No matter how memorable was Bobby Fuller’s signature hit — and his version of “I Fought The Law” is inarguably a classic rock‘n’roll record of any era — it always risks being upstaged by the macabre and never-explained circumstances of his death.
Born on October 22, 1942 in Baytown, Texas, Fuller became a noted performer in the El Paso, Texas area to which he and his family relocated. His first appeared on disc came in 1961, when “You’re In Love” became the first of a series of independently released singles.
The strong influence of Buddy Holly and the Crickets is reflected in both of the Billboard Hot 100 chart entries in 1966 on the Mustang label by the Bobby Fuller Four. First came their enduring version of “I Fought The Law,” written by Holly’s collaborator (and Crickets member after Buddy’s death), Sonny Curtis. The song originated on the 1960 album In Style With The Crickets.
Revived by Fuller and his quartet, which included his younger brother Randell, “I Fought The Law” went to No.9 in America; they went on to reach No.26 with the follow-up, a remake of Holly’s composition “Love’s Made A Fool Of You,’” which had also been recorded by Curtis and the Crickets for that same In Style With… album. The Crickets’ version was also a No.26 hit, but in the UK.
While “I Fought The Law” only reached No.33 in the UK for Fuller and his group, the recording was much revered by rock‘n’roll fans. When The Clash were making their second album Give ’Em Enough Rope, and Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were in San Francisco recording overdubs, they often heard the single on the jukeboxes of the Automatt studio in San Francisco. Moved to record it with the Clash, their version became part of the 1979 EP The Cost of Living, and remains a landmark of the new wave era.
Fuller was just 23 when he enjoyed that singles success, and he and the group even made it onto the big screen, when they performed two songs in the spring 1966 movie The Ghost In The Invisible Bikini. This late entry into the “beach party” series of lighthearted film cash-ins also provided the amusingly improbable combination of stars of earlier classic horror movies such as Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone with Nancy Sinatra, red-hot from her US No.1 “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” of a few weeks earlier. Sinatra was herself a fan of the Bobby Fuller Four, often seen at their concerts.
But within a few weeks of Fuller’s record and movie success, he met an unseemly and mysterious end. Eight days after the group’s last gig in July 1966, he received an unexplained late night phone call that prompted him to leave in the family Oldsmobile, apparently for a meeting in the small hours of the morning.
Rock‘n’roll’s greatest mystery?
Later that day, July 18, at 5pm, Fuller was found dead by his mother Loraine in the vehicle, parked outside his Hollywood apartment. The car was full of gasoline but there were no bruises or cuts to his body which had, it seemed, been there for some time.
He was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood Hills on July 22. The cause of death, originally listed as suicide (a theory widely seen as unlikely, given his breakthrough success of the time) was later changed to accidental.
No criminal investigation was launched by the LAPD, which was in some turmoil at the time with the sudden death of its chief of police just days earlier. But rumors have persisted ever since that Fuller was murdered, perhaps by the mafia. Such subterfuge has continued to be investigated by Bobby’s brother Randy, notably in the 2014 book I Fought The Law, written with Miriam Linna.
In 2015, Randy told NPR how the mystery had prevented him ever finding closure over his brother’s death. “It’s just always eating at you,” he said. “If you just knew what happened, you could get over it. But, you know, it’s just always there.”
Far more than just “I Fought The Law”
Fuller’s sad end may always overshadow a career which achieved much in a short time, but he’s warmly remembered, not just for his signature hit but for “A New Shade Of Blue,” used in the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, and “Let Her Dance,” the Bobby Fuller Four single that immediately preceded “I Fought The Law.” A local Los Angeles hit, it went on to feature at the end of the 2009 movie Fantastic Mr. Fox.
The words written by KRLA Beat soon after Fuller’s death are as poignant today as they were then. “He was only 23 – 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.”
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