Article first published in Vol. 32, 2014-2015
By Rubi Luna, Isabel Hernandez and Ruth Vise
Over the years, the public has seen numerous deaths of those in their prime in the music industry. Artists and musicians are no strangers to addiction, suicide or murder. It has happened to hundreds like Janis Joplin who overdosed on heroin and John Lennon who was shot to death by a crazed fan.
But there is one among other famous individuals whose death has proved enigmatic. Bobby Fuller was a young El Paso musician whose life and career were cut short. Whether it was suicide or murder, the cause of Bobby Fuller’s death remains a mystery.
Robert Gaston Fuller was born on Oct. 22, 1942, in Goose Creek, Texas, according to the Handbook of Texas Online. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Utah. His parents, Lawson and Loraine Fuller, had a younger son named Randy and Loraine’s son from her previous marriage, Jack Leflar. During his childhood, Bobby Fuller learned to play the drums, piano and the trumpet while his brother Randy learned the guitar and trombone.
When Bobby was 14, his father was offered a job with the El Paso Natural Gas Company. Taking advantage of the opportunity, the family moved to El Paso and lived on 9509 Album Street. After graduating from Burges High School, Fuller enrolled in college. Randy was sent to military school, “in an attempt to steer him away from the path taken by brother Jack” who had some criminal history, according to a detailed web article on Bobby Fuller by writer and musician Aaron Poehler.
Dave Marsh, a music critic, notes that Bobby Fuller wished to major in music; however, he realized that “school wasn’t for him and stopped going to his classes before mid-terms.” According to Marsh, Bobby’s parents attempted to persuade their son to continue his education, but Fuller was determined to succeed with his music.
Poehler wrote that Bobby’s half-brother, Jack Leflar, was murdered. His body was found on Feb. 22, 1961. It is believed his death was due to the criminal connections he had.
The death of his half-brother hit Bobby hard; however, this is what led Bobby to pursue his musical career with greater intensity. “He had already attracted attention around El Paso as a drummer, but was working diligently on his songwriting, striking up a collaborative partnership with lyricist Mary Stone, a friend’s mother,” wrote Poehler.
Fuller decided he wanted to start recording music and with his family’s financial support, he was able to start his own record label, Exeter Records. In addition, he started a local club for all ages to hang out called “Bobby Fuller’s Teen Rendezvous” on Dyer Street, according to Bernadette Self in a 1996 El Paso Times article.
With Randy gone, Bobby taught himself to play the guitar in order to increase his musicality. When his brother Randy came back from military school, he as impressed with Bobby’s work. With Randy back, the brothers were able to record two tracks which aired on local radio on Thanksgiving 1961.
The all-ages club increased activity with his record label. In 1964, Exeter Records recorded three singles including “I Fought the Law,” first recorded by the Crickets, the late Buddy Holly’s band (Holly died in February 1959) and written by Cricket Sonny Curtis.Although the Crickets’ own version was not a hit and was rarely, if ever, played in public, the cover by Bobby Fuller and his band established Fuller as a regional star.
Acccording to Poehler’s article “The Strange Case of Bobby Fuller,” Bobby was never satisfied and on one of his tours to California to promote his music, he met Bob Keane of Del-Fi Records. Keane was famous for discovering Ritchie Valens in the late 1950s (Valens, whose real name was Richard Steven Valenzuela, died in the same plane crash as Holly). Fuller made an impression on Bob Keane at the time, but he did not feel the group was ready for the big time.
In 1964, the Teen Rendezvous in El Paso burned down, according to the Handbook of Texas Online, and the band decided to move to Los Angeles in November. The Bobby Fuller Four, as the band was now known, consisted of Jim Reese as the rhythm guitarist, Dewayne Quirico on drums (replacing Dalton Powell), Randy Fuller playing the bass guitar and Bobby as the lead singer and guitarist.
This time, Bob Keane signed the group, and they were soon playing in clubs around Southern California. Rapidly, the band became known by young people who frequented the clubs and music scouts like Phil Spector.
The Bobby Fuller Four began recording tracks which established them as more than a regional success. The first hit was “Let Her Dance” in 1965. Then the group rerecorded “I Fought the Law” also in 1965 for Mustang Records, a Del-Fi label, and the song hit Billboard’s Top 10 music chart soon after its release.
In 1965, the group recorded their first album entitled KRLA King of the Wheels. Poehler wrote, “1966 finally saw the release of a solid Bobby Fuller Four album” called I Fought the Law. Del-Fi picked the best songs they thought the group had recorded, and the result was a bombshell with back-to-back songs that surprised and pleased fans and Keane.
According to writer, rock music historian and former Spin magazine editor, Legs McNeil, Nancy Sinatra and Sally Field were often seen at the Bobby Fuller Four’s concerts. The band was even in a movie in 1966 called the Ghost in the Invisible Bikini according to the Handbook of Texas Online.
The success and new music was such a gold mine that Bob Keane booked six weeks of concerts for the band. Not everything went smoothly, however. Poehler quoted Randy Fuller who said, “It was a roller coaster ride . . . one minute we’d be playing a really great show where everyone loved us and loved our music, and the next show would be a total disaster.”
