers wanted to find a “name” vocalist. “They were going for Andy Williams, who was hotter’n a pistol and had his own show,” recalled Curtis. “So I said, ‘Well, if you can get Andy Williams, then go ahead.” When Williams passed, Curtis got the gig.
Curtis still writes, still tries to pick that guitar like Chet Atkins. He said that since his pre-teen days playing fiddle for the Curtis Brothers at the KSEL Jamboree at Sled Allen’s Arena in Lubbock, all he’s ever wanted to do was play music. The mailbox money is a nice bonus.
One of his later compositions to get attention was “The Real Buddy Holly Story,” which inspired Holly fanatic Paul McCartney to make a documentary of the same name to dispel some of the mistruths of the 1978 film starring Gary Busy.
“It was a good Hollywood rock and roll movie,” said Curtis, “but it didn’t capture Buddy to my way of thinking.” The scene that especially makes Curtis shake his head is when Holly, frustrated by the meddling of Nashville producer Owen Bradley, punches him out in the studio. “I was there,” said Curtis, “and nothing like that ever happened. It was always, ‘yes, sir, Mr. Bradley’ or ‘no, sir.’ Buddy always treated everyone with respect.”
Sonny Curtis said when Buddy and the Crickets hit, it was like watching a train going somewhere special- and you’re not on it. But destined for greatness, he got there a different way and must be considered up there with the greatest Texas songwriters ever.