"England had The Beatles, but El Paso had Bobby Fuller"
During the exuberant era that preceded the Summer of Love, Bobby Fuller was an anomaly. He was a clean cut young man with a quiet nature with a blatant reverence for Buddy Holly. Even as "I Fought the Law" hit the charts in 1966 (a song he had first recorded in 1964) His style of music was already viewed as passé. This moment of triumph would later reveal that Fuller was already struggling to stay relevant.
In all likelihood, Fuller was also the first casualty of the 1960's counter culture movement. He was almost certainly a murder victim, although who killed him and why remains a mystery to this day. Murder conspiracies abound in rock & roll music, they're mostly unfounded theories pulled from thin air by nutcase fanatics. Fuller's case is the rare exception, upon further examination, the LAPD's hasty labeling of his death as a suicide does beg for an explanation.
The botched investigation was astonishingly fraught with incompetence. Investigators failed to interview essential witnesses or follow up leads. Vital evidence was quickly destroyed or compromised. Forty Six years later, not one iota of credible evidence has been unearthed to help overturn the coroner's official ruling that this was indeed a suicide. Nonetheless, there are still troubling questions that cannot be explained away.
Was it death by misadventure, such as an overdose or an accident? Fuller was said to have attended an LSD party in Hollywood on the night before his body was discovered. Was Fuller's death scene staged to make it appear like a suicide when in fact he died from a fall while tripping on LSD? Were there other more sinister factors at play that resulted in the unexpected death of a promising young musician?
Robert Gaston Fuller was born October 22, 1942 either in Baytown, Tx. or Goose Creek, Tx. (depending on your source) His father, Lawson Fuller worked in the gas and oil industry, which meant that early on the family lived a transitory lifestyle. Bobby's younger brother Randy was born in Hobbs, N.M. in 1944. Placing the family dab smack in the region that would one day become a hotbed of rock & roll music.
By 1946 the Fullers' relocated to Salt Lake City, where Bobby and Randy grew up living an idyllic 1950's American childhood. However for Jack Leflar, their step brother it was a different story. He was in and out of trouble, running away from home and gravitating towards a criminal element. (The family lost track of Leflar once they moved to El Paso, Tx. and in 1961 he was the victim of foul play, perhaps murdered by his associates)
In 1956 the family moved to El Paso when Lawson was hired by El Paso Natural Gas Co. It was the year that Elvis Presley broke and thirteen year old Bobby was quickly smitten by the rock & roll bug. His first venture into music was a collaborate effort with his brother. When Randy was shipped off to military school, Bobby took up his brother's guitar and taught himself to play.
Bobby also teamed up with Mary Stone, a lyricist and started writing songs in earnest. In 1961, accompanied by The Embers, Bobby recorded "You're in Love" co-written with Mary Stone and "Guess We'll Fall in Love" in a rudimentary studio set up in his parent's living room. Released as a single on Yucca Records (a New Mexico label) "You're in Love" was a regional hit, garnering airplay on KELP, El Paso's #1 top forty station.
Randy Fuller returned from military school and was astonished at how much Bobby had progressed. With Bobby now proficient on guitar, Randy found himself relegated to playing bass. Bobby, Randy and drummer Gaylord Grimes then made the hallowed journey to Clovis, N.M. in 1962, for a recording session at Norman Petty Recording Studios. Bobby Fuller found the Petty experience less than fulfilling.
They recorded two tracks, one of which "Gently My Love" was a minor regional hit. Bobby's determination to record his music the way he thought it should be recorded, led him to start up his own studio and record label (Exeter, although in reality most of Fuller's El Paso recordings were self released) He would also open his own teen club "The Rendezvous" (named after the L.A. club made famous by Dick Dale)
Accompanied by a revolving cast of musicians (informally known as The Fanatics) "The Rendezvous" provided him with the unique opportunity to develop his sound and stage presence in front of a live audience. The Fanatics would evolve into The Bobby Fuller Four (Bobby Fuller-vocals-guitar, Jim Reese-guitar, Dalton Powell-drums, Randy Fuller-bass) Both Reese & Powell had previously played with Bobby as part of The Embers.
Larry Thompson & Billy Webb were also part of The Fanatics crew, but parted ways with Bobby before the move to Los Angeles. At this juncture Bobby and the band didn't have a signature sound, their music was equal parts Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly. Their early sets were heavy with cover songs. (similar to the aborted "Celebrity Night at P.J.'s" album) They played top forty radio fodder, albeit extremely well.
