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The Mysterious Murder of Bobby Fuller, the Rock ’n’ Roll King of the Southwest


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Bobby Fuller then just 23 years old, barely had a toehold in the fickle rock ‘n’ roll business when he died under a cloud of controversy July 18, 1966. Some believe he was destined to be America’s next superstar recording artist.

Robert Gaston Fuller was born October 22, 1942, outside of Houston. He had two brothers: Jack by an earlier marriage, and Randall Fuller two years younger. Jack gradually abandoned the trio but Randy and Bobby remained an inseparable pair. Though younger, Randy caught up to Bobby in size, and the two were often mistaken for twins. Bobby, at 4, began developing his interest for music at 4 and by the time he was 5 he was playing piano. Randy and Bobby took music classes in grade school and Bobby, though Randy learned to play trumpet and a variety of instruments before settling on drums.

By the time Bobby was 12, he was forming bands and conjuring plans for a home recording studio. In 1956, the Fullers moved to El Paso, Texas and both, Bobby and Randy played in the school band and orchestra. He graduated from Technical Center in in 1960 and briefly studied music at North Texas State University.

School bored Bobby, and his grades frequently slipped below average. As a teen-ager, he worked part-time at the Melody Shop in Basssett center and spent his free time flirting with girls and talking about guitars with musical cronies at the defunct Hilltop Oasis, El Paso’s leading hangout at the time.

Bobby’s serious side was devoted to music. He admired Roy Orbison, Stan Kenton, Pat Boone and of course, Elvis but over every other rock stars, he worshipped Buddy Holly who ultimately should be his biggest influence.

When in the 11th grade, Bobby began building a studio in the garage of the family house with two four-track Ampex tape recorder converting it finally in the best home recording studio in the Southwest, and he milked every opportunity to show it off. He even attempted to devise an echo chamber but it was a total failure.

Bobby played drums in his earliest groups but by about 1960 his primary instrument was guitar and he was really good. As a singer, songwriter and recording engineer, he found the guitar more flexible and useful than his unmelodic snares and cymbals. He created several local groups in El Paso for the next 3 years winning all battle-of-the-bands contests.

After graduating form high school, Bobby devoted even more energy to playing in local pubs and clubs but he was a big fish and El Paso was a small pond.

Tragedy struck the Fuller family in 1961, when his brother Jack was murdered. Jack’s death instilled urgency in Bobby. His musical endeavors intensified. He wanted immortality.

In 1963 he founded a dance club for teens (no liquor was served); it was an instant success. Bobby Fuller and his band were regular fare, but occasionally a notable star was featured. Bobby Vee played at the Rendezvous June 27, 1964. Admission was $2. The club went real well.

Between live appearances, Bobby spent time in several recording studios, including his own. “You’re In Love” in late 1961 and became Bobby’s first single. Another Stone-Fuller effort and Bobby’ second single, “Gently My Love”, played mostly locally. He recorded several more singles in his home studio; one of them was the first version of “I Fought the Law” written by Sonny Curtis, one of Buddy Holly’s Crickets. This early version released on the Exeter label, was a regional hit, and later became Bobby’s ticket to rock history.




Bobby wasn’t going to settle for playing bars all his life and in 1964 he decided to go to Los Angeles; he had big plans, he felt driven, even obligated by some force, to nurture his talents and find a broader forum for his music.

His greatest strengths were song arranging, singing and recording. As far as recording goes, Bobby was way ahead of his time. He was into big public address systems before anybody else. And he was a dazzling performer. He had stage presence, real charisma. All that talent was being stifled in El Paso.

In Los Angles, he failed to attract the interest of major labels, but did impress Bob Keene of Del-Fi Records, the same of Ritchie Valens. Keene advised Bobby to polish his playing and songwriting skills in El Paso and return to Los Angles in a year. Bobby couldn’t wait that long, and in late 1964, a few months after his first venture West he headed for the spotlights again. He took three instrumentalist: Randy Fuller on bass, Jim Reese on guitar and Dwyane Quirico on drums. Again, the Bobby Fuller Four knocked on Keene’s door. Keene signed them to Mustang Records

“We went to all the big labels, but couldn’t get anywhere,” Randy said. “We finally found Bob Keene. Ever since Ritchie Valens death in 1959, Bob had been looking for fresh talent. He saw something special in Bobby and the band.” So, the deal was set up by promoter Bob Keane and they were signed. Keane was famous for launching Richie Valens and supposedly had mob connections.

