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The strange death of Bobby Fuller

We’ve all heard the song ‘I Fought the Law’ by The Clash, but many people do not know that it wasn’t an original song from the punks. It was originally written way back in 1958 by Sonny Curtis, and recorded in 1959 after he joined The Crickets on guitar to replace the late Buddy Holly. However, it was not The Crickets who popularised the song. Instead, it was The Bobby Fuller Four, some seven years later in 1966.

A popular rock ‘n’ roll band, the group formed in El Paso, Texas in 1962. They had a string of hits in the middle of the decade, which included ‘Let Her Dance’ and ‘Love’s Made a Fool of You’. The bands biggest hit was undoubtedly their rendition of ‘I Fought the Law’, and it peaked at number nine on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the US.

Although it was a huge hit, and The Bobby Fuller Four helped the song to establish itself as one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time, the Bobby Fuller version was overshadowed by a grisly event that occurred just six months after its release. On July 18, 1966, 23-year-old Bobby Fuller was found dead in a parked car outside of his Hollywood apartment.

It was the LA deputy medical examiner, Jerry Nelson, who performed the autopsy. According to the esteemed journalist, Dean Kuipers, Nelson’s report states that: “Bobby’s face, chest, and side were covered in ‘petechial haemorrhages,’ probably caused by gasoline vapours and the summer heat. He found no bruises, no broken bones, no cuts. No evidence of beating.” 

However, Kuipers explained that both the boxes for “accident” and “suicide” were checked on the report, but next to both boxes, someone had scribbled question marks. Given the total mystery surrounding Fuller’s death, and society’s innate penchant for wanting there to be something more nefarious at play, some commentators believe Fuller was murdered, aided by the question marks written next to Nelson’s findings. 

These rumours were also aided by a couple of people stoking the fires of conspiracy, despite and apparent lack of tangible evidence. The first of these was Erik Greene, a relative of the late soul icon, Sam Cooke, who also died in mysterious circumstances in 1964. 

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Greene argued that: “Both had at one time been artists signed to record labels owned by Bob Keane. Both died in absurd manners whose evidence was largely ignored. (Fuller’s death was ruled a suicide even though his autopsy revealed gasoline was poured down his throat after he died). The last place both were seen alive was PJ’s—the Los Angeles nightclub owned by reputed mobsters.” 

Greene continued: “It was rumoured Keane had a $1 million insurance policy on Fuller at the time of his death, though I haven’t found evidence of a similar policy on Sam. It is unclear if this incident had a direct correlation with Sam’s homicide, but it’s interesting enough to note just the same.”

Another piece of speculation came from Jim Reese, the virtuoso guitarist in The Bobby Fuller Four. Retrospectively, he once argued that perhaps it was The Manson Family who played a role in Fuller’s death. This has been widely discredited as there is no real evidence for it, and Charles Manson was incarcerated from 1961 to 1967.

As with any legend that dies in mysterious circumstances, there abounds plenty of whispers of conspiracy relating to Fuller’s passing on the internet. Given just how random Fuller’s death was, it does seem rather inconspicuous even with the findings of Nelson’s autopsy report. It makes us wonder if those pesky question marks weren’t there, would the rumours still persist?

However, the rumours that account for his death are still pretty untenable, regardless of the intrigue stirred by Pynchon-esque accounts of insurance policies and hippie cults. Like with any tragic and puzzling death, there are many questions that will remain unanswered, and for as long as they are, the rumours will live on.  

Listen to The Bobby Fuller Four’s ‘I Fought the Law’ below.