Thirty-four years ago, El Paso rocker Bobby Fuller was found dead in his car in Hollywood. The mystery of who killed him lives on.
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The detail that everyone seems to mention first about Bobby Fuller’s death is the gasoline. The Texas rocker’s hair and clothes were soaked with it, and reportedly, some had gone down his throat. He was clutching a rubber hose, presumably from the open gas can, still a third full, that sat in the back seat of his Oldsmobile, which was in a parking lot in Hollywood, California. Bobby was lying facedown on the front seat with the doors and windows closed, and the gas had started to burn his skin. His swollen face was the color of blood, and his chest and shoulders were violently bruised. His right arm was twisted behind him, almost out of its socket, and the index finger on his right hand looked as if it had been pulled backward until it broke. Rigor mortis had set in; he’d been like this for at least three hours — though, according to legend, his car was not in the lot until right before it was found.
It was the late afternoon of July 18, 1966. Bobby, who had once sung, “I fought the law and the law won,” was dead at the age of 23, and people at the crime scene say the law didn’t seem particularly interested in how or why he had died. Bobby’s friend Boyd Elder, who arrived soon after the body was discovered, angrily recalls that the police “didn’t seal the scene off, didn’t use police tape, didn’t take fingerprints, didn’t look for evidence, didn’t do a thing except say, ‘Get the hell out of here.'” One witness saw a plainclothes officer remove the gas can from the back seat and throw it in the trash.
Boyd had come with Bobby’s younger brother Randy, who was crazy with grief and rage, yelling that he was going to get whoever had done this. Bigger and more streetwise than slightly built Bobby, Randy had always been around to step in when he got into trouble, but this time there was no helping him. He had choked to death on gas fumes, the coroner’s report said, pronouncing it either suicide or an accident. The police report concurred, finding “no evidence of foul play.” When one of Bobby’s uncles went to the police to press for further investigation, he was told he’d better keep his mouth shut if he knew what was good for him. Case closed.
Except it wasn’t, and still isn’t, because people won’t let it be, because nobody deserves to die that way and nobody deserves to get away with murder, and because Bobby Fuller wasn’t just some punk the cops had no use for. At the very least, he was the rightful heir to his idol, Buddy Holly, customizing his own hot-rod version of the bespectacled icon’s West Texas sound. But you can also make the argument — and many do — that the Bobby Fuller Four was one of the great American bands of the sixties, and that the handful of recordings it left behind are underrated gems of brilliant, beautifully realized rock and roll.
The Four’s haymaker was its 1965 cover of “I Fought the Law,” a song that will lose its appeal around the same time that teenagers stop driving fast and smoking cigarettes out of concern for their health. But beyond that calling card, the band produced a body of work as impressive for its range as for its consistency: incandescent, shimmering pop (“It’s Love, Come What May”), atomic Tex-Mex (“Let Her Dance”), souped-up rockabilly (“Love’s Made a Fool of You”), clattering rhythm and blues (“Little Annie Lou”), Presley-esque make-out music (“You Kiss Me”), galloping Cinemascope anthems (“Never to Be Forgotten”), dreamy exotica (“My True Love”), Motown-ish stompers (“I’m a Lucky Guy”), and blue-eyed soul (“The Magic Touch”). It’s hard to think of another stateside band of the time that could pull all that off; the Four did it with style to burn.
They had learned their trade in El Paso, in bands with names like the Counts and the Embers and the Fanatics. Bobby had been the hottest drummer in town before deciding he wanted to lead his own group, at which point he moved up to the mike, strapped on a Stratocaster, and proceeded to master Holly’s every twangy lick and vocal hiccup. After Randy got out of military school, he picked up the bass and took his place beside Bobby, backing him up in every one of his bands. Guitarist Jim Reese and drummer Dalton Powell would complete the Four’s most durable version.
Bobby was a study in contradictions. Sweet-tempered and polite, he came off as a little aloof — until the show started. Then he came alive, tearing into rockabilly numbers like he was born doing it and crooning ballads straight at the girls crowded at the lip of the stage. “He had incredible presence,” remembers Steve Crosno, the KELP deejay who first played his records. “Once he came on, you couldn’t take your eyes off him.” He and the band worked nightclubs and street dances and mall openings, learning hundreds of songs and rehearsing incessantly. They got good, and they got noticed. Bobby opened a high school hangout called Bobby Fuller’s Teen Rendezvous, and soon he had enough of a following that he could fill the place with sweaty, shimmying bodies every weekend and live on the proceeds.
Even though the clientele was mostly teenagers, running a nightclub in El Paso was no small feat. The city sat in the shadow of Juárez, where disposable income conveniently doubled as proof of age and where the democratic mix of tourists, GI’s, hustlers, hookers, wayward debutantes, and teenage thrill-seekers tended to blur social conventions. Fistfights were just one more lively form of discussion. This brand of fun tended to spill over the border, and the Fullers had to be ready for it. They were no strangers to violence — their half-brother Jack had been shot to death at the age of 31 — but they didn’t borrow trouble, either; sometimes it just came looking for them. Once a gang that objected to the Rendezvous’ presence on its turf came in with sawed-off, lead-filled baseball bats and popped Randy one in the arm; he chased the thugs out to the parking lot with the .22 he kept in the office. “Luckily, Bobby had unloaded it, ’cause I might have shot a guy in the face,” says Randy, now 56. “I’d be in prison now.” Another time, Randy stopped a fight in front of the stage by clocking one of the combatants with his bass, coolly resuming his playing as the guy was carried out.