Despite the recognition and popularity being achieved by the young El Pasoans, the tour set up by Bob Keane was not the most pleasant. According to eoad manager Rick Stone, Bobby had thoughts of breaking up the band to launch a solo career. After the tour, the band flew back to their apartments in Los Angeles. On July 10, 1966, the Bobby Fuller Four played what would be their last show together, a gig at Casy Kasem’s teen dance show.
On July 18, 1966, the band was to have a meeting, but Bobby never showed up. Dan Epstein wrote in liner notes for the CD entitled The Bobby Fuller Four: Never To Be Forgotten that his brother Randy recalled that Bobby had received a phone call around one or two in the morning. “He still had on his lounging clothes. Always a sharp dresser, Bobby would simply not have headed out without sprucing himself up a bit.”
Nobody knew where the young singer went or whom he had gone to see. The only thing the band and his mother Loraine knew was that Bobby was not home.
About 5 p.m. on July 18, Loraine went outside to collect the mail and saw something peculiar. She spotted the vehicle Bobby had used when he left at 3 a.m. When she approached the car, she found her son dead lying across the seat. “Gasoline was boiling up and out of an open 2.5 gallon can in the front seat. A gas hose was nearby. She knew he was dead,” wrote McNeil.
Bobby’s death shocked everyone, not just his mother. In spite of such a tragedy, the family and the public demanded an answer, a person accountable for the situation.
Los Angeles Police concluded that Fuller had committed suicide by asphyxiation. However, close friends and family knew Bobby too well to believe it was suicide.
Fuller’s body was in full rigor mortis, indicating he had been dead for hours. However, no one had seen the car until it was discovered by Fuller’s mother. The official autopsy report read, “deceased, found lying face down in front seat of car—a gas can, 1/3 full, windows rolled up and doors shut, not locked—keys in ignition.” Strangely, Fuller’s skin, hair and clothes were all drenched in gasoline. The body had excessive bruising on the chest and shoulders and the right index finger was broken. Yet the Los Angeles police report read “no evidence of foul play.”
Bobby Fuller was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood Hills on July 22, 1966. He was only 23.
There are different theories of Fuller’s cause of death. The theory of alleged murder arose when “a Hollywood police officer had, for some inconceivable reason, destroyed crucial evidence at the scene such as the gasoline canister” stated Jeremy Simmons in The Encyclopedia of Dead Rockstars. Brother Randy Fuller also said that the police did not check the crime scene for fingerprints.
Another theory regarding Fuller’s death involves the drug LSD. In the 1960s, many people experimented with the popular drug. The theory is that Fuller had gone to a nearby LSD party and had fallen. Bob Keane told music critic Dan Epstein that someone might have wanted to cover up Fuller’s death so “they poured gasoline down his throat, saturated his hair, and made it look like suicide.”
Dalton Powell, original drummer of Fuller’s band, said in an article in the El Paso Times that the young singer “really didn’t use drugs. He got high on his music.” Road manager Rick Stone agreed and said, “Bobby was pretty damn straight. Two beers were too much for him.”
There were yet other theories regarding Bobby Fuller’s death. According to Epstein, “thugs” were sent to kill Fuller by a mobster who was an investor in Bob Keane’s label. The mobster would benefit from life insurance the label had on Fuller and with the singer planning to disband the group, the only way to receive the money was having Fuller killed.
The next theory involves a mysterious woman named Melody. It is said that Melody was dating a low-level gangster and had a side thing going on with Bobby Fuller. According to this theory, her boyfriend found out that she and Fuller were more than friends and sent people to kill Fuller.
Although the cause of death was later changed to “accidental,” questions immediately arise. Why would someone just experiencing breakout success accidentally swallow gasoline and beat himself up? How could he have driven home by himself in his condition? Why would he commit suicide when he had planned a meeting to meet with his band the next day? And on and on.
George Reynoso, El Paso music store owner and a Bobby Fuller Four memorabilia collector, seemed genuinely distraught when speaking about Fuller’s death. “His death was an incredible loss of talent that barely scratched the surface of what he could have become,” stated Reynoso in an interview.
Bobby Fuller will always be remembered thanks to people like Reynoso. An exhibit was held in 2008 at the El Paso Museum of History featuring belongings of local musicians including the Bobby Fuller Four. In addition, Randy Fuller performed at the Border Legends III concert in 2010 in memory of his brother. Bobby has been inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the West Texas Music Hall of Fame.
The Bobby Fuller Four’s version of “I Fought the Law” has been covered by the Clash, the British punk rock band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and numerous others. Ironically, if Fuller’s version had never been recorded or had not become popular, the song might never have been discovered in the Crickets’ recordings. Fuller’s song “Let Her Dance” is played at the end of the movie Fantastic Mr. Fox. Another one of Bobby Fuller’s songs called “A New Shade of Blue” was used in the 1999 movie Boys Don’t Cry featuring Hilary Swank. Several albums of Fuller’s music have been released over the years following his death and are available in various forms, including vinyl, at Amazon and other sites.
Whether Bobby Fuller’s death was suicide, murder or an accident, no one probably will ever know since the case is sealed under California law. His other Loraine died not knowing what really happened to her son, while his brother Randy has lived for nearly 50 years wondering about the death of his younger brother.