In 1966 This Rock Singer Scored His Biggest Hit. But Four Months Later He Was Found Dead In His Car

The death of Bobby Fuller is one of rock ’n’ roll’s great unsolved puzzles. At around 5:00 p.m. on July 18, 1966, the young singer was found dead inside his car. Intriguingly, the car was discovered near his residence in Los Angeles. Where he had just come from nobody knew. Four days later, he was put to rest in Hollywood’s Forest Lawn Cemetery. But the singer’s death was never fully explained.

KRLA Beat, a magazine dedicated to rock, summed up the air of bewilderment at the time. “He was only 23,” the piece started. “A promising young singer from Texas whose friends said, ‘He just liked to be around people,’ when he was found dead in his car parked in front of his home. And no one knew why,” it went on.

Indeed, the loss of Fuller was a loss to rock ’n’ roll itself. His most famous hit, “I Fought The Law,” went on to inspire waves of punk rockers from The Clash and The Ramones, to The Dead Kennedys and Green Day. Indeed, all of those bands have performed boisterous covers of it. What else might Fuller have contributed to music if only he had lived a full and long life?

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Fuller was born on October 22, 1942 in an area of Texas known as Baytown. Following a stint in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Fullers returned to the state, settling in El Paso in 1956. At that time, Elvis Presley was inspiring a generation of budding rockers with hits such as “Hound Dog,” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” He was certainly a formative influence on Fuller, as was Buddy Holly, also a Texan.

Fuller formed a band with his younger brother, Randy. And in 1961, they released the first of several singles, entitled, “You’re in love.” The brothers recorded and mixed most of their material in a homemade studio using equipment they’d bought from a radio station. They released them on their own labels, Exeter and Eastwood. The band even got air time on local radio stations.

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Fuller’s band, then called the Fanatics, also made waves when they played live. In 1964, the musician opened a teen club modeled on California’s Rendezvous Ballroom. It became the Fanatics’ main venue. “England has the Beatles, but El Paso has [Fuller],” wrote the El Paso Herald Post in September of 1964. “[Thousands of] screaming and cheering boys and girls. As Fuller’s brother recalled to The Guardian newspaper in 2015, “It was like something was about to happen and you knew it…”

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Later that year, Fuller moved to the entertainment capital of the world: Los Angeles. His band, then called The Bobby Fully Four, was snapped up by producer and manager Bob Keane. The music mogul, who had made Ritchie Valens a star, signed them to Mustang Records. They played live and put out new singles. And in 1966, “I Fought the Law” rocketed into the top ten.

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That said, Fuller was hardly cutting edge. In fact, he was perhaps something of a throwback. Instead of aping the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, who were then leading the so-called British Invasion, the Bobby Fuller Four drew inspiration from 1950s America. Echoes of Eddie Cochrane, the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly resound through their songs. In fact, “I Fought the Law” was a cover of a 1960 Crickets song.

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Nonetheless, Fuller definitely had something. His single was a hit. His band was on the rise. Then, on July 18, 1966, he received a mysterious phone call in the middle of the night. To this day, nobody knows who it was. It had been a little more than a week since his last live performance. And early that morning, the musician drove off in his family’s Oldsmobile, perhaps to meet with the mysterious caller.

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That afternoon, Fuller was found dead in the car, drenched in gasoline and, according to one report, covered in bruises. “Deceased was found lying face down in front seat of car. [There was] a gas can, 1/3 full, cover open [and the] windows were all rolled up. [The] doors [were] shut, not locked. Keys not in ignition,” stated the Los Angeles County Coroner’s report into his death.

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The medical examiner initially declared Fuller’s death a suicide. Later, the verdict was revised to death by “accidental asphyxiation.” Likewise, the bruises, according to the findings of the autopsy, were attributed to gasoline vapors. The Los Angeles Police Department apparently accepted the findings without question. They never launched a proper investigation into the incident. They didn’t even dust the gas can for prints.

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If it seems improbable that someone can accidentally drown on gasoline, or choke to death on its fumes, there is an even bigger mystery hanging over Fuller’s death. His car had been parked outside his apartment for just half an hour before being found. The singer’s body, however, was stiff with rigor mortis – a process which begins around four hours after death. Logically, then, he would have died hours before he was found. And that means someone must have driven him home.

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Over the decades, several theories have sought to explain what happened to Fuller, but none of them very convincingly. One of them suggests he died after taking LSD at a party. Not wishing to be caught with a dead singer, fellow revelers then dumped his body. There’s speculation that cult leader Charles Manson had something to do with it, but there is no hard evidence to support that hypothesis. And yet another theory suggests Keane murdered the rocker for a life insurance payout.

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However, in 2015 one plausible theory arose. This time it was by writer Miriam Linna and Fuller’s brother, Randy. And it was in their book, I Fought the Law: The Life and Strange Death of Bobby Fuller. The authors point to Morris Levy, the owner of Roulette Records. Keane had signed a deal that gave him exclusive distribution rights to Fuller’s output in 1966. Dubbed the “Godfather of the American music business,” Levy was a hard-nosed businessman with alleged links to the mob.

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The entertainment magazine Billboard once described Levy as, “One of the record industry’s most controversial and flamboyant players.” In fact, Levy had a notorious reputation for crooked dealings, including conning money out of their artists. In fact, Levy is said to be the basis for Hesh Rabkin on the H.B.O’s mob drama The Sopranos. And considering the man’s ties to organized crime, he may well have had Fuller killed.

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And the motive? Fuller, it seems, was unhappy with Keane and intended to quit the band. For one thing, Keane had subjected him to a brutal schedule of tour dates. For another, he had forced him to participate in a string of tacky gimmicks, such as lip-syncing to songs for the beach party film The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. And of course, Levy stood to lose out if the band broke up.

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“In July 1966, Bobby had had it,” Linna told California newspaper L.A. Weekly in 2015. “The band was going to break up, he wanted out of their recording contract, he wanted out of the group. [And] he was going to go solo. They were all supposed to meet at Bob Keane’s, but [Fuller] didn’t turn up. Because he was dead.”

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Indeed, according to the band’s guitarist, Jim Reese, three men apparently knocked on his apartment door a few days after Fuller’s death. And they had weapons. It was enough to spook him. The following day, he took off for Texas with Dalton Powell, the group’s drummer. And they kept a loaded gun at the ready.

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Meanwhile, Randy has struggled for years to find closure. “[He] had no idea [who was responsible] at all,” Linna told L.A. Weekly. “He went into an incredible tailspin of depression. After this picturesque childhood — they had wonderful, loving parents — after the success of the band. For Randy, it was just an incredible battle, dealing with this loss, it’s just been years of an empty feeling.”

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There is no indication that the L.A.P.D. is about to open a new investigation into Fuller’s death. In any case, cold cases are notoriously hard to solve. Half a century has passed since he died, and there is little hard evidence to examine. In addition, potential witnesses may be impossible to find after so much time. Ultimately, what happened to the musician is as unknowable as that other enduring puzzle: what he might have been.

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