Early in 1963, Bobby and The Fanatics scheduled a series of shows in California. This afforded Fuller the opportunity to pursue a record deal. Bobby made the rounds and knocked on doors, but could find no takers. The only label that even showed a hint of interest was Bob Keane's Del-Fi Records. Keane felt that while Bobby had potential, he didn't have a hit. Keane told Fuller to go home and return when he had some hit material.
Encouraged by Keane's honest appraisal, Fuller returned to El Paso totally committed to finding his key to success. Through the remainder of 1963 and on to the following year, Bobby & The Fanatics scored a series of regional hits, including a cover version of a Sonny Curtis song "I Fought the Law" (picked up for distribution by Vee Jay records) It was the first of three songs lifted from The Crickets' 1961 album "The Crickets In Style"
Bobby Fuller didn't realize it, but that fateful meeting with Keane, probably set in motion the series of events that would lead to his untimely death. Bob Keane was a Los Angeles music biz veteran, who discovered Sam Cooke in 1957, and signed him to his Keen Records label (this resulted in the hit "You Send Me") only to see his business partner bilk him out of his money and force him out of the company.
Keane rebounded by forming a new label, Del-Fi Records (named after the Greek god of music and inspiration, Delphi) In 1958 he discovered Ritchie Valens performing at a movie theater in Pacoima, Ca. and signed him to Del-Fi. As we all know, "Come On Let's Go" and "La Bamba" were hits, but "Donna" was a smash hit. Valens just seventeen years old, had a number one single, when he boarded that doomed aircraft.
"Texas rock and roll.... it's nothing new, we've been playing it for years"
To Bob Keane's dubious credit, Del-Fi barely skipped a beat after Valens perished on "the day the music died" and it was surely by providence that Ritchie Valens' successor Chan Romero landed at Del-Fi. His 1959 single "Hippy Hippy Shake" was a modest hit, but gained prominence after The Beatles and The Swinging Blue Jeans recorded their versions. Romero would score just one other hit (My Little Ruby) during his career.
Chan Romero, who grew up in Billings,Mt. was introduced to Ritchie Valens' family by Keane and would sleep in Ritchie's bed whenever he was recording in Los Angeles. The eclectic Del-Fi roster now included artist as diverse as Romero, Johnny Crawford (of The Rifleman fame) Brenda Holloway, Barry White, The Lively Ones, The Surfaris, Spider Webb and the Insects (which featured Tom Fogerty, pre- Golliwogs & Credence Clearwater Revival)
Bob Keane took pride in the fact that Del-Fi had an open door policy. He was fond of saying "I'll listen to anyone, even if they bring 'em in on a stretcher" it was an approach that allowed artists with little commercial appeal like Frank Zappa and Leon Russell to get a foot in the door and for proto hippie, eden ahbez (he preferred lower case letters) composer of "Nature Boy" a #1 hit for Nat King Cole, to record an instrumental album on Del-Fi in 1960.
El Paso was played out, so in November of 1964, Bobby, Randy and Jim loaded up and moved to Hollywood. Dalton Powell was married and chose to stay put, he was replaced by DeWayne Quirico. Together they paid a return visit to Bob Keane, who heard enough to offer them a contract. As the boys (and Mama Fuller) settled in to an apartment near Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Bob Keane cranked up the star making machinery.
Most of the band's early singles had been credited to Bobby Fuller, now as they went into the Del-Fi studio, they still lacked a band name. The first Del-Fi single was credited to Bobby Fuller and The Fanatics, the second to The Shindigs (a blatant attempt to snag the job as house band for the tv show) Keane decided that "The Bobby Fuller Four" had the right ring to it, neither Bobby nor his band mates cared much for it.
Keane signed The Bobby Fuller Four to Mustang Records, a new subsidiary of Del-Fi (he also had Bronco Records, which specialized in R&B) The Bobby Fuller Four became regulars on the L.A. club circuit, grinding it out night after night, trying to build momentum for their upcoming recordings. However, much to their chagrin the promoters demanded cover songs and most of their gigs took place in front of indifferent crowds.
The nadir of their early L.A. experience was a classic Bob Keane promotional stunt. He proposed that they record a live album at P.J.'s Nightclub in front of a bunch of celebrities. "Celebrity Night at P.J.'s" features less than a handful of originals (I Fought the Law, Let Her Dance, A New Shade of Blue) and cover songs like, Gloria, Brown Eyed Handsome Man, Slow Down, California Sun, Oh Boy, C.C. Rider.