Bobby had built a recording studio in his parents’ house, and he and the band started recording their own singles and putting them out themselves. Bobby was obsessive about recording, staying up all night to tinker with some song that everyone else thought was fine. He also refused to record anything that couldn’t be recaptured live. His seriousness paid off: He started racking up regional hits, including a Crickets cover, “I Fought the Law,” suggested by Randy. By 1963 Bobby was billing himself as “the Rock and Roll King of the Southwest,” and nobody was contesting the title. He and his band had done all they were going to as a farm team; it was time to move up to the majors. Bobby had been out to California that summer and had come back high on the music scene there. (He also introduced surf into the band’s arsenal of styles, which was a little incongruous — what other El Paso band would play a song called “King of the Beach”?) Randy and Jim were up for the move, but Dalton wasn’t willing to give up his construction job, so they tapped DeWayne Querico to play drums instead and headed west.
Once in Los Angeles, the West Texas boys hooked up with Bob Keane, the veteran producer and manager who’d made Ritchie Valens a star. Their faith in his credentials was soon justified. They had cut a single, a new version of an older song of Bobby’s, “Let Her Dance,” and, Randy remembers, Keane had some business partner who not only claimed he could get the record on the air but also told them exactly what time on what day it would first play. Sure enough, at the designated moment, “Let Her Dance” came blasting out of the radio. It didn’t occur to anyone at the time to question just how their man was able to pull that off.
By early 1965 they had a residency at PJ’s on Santa Monica Boulevard, and every night they played, there was a line of skirts around the block waiting to get in. In a town full of make-believe bands composed of failed actors, they were the real thing, and all those years in the trenches had made them as tough and tight as a pair of leather jeans. Which none of them wore, since they still subscribed to the all-for-one school of rock couture; wearing matching outfits was just one more thing you did if you wanted to make it, like recording shoe ads or lip-synching another band’s songs in the Nancy Sinatra-Boris Karloff vehicle The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini — both of which they did. The stairway to the stars was a lot more rickety back then, and if your guide was someone who’d been up it once already, well, you followed his directions.
But in 1966 the ground was shifting under pop music, and it was hard to tell which way to jump. Down the street a guy named Jim Morrison, who actually wore leather pants, was singing with his band, the Doors, and they weren’t exactly using the same playbook as the Four. LSD had started to get loose on the streets, and the Brylcreemed Jay Sebring look that had epitomized Southern California was starting to evolve into something scruffier and less recognizable. There was confusion within the band too. Bobby and Bob Keane were butting heads constantly about what the records should sound like, and Bobby the purist wasn’t happy with Keane the popmonger’s approach. It didn’t help matters that their first real hit, a rerecording of “I Fought the Law,” wasn’t one of Bobby’s songs, or that he had made plenty of hit records without Bob Keane’s help back home. Rumors about Bobby leaving the band started to spread. Even more unsettling, the clean-cut kid from El Paso was letting his hair grow and was talking about experimenting with acid.
Sometime in the small hours of July 18, Bobby left his super’s apartment, where he’d been drinking beer, and disappeared into the night. At nine-thirty that morning the other band members gathered for a meeting that Bobby had called at the Del-Fi studios. He never showed up, and later that day his body was discovered by his mother in his car, which was parked in the lot outside their apartment.
Bobby’s death came at a difficult time for the band, and it intensified the anxiety and uncertainty that had been building in his last days. It was the rock and roll version of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and as with that tragedy, once doubt was cast on the official explanation, the floodgates opened and the air grew dark with suspicion and innuendo. Of all the theories about Bobby’s death, the following are the most widely circulated:
It was the mob. There are two versions of this. One says that Bobby was getting ready to ditch his contract and that certain unsavory music-industry types were unhappy about it. The other involves a Judith Exner-like figure, reputedly the girlfriend of a club owner linked to organized crime, who had been seeing Bobby as well, incurring her boyfriend’s displeasure. This is the theory with the most staying power, in that it explains both his injuries and the indifference of the police.
It was the drugs. While Bobby wasn’t much of a recreational drug user, he’d expressed interest in the inspirational and creative aspects of acid, which was still legal at the time. Parties where it was dispensed freely were flourishing along the coast, and Bobby might well have attended one. This theory posits a bad trip and an accidental death, followed by an attempt to make it look otherwise. But it fails to account for the bruises on his body.
It was a rival. Professional jealousy to the point of homicide has been suggested as a motive, but it’s hard to imagine anyone considering Bobby enough of a threat to want to off him.
It was an insurance scam. The theory was advanced in the liner notes of a collection released by Keane’s Mustang Records in 1997. Killing someone to get his life insurance payoff is not unheard of. There’s only one problem: Why try to make it look like a suicide?
It was suicide. It would be interesting to hear someone make the case that Bobby beat himself up, doused himself with gasoline (drinking some in the process), and then drove himself home three hours after he’d been dead, but advocates of the official story are few and far between.
Ultimately, though, dwelling too long on Bobby Fuller’s senseless and sordid death is a disservice to his legacy. It’s how he lived, not how he died, that should be remembered. So take a moment of silence to honor one of rock’s great lost heroes . . . and then crank up “I Fought the Law” as loud as it’ll go.