The death of Bobby Fuller, who would have been 68 today, remains among the more perplexing mysteries in rock-n-roll lore. We take a look back at his life and career.
Born Robert Gaston Fuller on October 22, 1942, in Baytown, Texas, Fuller grew up as a big fan of another Texas musician named Buddy Holly. He played in numerous bands with his younger brother Randy and even built his own primitive backyard recording studio. In 1961 they began releasing singles through New Mexico-based Yucca Records, and their efforts charted on local radio stations in El Paso.
Fuller and his brother moved to Los Angeles and reformed the band. In 1964, The Bobby Fuller Four were signed by Mustang Records in a deal put together by Bob Keane, who’d also worked with Ritchie Valens and would later put out records by artists like The Surfaris and Frank Zappa.
The band was a bit of a throwback. While the British Invasion and Motown dominated the airwaves, The Bobby Fuller Four played what was basically 1950s style rock, inspired by the likes of Little Richard, Eddie Cochran and the Everly Brothers. Still, the group managed to chart with “Let Her Dance” in 1966. In a bizarre promotional turn, they appeared in the movie The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, starring Nancy Sinatra and Boris Karloff, where they lip-synched two songs by another band.
Their biggest hit came with “I Fought The Law.” Though Fuller is most closely associated with the song, it was actually written by Sonny Curtis and first recorded by The Crickets after Buddy Holly had died (Curtis also wrote the theme from The Mary Tyler Moore Show). Today “I Fought the Law” has become a punk rock staple, being covered by The Clash, The Dead Kennedys, The Ramones, Social Distortion and Green Day. The version recorded by The Clash was recently included on the popular Rock Band video game .
But Fuller wouldn’t live long enough to reap many benefits from the song’s success.
On July 18th, 1966, he was found dead inside his car at the age of 23. The L.A. County Coroner's report said, “Deceased was found lying face down in front seat of car–a gas can, 1/3 full, cover open–windows were all rolled up & doors shut, not locked–keys not in ignition." He had multiple bruises on his arms and shoulders and his body was soaked with gasoline. Other witnesses report that one of his fingers was broken. Fuller’s death was first ruled a suicide, but three months later, the medical examiner changed the cause of death to “accidental asphyxiation.” Positing, in other words, that he had somehow accidentally drowned himself in gasoline.
The investigation was botched from the start – the crime scene left unsecured, no fingerprints taken from the gasoline can found in the car. Many believed Fuller had been murdered and the perpetrator/s had fled just as they were about to torch his car to destroy the evidence. A partner of Bob Keane reputedly had mob connections, and the record company was involved in payola scams (to be fair, so was nearly everyone else in the business). There was also the matter of a large life insurance policy allegedly taken out on Bobby Fuller by this same record company investor. Another theory was that Fuller had gone to an LSD party (he’d recently started experimenting with the drug) and an accident had befallen him. Worried they’d be held responsible (and busted for drugs to boot), partygoers drove him back to his apartment and left his body in the car. There has even been speculation that Charles Manson was involved.
The Bobby Fuller Four guitarist Jim Reese told an interviewer that four days after Bobby died, three armed men came to his apartment looking for him. The next day, Reese and drummer Dalton Powell fled to El Paso, taking along a loaded pistol just in case.
With scant physical evidence, no clear leads and so much time gone by, it's doubtful we’ll ever know what really happened. We’re left to wonder what other great music Bobby Fuller might have brought into the world had he not been taken from it that July night 44 years ago.