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