By Courtney Jerk
With a definitive version of a song written by former Cricket Sonny Curtis, Bobby Fuller (1942-1966) set himself and his band, the Bobby Fuller Four on top of the charts with the Top Ten hit “I Fought the Law,” along with a cover of Holly’s “Love’s Made a Fool of You.” Fuller, another Texas native, immediately drew comparisons to the late great Holly, and many critics projected that Bobby had a potentially fruitful and exciting career ahead of him, as the new duke of rock n’ roll.
The music world at times teems with senseless, tragic and premature deaths, but the bizarre story surrounding Bobby Fuller’s demise stands out from all the rest. Not simply because Fuller’s death was rooted in excessive behavior, but because the bizarre detail that fringes his so-called suicide brings in to question the official police ruling on the case. “I Fought the Law” rings now with irony when one knows the story behind Fuller’s brutal death. At 23, Fuller had a promising career ahead of him, but was tragically cut down before things could really take off.
Just as he set the charts on fire, someone may well have had similar sinister designs on him. Just two months after the height of his chart success, Bobby Fuller was found dead, by his mother, behind the wheel of his automobile, saturated in gasoline, which was also found in his lungs. While some sources list Fuller’s death as a mere automobile accident, and the LA coroner ruled it a suicide, those close to Fuller felt he had been done in by either the police themselves, or had paid for flirting with those who had ties to organized crime.
While on a trip to El Paso, Texas in the summer of ’66, Bobby ran into some friends who were going on to play California; he had told them that when they got out there that they might be able to play with his band. When they came out to Hollywood, Bobby got a hold of them and they spent a day relaxing. Bob Keane (of Del-Fi Records) stopped by to tell Bobby that there was a band meeting the next day (Monday, July 18, 1966) at the Del-Fi offices. Bobby never showed up for the meeting, and also failed to call guitarist Jim Reese, with whom he was in the process of finalizing a car deal with (Bobby was arranging to buy Reese’s Jaguar XKE). At 5pm, the El Paso boys went to Bobby’s apartment, but noticed that Bobby’s Oldsmobile was gone, and it had been missing since 3 am that morning — the last time Bobby was seen alive. The boys rang the bell anyway, and received no answer, as Bobby’s mother Loraine had just stepped out to check the mail. This, later, becomes a key element of the case.
As she got to mailboxes near the parking area, she noticed the Texas plates on the car the boys had driven, and also happened to notice that the Fuller Oldsmobile was back. She went to the door and opened it, and was immediately overpowered by gasoline fumes. “He was lying in the front seat,” Loraine said, “the keys were in the ignition, and his hand was on the keys, as if he had tried to start the car. I thought he was asleep. I called his name. When I looked closer, I could see he wasn’t sleeping… He was dead.”
The Los Angeles County Coroner’s official report read: “Deceased was found lying face down in front seat of car — a gas can, 1/3 full, cover open — windows were all rolled up and doors shut, not locked — keys not in ignition.” The last part of the statement seemingly contradicts Loraine Fuller’s account, unless she retrieved the keys from the car before police arrived.
The autopsy report also noted that there was excessive bruising on his chest and shoulders, and attributed the cause of death to asphyxiation “due to inhalation of gasoline.” His body had been drenched in gasoline, and was in a clear state of rigor mortis, indicating that he had been dead for over three hours. Eyewitnesses testified that Bobby looked as though he had been in a fight; his body was battered, and his right index finger was broken, as if it had been bent back. Completely disregarding this evidence, the LAPD ruled his death a suicide, and official police reports stated that there was “no evidence of foul play.” The case was closed, and remains closed to this day under California law. Bobby Fuller was buried on July 20 at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Burbank, California.
There are several logistical problems with the conclusion of death by suicide. Those close to Fuller say that he was in good spirits, and had made numerous plans prior to his death, which included the car deal with Jim Reese, and a day of studio time. Psychologically, this goes against the pattern of normal suicidal behavior.