"Celebrity Night at P.J.'s" was scrapped shortly thereafter and never officially released. "Let Her Dance" ("Keep on Dancing" from the band's El Paso repertoire) was reworked by Bob Keane and became Bobby's first top forty hit. "We tried to do it with a little Tex-Mex feel, all those bass runs, Bobby didn't like it, He didn't like anything." Keane recalled. Bobby was left to wonder, if he had sold his soul to the devil.
The previous single "Never to be Forgotten" had failed to chart because it didn't have the right push behind it. Randy Fuller would later explain that Bob Keane predicted the success of "Let Her Dance" "Bob told us, you boys listen to KRLA at one o'clock today. Your record's gonna be on there.' We're like, 'Sure, sure.' So we're drivin' down the street and 'Let Her Dance' came on…"
Rumors that Bob Keane was connected to the mob had long floated around. Randy Fuller (always outspoken) told this story, "Bob Keane gets this new partner…A lot of people have claimed that he was affiliated with--and P.J.'s, where we worked--were affiliated with the mob, you know" Randy continued, "Because, you know, to get a record on KRLA or KFWB was almost impossible for an unknown band"
Next up for the band was a cameo appearance in the teen flick "The Ghost in The Invisible Bikini" starring Nancy Sinatra. They lip synced to "Geronimo" and played in the background during a swim party scene. Keane kept the band in the spotlight with appearances on tv shows such as Hullabaloo, Shin Dig, Shivaree etc. they toured nationally, playing a combination of high paying gigs and boozy dives.
Shortly after the recording sessions that produced “I Fought The Law" DeWayne Quirico was unceremoniously given the boot. Dalton Powell was convinced to journey west and rejoin the band. John Barbata, drummer for The Turtles filled in on an interim basis (specifically for the The Magic Touch / I'm A Lucky Guy sessions) The move was necessitated by Quirico's lack of enthusiasm, though Randy Fuller would later admit that “DeWayne was probably the better drummer for us at the time”
“KRLA King of the Wheels”, was the Bobby Fuller Four's first official album release. Issued in November, 1965 it was “sponsored” by KRLA-AM. With “hot rod” music all the rage, the station had signed on to sponsor Doug Robinson's KRLA Horse Power Engineering top fuel dragster. That's how the iconic cover shot of The Bobby Fuller Four and Doug Robinson's rail dragster came about. (With Bobby at the wheel, of course) It's generally acknowledged that Bob Keane slapped KRLA's call letters on the cover in exchange for radio play.
With the exception of “She's My Girl” which is more of an idea than a fully realized song (Hey!, let's do something that sorta sounds like what the Beach Boys were doing last year) “KRLA King of the Wheels” is actually a solid album With better promotion, the infectious “Let Her Dance” would have been a huge hit. Mustang botched the release, releasing it twice, then licensing the song to Liberty Records which released it again, confused the hell out of distributors.
“King of the Wheels” is Bobby's surf anthem “King of the Beach” enhanced with dragster sound effects. “The Lonely Dragster” is “Wolfman” stripped of wolf howls and Bobby's hilariously bad Wolfman Jack impersonation. The wolf howls do make an appearance on “KRLA Top Eliminator” which shamelessly rips off Long John Hunter's “El Paso Rock” without giving him so much as a songwriting credit. “The Phantom Dragster” is a hokey, “how does this guy keep showing up everywhere I go” hot rod saga, that ends with the chief of police a mangled heap of meat.
Selected by Randy Fuller as their next single, “I Fought The Law” was released in December, 1965 and slowly climbed up the charts finally peaking at #9 after Bobby Fuller had been laid to rest. ( As of July 18th 1966, “I Fought The Law” had just cracked the Top 100) The follow up single to "I Fought the Law" was "Love's Made a Fool of You" a song written by Buddy Holly & Bob Montgomery. The song did well for The Bobby Fuller Four peaking at #26 on the national charts (posthumously of course).
In the midst of the whirlwind, The Bobby Fuller Four released their second album "I Fought The Law" a garage punk classic that became a must have for latter day vinyl junkies. The next single "The Magic Touch" fizzled on the charts and strained the relationship between Bobby and Bob Keane. Bobby had always resented Bob's heavy handed alterations to his songs. Now he felt like Keane had crossed the line.
For "The Magic Touch" Keane brought in Barry White (the make-out music maestro) Normally, Barry worked primarily with Del-Fi's R&B artists on the Bronco subsidiary. Now, Keane gave White free rein to add more drums and remix the song in order to give it an ersatz Motown sound. Bobby was not impressed "Man!, The Magic Touch doesn't even sound like one of our songs" he complained to Randy.