One month after singing with Keane, the band’s manager, Larry Nunes, told the musicians during a rehearsal, “You’ll be a No. 1 group within a year.

Randy Fuller remembered Nunes’ announcement: “After he left the room, we all laughed. But Bobby looked at us and said, ‘He’s serious.’ And sure enough, a year later we were one of the top five bands around.

Bobby Fuller’s rise in the California musical ranks was swift. Though the band’s first album, “KRLA King of the Wheels” contained a new version of “I Fought the Law,” it was the bopping “Let Her Dance” that vaulted Bobby onto regional charts. Peers as well as rock lovers flocked to hear the Bobby Fuller Four at the Ambassador Hotel, L.A. Rendezvous and PJs.

For Bobby, 1965, was a great year. In June 28, he and his band appeared on the TV rock show “Shivaree.” Ten days later, they played “Let Her Dance” and “Another Sad and Lonely Night” on the “Shebang” show. And another week later, they appeared on the wildly popular “Lloyd Thaxton Show.” On Aug. 7, 1965, the Bobby Fuller Four shared billing with Herman’s Hermits in a Rose Bowl concert.

The band was featured in fan magazines, including Seventeen. They were in a Modern Screen fashion layout with Mia Farrow. Bobby was flaunted in a Thanksgiving parade. People began to recognize him in supermarkets and airport terminals. A fan club sprouted.

In November 1965, they earned spots on television’s major music shows; “Hullabaloo,” “American Bandstand,” “Were the Action Is,” “Shindig,” “Shebang” and “Shivaree.”

In the public eye, Bobby hobnobbed with such Hollywood celebrities as Sally Field (best known later as the “Flying Nun”), Nancy Sinatra (whom he dated briefly), Meredith McRae, Ryan O’Neal and Brenda Benet of “Peyton Place.” But privately, Bobby led a quiet life. He drank only moderately and apparently skirted the narcotic rage, though friends admitted he dabbled occasionally in milder drugs.

In 1966, Bobby’s success flourished. The single “I Fought the Law” hit the airwaves and, as Randy predicted, became a swift smash, rising to No. 4 in the charts by February.  The group’s second LP contained proven and potential hits, including “Let Her Dance,” “Saturday Night,” “Little Annie Lou” and “Another Sad and Lonely Night.”

 The Bobby Fuller Four also got a taste of fame on the big screen when they appeared in the B-movie The Ghost in the invisible Bikini, which starred Nancy Sinatra and Boris Karloff. Strangely enough, in the movie, the Four lip-synced another band’s music. They were working as movie extras rather than musicians. Actually, it was a terrible movie, a lousy beach B-movie.

In March, the band appeared at Dick Clark’s World Teenage Fair at the Palladium in Hollywood. Mobs of screaming girls lunged at Bobby and Randy. During a short tour that moth, Bobby and his crew performed before a sell-out audience at the Riverside Club in Phoenix, then visited their home turf to play in the El Paso County Coliseum. El Pasoans did not rally to support its offspring, and the show attracted perhaps 500 listeners.

While “I Fought the Law” bellowed from jukeboxes and car radios across the country, the Bobby Fuller Four launched an ambitious national tour in an attempt to saturate the market with its infectious sound. They plunged eastward, performing night after night in forgettable American towns.

In late April, the four band members flew to Los Angles for five days of studio work. Against Bobby’s wishes, Bob Keene invited Motown wizard Barry White to arrange, play piano and provide background vocals for “The Magic Touch.” “I’m a Lucky Guy” also was recorded then.

The weary group next traveled to New York, where they played a week at the renowned Phone Booth and were joined onstage by Chad and Jeremy and the Young Rascals. After the last show, the club manager paid Bobby the agreed-upon sum of $5,000, but subtracted $1,400 for a “liquor bill.” The musicians were infuriated. At most, Rick said, the band consumed $50 in beer.

Sometime in June, the band arrived in Cambridge, Mass., for what had been billed as a huge outdoor concert in a football stadium. Poorly advertised, the show attracted only 500 persons. Bobby grew irritable and depressed. While in Massachusetts, he agreed to a live phone interview with Dick Clark.

“The Magic Touch” was released to instant popularity the first week in June. “Love Made a Fool of You,” “I Fought the Law” and the new song were thriving on the charts when Bobby and the band returned to Los Angeles in late June.

