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New Book Explores Bobby Fuller's Mysterious Death



In December of 1965, Bobby Fuller released his cover of this song.


BOBBY FULLER FOUR: (Singing) Breakin' rocks in the hot sun. I fought the law and the law won. I fought the law and the law won.

CORNISH: It wasn't long before "I Fought The Law" cracked Billboard's top 10. Four months later, on July 18, 1966, Bobby Fuller was found dead. Alex Cohen of member station KPCC reports on a new book that explores his life and sudden death.

ALEX COHEN, BYLINE: Bobby Fuller was born in Baytown on the east coast of Texas. The family eventually moved West to El Paso, where Fuller immersed himself in music.

RANDALL FULLER: He played the piano at a very young age, and drums, and also ukulele. He'd pick up any instrument right away.

COHEN: That's Bobby's younger brother, Randall, who also learned to play number of instruments. Together, they performed in several local bands. Randall Fuller says their careers got a boost early on thanks to the fact that El Paso was dreadfully dull.

R. FULLER: We had a teen club that we opened up.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, now I'd like to sing a song that I wrote myself.

R. FULLER: And all the kids from that area would pack in there 'cause they had nothing else to do. We were like the Beatles to them.


BOBBY FULLER FOUR: (Singing) Angel Face, how did I ever find you?

COHEN: Eventually, the Fullers realized they weren't likely to go far in El Paso, so they moved to California.


MIRIAM LINNA: It's a combination of instrumental music that they picked up out in California.

COHEN: Miriam Linna is co-author, along with Randall Fuller, of the new book, "I Fought The Law: The Life And Strange Death Bobby Fuller."

LINNA: There's desert loneliness with a Buddy Holly influence and also this incredible blues thing that really threw them over the top.


BOBBY FULLER FOUR: (Singing) Look at Bodean (ph) dancing, she's really got that stompin' (ph) down.

COHEN: Linna says Bobby Fuller was not only a talented musician but also a solid producer. He bought old equipment from a local radio station and built a home studio in his backyard, complete with an echo chamber.


BOBBY FULLER: Hi, Bobby Fuller here. Let me tell you about a show and a dance by a recording band that I will be putting on at Eastwood High School this Friday, August 10, from eight till 11 p.m.

COHEN: Fuller was also a tireless promoter who shopped his band to record labels and radio stations any chance he could.


COHEN: But it was the civil unrest of the 1960s which ultimately landed the Bobby Fuller Four on the charts says his brother, Randall.

R. FULLER: With all of the stuff going on around and the hippies and all the problems going on, I told my brother, I said, we need to cut "I Fought The Law," it'll be a hit record.


BOBBY FULLER FOUR: (Singing) I needed money 'cause I had none. I fought the law and the law won. I fought the law and the law won.

COHEN: This 1964 demo of "I Fought The Law" caught the ear of Bob Keane at Del-Fi Records. He signed the Bobby Fuller Four, had them re-record a more polished version that went to number 10 in 1966. Keane started booking them at lounges across the country, but, Randall Fuller says, Bobby had different ideas.

R. FULLER: He wanted to play for teenagers. That's all he wanted to play for. He didn't want to play clubs, like night clubs, like I did. And I don't blame him. It's a hard life.

COHEN: By the summer of 1966, says writer Miriam Linna, things began to fall apart.

LINNA: And it was pretty obvious that Bobby wanted to go on his own, probably take Randall with him.

COHEN: So Bobby Fuller scheduled a meeting. The night before that meeting, The Rising Star received a mysterious phone call at the apartment he shared with his mother and brother.

R. FULLER: My mother said that some people from New York called, and it really upset Bobby. Then he left to go somewhere that she didn't know.

COHEN: Bobby Fuller never came home. The next day, he was found in the front seat of the family Oldsmobile.

LINNA: And had apparently been in there for quite some time.

COHEN: Writer Miriam Linna says his body had been doused in gasoline and some who saw it say it looked like he had been beaten. Nevertheless, the police initially considered it a suicide before eventually ruling his death accidental. It was too startling a story not to spur rumors, and, Linna says, there were plenty - Fuller was killed by the mafia, the Manson family.

LINNA: Was Bobby dating Nancy Sinatra and Frank didn't like that? Could that be it? I seriously doubt it.

COHEN: Many believe the police should have done more.

JOE DOMANICK: In 1966 the LAPD was a department in a bit of a turmoil.

COHEN: That's Joe Domanick, author of "To Protect And To Serve: The LAPD's Century Of War In The City Of Dreams." For years, Domanick explains, the department was dominated by one man - Bill Parker. Just two days before Bobby Fuller died, Chief Parker met with his own twist of fate.

DOMANICK: He was making a speech. Made the speech, sat down and fell dead on the desk in front of him.

COHEN: Domanick says the LAPD was so wrapped up in the chief's funeral and finding his replacement, the department had little time to focus on anything else. Bobby Fuller's death remains a mystery. His brother, Randall, says he would do anything to get some sort of closure.

R. FULLER: It's just always eating at you. If you just knew, you know, if you just knew what happened, you could get over it. But, you know, it's just always there.


BOBBY FULLER FOUR: (Singing) Since you said farewell that day the shadows fell to stay. From this world I try to part just to ease my aching heart.

COHEN: For NPR News, I'm Alex Cohen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alex Cohen
Alex Cohen is the reporter for NPR's fastest-growing daily news program, Day to Day where she has covered everything from homicides in New Orleans to the controversies swirling around the frosty dessert known as Pinkberry.