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Unforgettable?

The new Bobby Fuller retrospective salutes a questionable legacy

While "Never to Be Forgotten" represents Fuller at his flashiest, "I Fought the Law," his biggest hit, more effectively encompasses the pure adrenaline rush of his best Mustang recordings. A requisite anthem for oldies stations everywhere and covered most passionately by the Clash in the late '70s, the song -- with its timeless "I fought the law, and the law won" refrain -- must have seemed a bit out of place when it cracked the Top 10 in early 1966. Its rockabilly stylings and rubbery vocals owed a tremendous debt to Buddy Holly, who was easily Fuller's most prominent influence. Still, the singer denied he was trying to mimic Holly, suggesting the similarity of their styles was a west Texas thing. (Fuller grew up in El Paso.)

Regardless, Forgotten's "Fool of Love," "A New Shade of Blue," "You're in Love" and "She's My Girl" attest to Fuller's talents as an impeccable Holly stylist. Yet he must have realized that such diehard revisionism was hopelessly out of date in a year that saw the release of such experimental rock masterstrokes as Revolver and Pet Sounds. Hanging in the air was the question: Where to next? His instrumentals may have held the clue.

While cutting his teeth in El Paso, Fuller had become an accomplished surf guitarist, and his playing packed considerable power, hooks and personality. It was only natural that he would record surf tunes when the Fuller Four moved to California. Indeed, some of the Mustang instrumentals are indispensable, most notably Forgotten's "The Lonely Dragster," with its blistering guitar fills.

But again, Fuller was a bit late for the bandwagon. Most of his surf-oriented material was recorded in 1965, well after the Beach Boys had hit it big and moved on to a more expansive sound. Although still popular in California, surf was nearly played out nationally. Jan and Dean's last Top 20 hit, for instance, was released in 1964.

As for the goings-on across the Atlantic about that time, Fuller publicly downplayed the importance of the British Invasion, which is odd considering many of his songs have pre-Rubber Soul Beatles written all over them. Obviously, some of that can be attributed to the common debt to Buddy Holly he and the Fab Four shared. But it was more than that. Forgotten's dance-floor romp, "Little Annie Lou," owes as much to Lennon and McCartney as it does to Little Richard, and "Another Sad and Lonely Night," "Take My Word" and the previously unreleased "Cheat and Lie" also have a blatant early-Invasion feel.

Apparently unsure where he should go next, Fuller also dabbled in other musical trends of the mid-'60s. "My True Love" borrows somewhat superficially from the Greenwich Village folk movement. "Don't Ever Let Me Know" suggests the cosmic country rock of the Byrds. In the process of finding himself, Fuller begrudgingly followed the lead of Del-Fi owner Bob Keane, recording a few Motown-oriented singles. With production help from Barry White, "The Magic Touch" and the previously unreleased "I'm a Lucky Guy" place Fuller in the role of soul singer with mixed results. Horribly derivative, the former is a shameless knockoff of Martha and the Vandellas' "Nowhere to Run"; the latter owes more than a little to Smoky Robinson's "Tears of a Clown." By all reports, Fuller was not happy with his R&B makeover. For further proof, simply listen to Forgotten's "Keep a Knockin' " -- possibly the whitest version of Little Richard's original ever recorded.

Prior to his death, it was no secret that Fuller was unhappy with his career's floundering. He wasn't a soul crooner. He was a frontman for a rock quartet -- one that, alas, was coming unraveled: Evidently, the quartet was on the verge of breaking up when Fuller was found dead. It was even rumored that the singer was planning to go solo with Phil Spector at the production helm.

Naturally, such tantalizing tidbits only heighten the Fuller myth. And because a murder mystery is more tangible than a musical one, it's likely Fuller's untimely death will always overshadow his music -- which is a shame. He may not have been a real innovator, but he did make some damn fine music, dropping the occasional hint that he might be headed somewhere extraordinary. Never to Be Forgotten is the sound of a talented musician searching for his voice. And though Fuller never quite found it, he left behind some wonderful snapshots of his journey.

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