Then in San Francisco they did a series of club performances with poor results. The musicians were exhausted and demoralized, and Bobby and Randy fought bitterly. It was no secret to Randy and the other band members that Bobby wanted to go solo. He wanted fresh backup musicians and hoped to win a new record contract with a different label. Bobby was unhappy with Keene’s decision to cancel a European tour, especially since the band was an incredible hit in England. He also disapproved when Keene included Barry White in the Bobby Fuller Four recording sessions, so he decided to renegotiate his contract with Bob Keene.

July 17, 1966, a hot Sunday, Bobby drank beer and clowned with his El Paso buddies. He and the band had just finished taking a week off and were preparing to rehearse in the studio the next day. This was the last day of vacation, and Bobby was savoring every moment.

All seemed well.

Later the next afternoon, Bobby was found dead in the front seat of his car.

Bobby Fuller’s death is notable because it has never been solved nor explained. His death was tragic because the self-made rocker was on the verge of breaking out into the mainstream when his body was found dead of asphyxiation in the front seat of his mother’s car. The debate still rages whether the rising star committed suicide, died accidentally or was murdered.

Currently Fuller is best known for one song that has become a staple, “I Fought the Law,” which regularly pops up on movie and television sound tracks. During the 1980s and 1990s the song was revived and became a punk staple; even Green Day cut a version.

By 1966 The Bobby Fuller Four had scored a big hit with “I Fought the Law” and were on the verge of breaking out but Fuller never lived to see his song become part of the pop culture; instead, he made news in another way; he was murdered shortly after recording it. The murder of Bobby Fuller is one of the big unsolved mysteries of music. It has even generated conspiracy theories about organized crime.

Fuller was found lying dead inside his car on July 18, 1966, in Los Angeles. Witnesses said he had been badly beaten and his body soaked with gasoline. A gasoline can was found inside the car, but there were no keys in the ignition.

Most witnesses believed that somebody beat Fuller to death then started preparing to set the car on fire. The murderer or murderers probably ran off when they saw bystanders coming.

The police and coroner’s investigation of Bobby Fuller’s death only increased the mystery. The Los Angeles County coroner first ruled that Fuller’s death was a suicide even though he had clearly been beaten. From the beginning, the investigation was mishandled. The crime scene was not secured and no fingerprints were obtained. A witness also had claimed seeing a police officer throw a can of gasoline found at the scene into the trash (Fuller was found with multiple wounds all over his body and covered in gasoline). According to an episode in the 1990s of the series "E! Mysteries and Scandals", Fuller's death may have been tied to the local crime syndicate. Three months later the coroner changed the cause of death to accidental asphyxiation.

The improbable explanation given by the coroner was that Fuller drowned in gasoline. Those claims and the fact that neither the car nor the gasoline can were dusted for fingerprints caused people to doubt the official story.

It is not clear why the police did not seriously investigate Fuller’s death. The lack of an investigation has led to rumors that continue to this day. The fact remains that In Hollywood’s lurid pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll mythology, there is really nothing to rival the enduring, sinister mystery surrounding the very ugly death of singer Bobby Fuller.  Unfortunately, police have “lost” all the files on record about Fuller's death. Unless new evidence turns up, the death of Bobby Fuller will remain one of rock's infamous unsolved mysteries.

 What is known for certain is that Bobby Fuller didn't like the material that Del-Fi Records was making him record, especially when it came to rearranging some of his own compositions.  It’s also know that he had begun to experiment with LSD and had been keeping company with a known call girl named “Melody” who, reportedly, was also tied to the mob figures in question. Her ex-boyfriend was a jealous club owner reported to be tied to the local crime syndicate. After Fuller's death, she disappeared and has only surfaced much later to deny complicity in Bobby's death. Most importantly, these mob figures were named as beneficiaries on Fuller’s reported $1,000,000 life insurance policy.

The most common theory is that Bobby Fuller was murdered by gangsters who were involved in Mustang Records. Bob Keane was known to have a partner with organized crime connections. In the 2015 book I Fought the Law: The Life and Strange Death of Bobby Fuller, authors Miriam Linna and Randy Fuller float a new theory: Morris Levy, the Roulette Records owner known for his strong-arm tactics and Mafia ties, was involved in Fuller’s death. In 1966, Keane signed a deal with Roulette to distribute Fuller’s music.

Fuller might have gotten into some sort of conflict with the gangsters that led to his death. A possibility is that Fuller was planning to leave Mustang Records, a course of action that might have enraged gangsters. Rumor has it that Tupac Shakur was also murdered for planning to leave a record label with organized crime connections over 30 years later.