Commonly, suicidal people make attempts to tie up loose ends and square accounts. Another concrete problem with Fuller’s death centers on the gasoline found in Fuller’s lungs. Most pathologists would agree that it would be physically impossible to ingest gasoline due to the gag reflex. While many people have tried, not a single human being has yet to die from ingesting gasoline, as it is a physical impossibility. Yet another detail that springs up is the matter of time between Fuller’s death, and when his car was found. At the time the boys from El Paso showed up at Fuller’s apartment complex, the Oldsmobile was still gone, yet only a short time later, Loraine Fuller found the car parked outside the complex. Robert’s brother Randy rightfully asks, “Now how can a man that’s dead–in rigor mortis–drive a car and pour gas on himself?” – In order for the suicide theory to work, Fuller would have had to have arrived at the complex, killed himself, and sat for three hours for the rigor mortis to set in between the period between the El Paso boys arrival and Lorraine’s discover of the Oldsmobile. When one rules out the possibility of suicide though, the burden of providing motivation for foul play rears its head, and according to a few people, there were a handful of people who had their reasons for wanting Fuller Dead. Fuller’s association with a young woman may have been the catalyst for one particular murder theory. The girl, a club owner and small time hoodlum’s girlfriend, may have caused some jealousy that led to Bobby’s death.
There had always been rumors that Bob Keane was affiliated with the mob, as it was difficult to get a record by an unknown band played on radio stations, KRLA and KFWB. It was suggested that Keane used his supposed underworld connections to get the Bobby Fuller Four airplay on both stations. Fuller may have paid the ultimate price for Keane’s affiliations, but even still there are questions surrounding this theory.
The police investigation was shoddy at best. In addition to the premature suicide ruling, Randy claims that the gas can in Bobby’s car was never checked for fingerprints. Their inability to acknowledge certain evidence or follow common procedure suggested to some that perhaps the police themselves had a hand in Fuller’s death. Any motive for such, though, remains spotty, and more of a romantic suggestion than anything. There was also the issue of the insurance policy on Bobby’s life. Jim Reese had canceled his policy prior to Bobby’s death, as he realized that he was “worth a lot more dead to certain people, and wasn’t taking any chances.” Bobby had a life insurance policy for between $800,000 and $1,000,000, payable to the aforementioned investor in Del-Fi with rumored mob connections. Four days after Bobby’s death, three men with guns appeared at the apartment that Jim Reese and drummer Dalton Powell shared, apparently looking for Reese, who was not there at the time. Shortly thereafter, Powell and Reese headed back to El Paso, with a loaded pistol on the seat between them.
The mystery of Bobby Fuller’s death will probably never be solved. For years it seemed that he would only be remembered as a semi-obscure one hit wonder, but fortunately more of his music is available now than ever before. A single CD (released by Del-Fi Records; still headed by Keane) containing all of the BF4′s tracks from the first two albums is available, as well as a three disc boxed set called Never to Be Forgotten. Bobby’s early solo and indie efforts have also been collected on the 2-disc boxed Shakedown! The Texas Tapes Revisited. Since Fuller’s death, many musicians over the years have paid tribute to Fuller with covers of a song which defines Fuller’s rebellious spirit and, in time, also came to double as his epitaph. With the recent release of the boxed sets and compilations, Fuller and his band may finally receive the recognition they well deserve.
“…and we get out here and this big English thing is happenin’ and it seems like we’ll never be able to do nothin’. We’re playin’ P.J.’s, but it’s just workin’ gigs like we did in El Paso. Then Bob Keane gets this new partner, who comes into the picture and tells us, “Tomorrow starting at such and such a time, they’re gonna be playing ‘Let Her Dance’…every hour on the hour. And we’re drivin’ down the freeway and that song comes on and man, it’s like when I was ridin’ down the street and heard Elvis Presley when I was seven years old and I wanted to be that. That’s what it was like. The adrenaline flowed and the goosebumps popped up and man, it’s just the greatest feelin’ in the world…We’re on our way. We’re gonna be millionaires. We’re doin’ what we really wanna do. And then it’s gone (snaps fingers) just like that.” — Randy Fuller.