When Bobby Fuller was found dead on July 18, 1966, the details around his death and a hasty investigation left many with more questions than answers. The sad story of the young singer from Texas has spawned conspiracy theories and rumors almost from the moment his body was discovered slumped over the driver's seat of a car in a Los Angeles parking lot, which investigators quickly decided was a suicide. Tales of LSD parties gone wrong, organized crime, and other theories about the events leading up to Fuller's death have been circulating ever since. So what did happen to Bobby Fuller and led to his death at the age of 23? The mystery is as compelling now as it was nearly 50 years ago.
Robert Gaston Fuller was born in Baytown on October 22, 1942, and moved with his family to Salt Lake City until they relocated back to Texas in 1956. Landing in El Paso, Fuller was impressed with the new sound of early rock and roll, which was making waves with young people of the time. He idolized fellow Texan Buddy Holly and was inspired to pursue a career in music, a path which the young singer and guitarist took to almost immediately. During the early 1960s, Fuller put together a band with a constantly revolving roster of members, and played shows at clubs around El Paso. In 1964, Fuller moved to Los Angeles with his group, now calling themselves the Bobby Fuller Four and including his younger brother Randy on bass. The group was quickly signed to Del-Fi Records by a producer named Bob Keane, who had worked with numerous surf-rock groups and discovered Ritchie Valens.
Fuller's music covered lots of territory, sometimes veering towards a reverb-laden surf sound, and at others revealing the influence of Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, and other early rockers. The group recorded both originals and covers, and in 1965 scored a hit in California with "Let Her Dance," although it was the following year's release of "I Fought the Law" that really put the group on the national map. After the song's meteoric rise on the national charts, it seemed like great things were ahead for the band and their handsome singer, but sadly that would not be the case. Six months after the song hit big, Bobby Fuller was discovered dead.
His body and arms were covered in bruises and he was soaked in gasoline, lying face down. An open can of gas sat on the floor of the car, and the windows were rolled up, leading to an initial ruling that he'd killed himself by inhaling gasoline fumes. While that sounds reasonable at face value, investigators failed to secure the scene, and didn't even think to dust the gas can for fingerprints or to pursue an investigation any further than what seemed obvious from viewing the body in the car. If Fuller's death wasn't self-induced, what evidence is there that foul play was involved?
Unfortunately, the botched investigation makes solid proof of much of anything difficult to find, and instead we only have the numerous rumors and personal accounts of people close to Fuller at the time of his death to go by. Many of those closest to the singer don't believe the suicide story, and the official cause of death was changed three months after it was originally issued to "accidental asphyxiation," which would indicate that he didn't kill himself on purpose. Why were his clothes soaked in gasoline? Even in an enclosed space it seems unlikely that enough fumes could be concentrated to soak a person's clothing, and none of Bobby Fuller's close associates or loved ones indicated that he seemed depressed. Had someone intended to torch the car, but had to leave in a hurry?
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Were the bruises on his body evidence that he'd been beaten or killed in some other trauma, and then arranged in the car to make his death look like a suicide? The car Fuller was found in had only been in the parking lot a short period of time, but his corpse was already experiencing rigor mortis, which could suggest that he'd died earlier and somewhere else, and then been moved to the parking lot.
According to some sources, Fuller's producer Bob Keane was fond of gimmicky marketing tricks that didn't sit well with the singer and he was considering parting ways with Keane, eager to embark on a solo career. His brother Randy believes that Bobby was killed by someone because he wanted to back out of a business deal, but there's no hard evidence proving such a scenario. Many other theories simply don't seem plausible — such as his murder at the hands of the Manson Family, or that he accidentally died while high on LSD at a party thrown by rich people, who hastily constructed the suicide scene to keep their involvement secret. Notorious L.A. gangster and clubowner Eddie Nash has been mentioned, as well as other organized crime figures who had their fingers in the mid-'60s music industry.
A new book, Miriam Linna and Randell Fuller's I Fought the Law: The Life and Strange Death of Bobby Fuller, makes the case that a record-industry leader names Morris Levy was the real mastermind behind Fuller's death; even if he's not, Levy's reputation for rough tactics, artist exploitation, and gangland connections definitely makes him a compelling contender for an unsolved murder. But with Bobby Fuller's death still officially considered a suicide or accidental, there's not much interest in reopening an actual investigation into his death, so it's likely that we will never know for sure what happened to end the life of the popular young musician from Texas. At least we'll always have his music.