The Bobby Fuller Four’s guitarist, Jim Reese, said that he and drummer Dalton Powell left LA right after the body was discovered. They fled to El Paso because three armed men had come to their apartment looking for Bobby Fuller. When they left town, the two brought a pistol.

Another weaker theory points to hippy cult leader Charles Manson, who was living in Los Angeles and Berkley at the time and hanging around the fringes of the music scene. It isn’t clear why Manson would have killed Fuller. It’s also certain that Manson hadn’t yet organized his murderous family in 1966.

Manson might have been connected to another theory: that Fuller injured or killed himself while experimenting with LSD, which was a popular new drug in LA in 1966. This scenario postulates that whoever was doing LSD with Fuller dumped his body in the car in an attempt to cover up the death. Those individuals might have tried to set the car on fire in an attempt to hide their involvement. Charles Manson was known to use drugs like LSD and to deal drugs. The theories involving Mason seem to be based primarily on Manson's reputation and little else.

There is no evidence backing any of these theories. Instead, the death of Bobby Fuller will remain one of the great unsolved mysteries of rock and roll.

Bobby Fuller, self-styled “Rock ’n’ Roll King of the Southwest” carved out a unique sound, blending southern styles and drawing heavily on the stripped-down, raw, heart-on-sleeve rock ’n’ roll of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Eddie Cochran. To those elements, he added vocal harmonies styled on the Everly Brothers and searing blasts of surf guitar and garage rock fuzz bass. It was a purely American music – one that didn’t acknowledge the Beatles or other British bands then making an impact in America. He might have been the pivotal figure in American pop music, ahead of his time. He liked to say that The Beatles would never be able to do Buddy Holly like Buddy Holly because they’re not from Texas. In other words, they didn’t have the cadence or the swing; unable to tap into a rich vein of regional music that included southern blues and R&B, western swing and Tejano, from south of the border; they couldn’t rock’n’roll like boys from the south.

Randy Fuller believes that, had he lived, Bobby might have returned to El Paso, opened a new teen club and continued his experiments in the studio, free from interference and commercial pressures. If so, he would almost certainly be thought of now as a seminal and visionary figure, along the lines of Brian Wilson, Phil Spector or Joe Meek. Miriam Linna, co-author of I Fought the Law: The Life and Strange Death of Bobby Fuller, is convinced Fuller was destined for more than cult success, pointing to the fact that a UK tour had been booked for the Bobby Fuller Four. “If that had happened, I honestly believe today’s music scene would be vastly different,” she says. “Fuller would have represented the second coming of Buddy Holly, who eight years earlier had toured Britain, inspiring everyone from the fledgling Beatles to those guys who ended up being in a band called the Rolling Stones.”

And maybe, just maybe, the Bobby Fuller Four would have spearheaded an American Invasion of Britain.

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"Her ex-boyfriend was a jealous club owner reported to be tied to the local crime syndicate. After Fuller's death, she disappeared and has only surfaced much later to deny complicity in Bobby's death. Most importantly, these mob figures were named as beneficiaries on Fuller’s reported $1,000,000 life insurance policy."

 - Occam's razor: Motive, opportunity, and the reason the cop's were afraid was certainly that they were fearful of, and likely on the payroll of, the Mob.

Having been in and out of music (The business end, and the performer's constant struggle that never ends), I can testify to some of the truly evil people who are and were in control of much of it, and how little they care for the artists that are the true heart of rock 'n roll - and all music.

The fact that mobsters were named as the beneficiary of a million dollar life-insurance policy is reason enough to have killed him, especially if he 'crossed' a jealous, mob-connected club owner by dating his ex-girlfriend. Hits have been ordered as favors for far less reason.

The 'Will' may even have been made out without Bobby's knowledge, and his signature forged. It seems likely.

He was right about the multitude of influences built in as part of the DNA of southern rock. Very complex, and derived from many countries via immigrants.

Later on, The Allman brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Stevie Ray Vaughn, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, ZZ Top, and more bands than I can mention have had this same "thing" - this Southern Rock DNA.

I was a musician in Detroit in 1967-1974, and bands like MC5 (Ted Nugent's first band), Johnny and Edgar Winter, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels - while incredibly proficient, and creative, simply did not have that "Southern Rock Something." It's why I moved to Florida in 1974, and I've never regretted it. Same town as Lynyrd Skynyrd - and I had the opportunity to get a musical blood transfusion of Southern Rock that changed me as a performer forever.

This was a tragic, ugly, sickening ending for such a promising American original.

Too many have died.

Thanks for remembering. 

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