The music scene on the West Coast and the culture of of the entire nation was changing rapidly. Bobby Fuller was not immune to the allure of counter culture. By now, he had experimented with LSD, during an interview in 1966 he stated, "The Hollywood strip has gone psychedelic crazy--the kids, the clubs, the whole effect of hallucination" Bobby was playing with fire, tensions rose within the band.
Randy Fuller's recollection offered an insight into Bobby's mindset "The thing about Bobby was that he liked intelligence--he was very intelligent, and if anything had 'intelligence' tacked on to it, he was gonna do it. Bobby confided in Randy "Man, the way that LSD works, if you're really intelligent, if doesn't affect you" It seemed that Bobby was overcome by a strange and reckless mix of over confidence and naivety.
A comment from an El Paso resident on YouTube, stating that she had attended a dance at Cathedral H.S. where The Bobby Fuller Four had played in June of 1966, epitomized the miserable state that the band was in. Even with "I Fought The Law" a top ten hit, they were still playing high school dances and grinding it out at P.J.'s or Casey Kasem's Teen Dances. The Bobby Fuller Four was coming undone.
An extensive touring schedule had taken its toll on all of them. Bobby and Randy were hardly on speaking terms. After a disastrous show in San Francisco, Bobby announced his plans to go solo and started looking for his own place to live. Soon after that Jim Reese received his draft notice, he had just a few weeks before he had to report for duty. Reese had just purchased a Jaguar XKE, he made arrangements for Bobby to buy it from him.
Bobby was noticeably depressed during the last weeks of his life, but he never appeared to be suicidal. Most of the recording sessions for the band's third and final album ended up turning into shouting matches. Bobby was fed up and was rapidly distancing himself from his band mates. At the apartment Bobby took to sitting in his bedroom listening to the same song over and over through headphones.
On the last night of his life, Bobby Fuller lounged around the apartment (#317) his mother Loraine had just arrived in Hollywood to see her sons, Rick Stone who worked for the band was also there. At around 10:00 three girls from El Paso dropped by to see Bobby, they chatted and drank beer until midnight. Bobby then called Melody, a girl who worked at a nearby bar. (Melody would play a big part in this story)
Shortly after 1:00 a.m. Bobby received a phone call and abruptly left the apartment. Both Loraine and Rick had already gone to bed, it wasn't unusual for Bobby to stay up all night. Building manager Lloyd Esinger, confirmed that Bobby stopped by and they drank beer until 3:00 a.m. Esinger was the last person to see Fuller that night. In the dead of the night, Bobby got into his Oldsmobile and drove away, never to be forgotten.
On July 18, 1966, Loraine was the first to notice that the Oldsmobile was gone. The band had a recording session scheduled for 8:30, the musicians gathered at Del-Fi and waited for Bobby to arrive. They were still waiting when Bob Keane arrived at his office, he nonchalantly remarked "Where's the prima donna?" At 2:30 p.m. they gave up and went home. At that point, Loraine Fuller had still not heard from Bobby.
Dalton Powell and Jim Reese had an apartment just a few blocks from Bobby's, two El Paso musicians Ty Grimes & Mike Ciccarelli stopped in and asked if they would take them to see Bobby. It was 5:00 p.m. when they arrived at The Sycamore Apts, both Dalton & Jim noticed that Bobby's car was gone. They rang the door bell, but got no answer. Ty Grimes would later state that while they waited he thought he saw a car pull into the lot.
As they turned to leave, Loraine Fuller came running towards them in a panic (she had gone down the back stairs as they went up the front stairs) While checking the mail, she had found Bobby's Oldsmobile in the parking lot. She opened the driver side door "He was lying on the front seat,” Loraine said. “The keys were in the ignition, and his hand was on the keys, as if he had tried to start the car"
Loraine was in shock, "I thought he was asleep, I called his name, when I looked closer, I could see he wasn’t sleeping, he was dead" the overpowering odor of gasoline fumes emanated from the vehicle's interior. Loraine composed herself and called the police and then called Randy at the home of Boyd Elder (a family friend from El Paso) and broke the bad news. "I said hello and my mother said, ‘Bobby’s dead’ and hung up" Randy recalled.
Bob Keane was first on the scene, he freaked out when he saw a plainclothes officer open the car and say "Oh, a can of gas" which he then chucked into a nearby dumpster. Keane blurted out "Wait a minute, man. What the fuck? Aren't there prints on here?" to which the cop replied "Nah, just another rock & roller overdosed" Keane remained adamant "There was no investigation, they were in on it, no question about it, they had to be."
