Day 119: He Fought The Law, But Who Won?

originally published April 28, 2012

My fingers spent a good five minutes dangling above my keyboard before beginning this article. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure there’s enough story here to make a story. This isn’t the tale of a music legend, or an American folk hero. It’s just about a guy who started his climb into the most exciting era of popular music, then vanished so suddenly and mysteriously, he now resides in the lonely little cubbyhole of the One-Hit Wonders.

Bobby Fuller was born in Baytown, Texas, also the birthplace of Renee Zellweger and Romany Malco, also known as the guy who played Conrad on Weeds. Bobby moved to El Paso right around the time that a fellow West Texan, Buddy Holly, was ramping up his tragically short career. Bobby fell in love with the guitar.

Almost every 1960s rocker story starts out this way. It’s either Holly or Elvis that plants the seed of inspiration, a kid gets his first guitar, and so on. Bobby was more than just a wanna-be rock ‘n roll star though.

He wrote music, and performed regularly around El Paso with a rotating lineup of musician friends, but always with his brother Randy playing bass. He snagged an old mixing board from a local radio station, then set up a studio in his home and recorded a number of independent records for himself. Recording at home in the early 1960s was not an easy task; if you’ve ever heard the earliest Beatles home recordings from 1959, you’ll hear a typical result: tinny, scratchy, and with about as much pounding bass as a castrati choir. But Bobby knew what he was doing.

He let local acts use his studio for the cost of materials; Bobby wanted the practice. By 1964 he was confident enough to pack up his things and his brother (well, I assume he didn’t literally pack his brother, but then the article doesn’t specify), and move to Los Angeles.

His group, the Bobby Fuller Four, was signed by producer Bob Keane, who was already famous for having discovered Ritchie Valens and Sam Cooke. If you’re looking for a visual on this guy, he was played by brilliant character actor Joe Pantoliano in the Ritchie Valens biopic.

Keane launched Mustang Records, a label specifically designed to push Fuller’s records upon the public. They put out a few singles to some local airplay, but they found a national hit with “Let Her Dance.”

Chances are, you have never heard this song before. I hadn’t, but of course the internet comes through once again with her glorious bounty of audiophonic information. It’s a great track, but it never cracked the Top 100, peaking at #133. Randy, the helpful kid brother, suggested they re-record “I Fought The Law”, one of their favorites, as a follow-up.

Their biggest hit was originally performed by the Crickets. After Buddy Holly’s death, Sonny Curtis joined the group and brought them this tune which he’d written. You can listen to their version here: it sounds almost identical to Bobby Fuller’s version, but with a less potent guitar track and a Holly-ish vocal sung by Earl Sinks. Fuller had recorded his version before he moved in 1964, and it became a solid local hit around El Paso.

The re-recorded L.A. version of “I Fought The Law” brought the group the fame they had been looking for. It shot to #9 on the Billboard charts, and set them up for a tour and gaggles of screaming teenage girls – the essence of why most guys go into the music business to begin with.

The single dropped in December, 1965. Two months later they put out an album of mostly recycled material (that no one had previously heard because no one had previously cared), and not long after that, the group began to fall apart. Bobby had to fire his drummer, DeWayne Quirico, for repeated tardiness and skipping out on rehearsals.

Their next single was another Crickets tune, one that was rather inappropriately released by the Crickets just three weeks after Buddy’s death, with Earl Sinks already having taken over on very Buddy-Holly-ish vocals. “Love’s Made A Fool Of You” climbed to #26 on the charts for the Bobby Fuller Four.

Their next follow-up, “The Magic Touch”, was even less of a success, and the band was on its last legs. Guitarist Jim Reese had just received a mandatory vacation to Vietnam from Uncle Sam, and new drummer Dalton Powell had decided he’d had enough of the L.A. music scene. The band decided to break up, though Bobby wasn’t at the meeting. That’s because he was busy being dead.

His body was discovered in the front seat of his car, parked outside his mother’s place in Hollywood. There was no sign of foul play, no bruises, no broken bones. There were petechial hemorrhages on his face and chest, probably due to the gasoline vapors and the July heat. But the circumstances surrounding his death remain a mystery.

There are theories, of course. Jim Reese felt the murder may have been perpetrated by Charles Manson (he never offered any evidence of this, so why he fingered Manson remains a mystery to me). One website feels he may have been rubbed out by the LAPD because of his connection to some mafia-related woman.

The 2002 novel The Dead Circus by John Kaye deals with the murder as a major component of its storyline, concluding that Bobby was clipped by the mob in an attempt to appease Frank Sinatra. This is about as far-fetched as the Manson thing, but it’s a novel so that’s allowed. Nobody really knows what happened.

Bobby could have found his way into another band, or he might have just found a respectable living as a producer. At 23 years old, he was full of potential. Instead he’s a quirky corner of the 60’s Rock tapestry, with his most famous song probably known to younger generations today as a hit by the Clash or by Green Day or Social Distortion.

So I guess there’s a story, but it’s a story without a satisfying ending. His brother tried to carry on the group, but he had such little success, he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia entry (the only real measure of ‘making it’ in today’s world). Maybe the LAPD’s cold case department will find something someday. Then again, if they were involved, maybe they’ll make sure they don’t.

Then the law will have truly won.

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