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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Bobby Fuller

by Clay Coppedge

The day that Bobby Fuller died was the same day that he planned to quit his popular band, the Bobby Fuller Four, break his record contract and go solo - all this while the band's song, "I Fought the Law (And the Law Won)" was riding high on the charts.

Instead, Fuller's mother found him in a parked car in Los Angeles, his body battered and burned, one finger bent and broken, and a gas can next to him on the floorboard. The car had been parked for less than 30 minutes when his mother found him, but advanced rigor mortis had already set in. The singer and performer of one of the most influential rock and roll songs of all time was dead at 23.

What should have been the start of a rigorous investigation became, in the view of the Los Angeles Police Department, an open and shut case. The kid did it to himself, they reasoned. Or maybe he was high on something and had a little accident. Either way, no one at LAPD deemed it police business.

Apparently, the assumption was that Bobby Fuller doused himself with gasoline, beat himself up, set himself on fire and drove his mother's blue Oldsmobile to her house.

Randy Fuller, Bobby's brother, has wondered about the scenario and the circumstances of his brother's death for nearly half a century now. As he told the El Paso Times in 1998, "Who would pour gas on himself in a hot car? I just think he got in a bad situation that night, and met the wrong people and couldn't get out of it. I'm 99.9 percent sure it wasn't accident or a suicide."

Bobby Fuller was born in Goose Creek, Texas on Oct. 22, 1942. After a stint in Utah, the family moved to El Paso about the same time that Elvis Presley swiveled and rocked his way onto the music scene. The Fuller boys were two of thousands in the 1950s who wanted to feel like Elvis sounded, and then Bobby heard a West Texas rocker named Buddy Holly. That sound, that rhythm guitar - that was how Bobby Fuller wanted to feel.

The Fuller parents, surely as supportive and loving as any parents in rock and roll history, let Bobby build his own recording studio in their house, complete with an echo chamber. He played the teen venues in El Paso and billed himself "The Southwest King of Rock and Roll." The El Paso Herald Post in 1964 declared, "England has the Beatles, but El Paso has Bobby."

In Bobby Fuller's view, the Beatles, whom he admired and who idolized Buddy Holly and the Crickets as much as he did, had one big strike against them if they wanted to follow in Holly's musical footsteps.

"The Beatles will never be able to do Buddy Holly like Buddy Holly because they're not from Texas," he told his brother. He described his band's music as West Texas rock and roll, adding, "It's a border sound."

Fuller took the band to Los Angeles, and quickly attracted the attention of record executive Bob Keane, who signed the band to a recording contract. "I Fought the Law (And the Law Won)," written by another West Texan, Sonny Curtis of the Crickets, topped out in the Top 10 on the Billboard Top 40. Rolling Stone magazine recently placed it at 175 on the list of the 500 greatest rock 'n roll songs of all time.

But Fuller wasn't happy. He didn't like the direction Keane was trying to take his music, and he wanted out. He wanted to make his own music and he was willing to bust a contract to do it. Thus, Keane is a key figure in some of the conspiracy theories surrounding Fuller's death.

The L.A. police made it easy for the conspiracy nuts. Th cops didn't dust for fingerprints or interview anybody in connection with Fuller's death, which spawned theories about the mob being somehow involved. Or maybe it was Charles Manson. Fuller had been talking about taking LSD. Maybe, they thought, he got hold of some and couldn't handle it.

Randy Fuller and Mirriam Linna teamed up to write the book "I Fought the Law: The Life and Strange Death of Bobby Fuller." They don't exactly solve the case, but they offer a name: Morris Levy.

Bobby Fuller, they suggest, fought the lawless and the lawless won.

Levy, a record executive who at one time owned 90 businesses - everything from a record pressing plant to a record company to a distribution company to a chain of music stores - was convicted of two counts of extortion in 1988, following an FBI investigation into organized crime's alleged infiltration of the music business. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $200,000 but died before he could be sent to prison.

Later, after waiting 30 years to make sure that Levy was really dead, Tommy James of Shondells fame portrayed Levy as a violent, mobbed-up thug in his memoir "Me, the Mob and the Music."

It's good reading and the authors make a strong but circumstantial case against Levy but now, after nearly half a century, all it really means is that we'll never know for sure who, if anybody, killed Bobby Fuller.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" September 2, 2016 column

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