There was a gallon gas can in the car, it had a rubber filler hose attached to it, Bobby was grasping the hose with one hand. Bob Keane would say, "The fact that he got a phone call at 2 a.m., and that he went out and drove off in his car when he was still in his bathrobe -- the guy was a meticulous dresser. What was that? The next time we saw him he was dead" Bobby wasn't wearing a bathrobe when his body was found, when did he change?
The final autopsy report ruled that Bobby died of inhaling fumes, not ingesting gasoline as most believe. The coroner did not estimate how long Bobby had been dead. What appeared to be bruises on his body were found to be skin burns caused by the volatile fumes and the extreme high temperature within the enclosed space of the vehicle. El Paso County coroner Juan Contin examined the report and agreed with the findings.
Blood tests conducted after his death showed no traces of any drugs in his system, not even alcohol. The L.A. medical examiner noted that "On opening the body, the organs and incised tissue smell strongly of gasoline" He was pronounced dead at 5:15 p.m., but he had been dead for a few hours, as rigor mortis had set in. Randy Fuller would say "I don’t know if it was suicide, because he’s my brother, I’d love to say that it wasn’t. But I don’t know
The Dead Circus
Dismissing the assumption that it was a suicide, there's the connection with Melody, the bar girl who was the girlfriend of a nefarious L.A. mobster with a thirst for violence. Bobby called Melody that night, did she call him back and lure him into a trap? Melody would actually surface years later and state emphatically that neither her nor Bobby had any ties with mobsters and that she did not meet with Fuller that night.
There's also the LSD party accident theory. The phone call that Bobby received was an invitation to an acid test, Bobby went and given his state of mind had a bad trip. He freaked out and died in an accident. The party goers then put his body in the car, drove him back to his apartment and made it look like a suicide. At least one woman has said that she was at that party and that Fuller did attend, but left in good health and certainly still alive.
How about the million dollar life insurance policy that Bob Keane and his partner Larry Nunes supposedly took out on Bobby Fuller? The rumor was that when Fuller announced that he was going solo, Keane & Nunes decided to cash in on their "investment" by having him rubbed out. It was pure fantasy, after Bobby's death nobody collected anything and there has never been any evidence of an insurance company pay out.
An article printed in Goldmine Magazine named Bobby's brother Randy and Jim Reese as prime suspects. That's a theory that actually has legs. Both were upset over Bobby breaking up the band and the impending loss of income. After Bobby's death, Randy wasted little time renaming the band after himself and taking over the role of lead singer. The Randy Fuller Four disbanded before he could do anymore damage to his brother's legacy.
Jim Reese suspected Charles Manson of killing Bobby Fuller. Never mind that in 1966 Charles Manson was incarcerated at Terminal Island in San Pedro, Ca. with more than a year left to serve on a federal sentence. I'll also throw my own theory on top of the scrap heap. I think Bobby Fuller fell victim to a twisted serial killer who was preying on young men. I can't for the life of me explain why a serial killer would drive his dead victim home.
So, we have this scenario... Bobby Fuller is murdered by having gasoline forcibly poured down his throat. With his lifeless body in the car, his killer drives the Oldsmobile back to Fuller's apartment. He then stages it to look like a suicide and then just narrowly escapes right before Loraine Fuller, Jim Reese, Dalton Powell, Ty Grimes and Mike Ciccarelli stumble on the crime scene. Not an impossible series of events to say the least.
If I were a betting man, I would bet that both Melody and her violent boyfriend did play a part in Fuller's death, just not the way one would expect. John Kaye's novel "The Dead Circus" published in 2002, uses Fuller's murder as a major plot point. At the end, Kaye (or rather his character) surmises that Bobby Fuller was murdered by the mafia in order to please Frank Sinatra. There's also the rumor that Bobby gave Nancy a hit of LSD during the filming of "The Ghost With the Invisible Bikini" and she experienced a bad trip. When you weigh in the fact that they did come into contact while making the scene in Hollywood (Nancy made a cameo appearance at "Celebrity Night at P.J.'s" posing for a cover photo with Bobby) It adds up as the most credible of all the Fuller death theories.
In death Bobby Fuller's talents have been built up to epic proportions, some would have you believe that he was a better singer than Elvis, that he played guitar better than Dick Dale and was a better songwriter than Buddy Holly. But in reality, he wasn't much better than Tommy Roe (who also tried to fill Buddy Holly's shoes) Bobby Fuller was Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly resurrected and by 1966 that wasn't hip. Had he lived, the changing tide of rock music would have relegated him to bubblegum music, just like Paul Revere & The Raiders. On his best day Bobby Fuller couldn't match what some of his contemporaries like Tommy James & The Shondells, were putting out. But, then again, just like the mysterious circumstances of his death, it's all conjecture now.