There's nothing like death to give a rising rock and roll star instant status as a legend. Ritchie Valens, who died in the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, is considered such even though he had only two Top 40 hits. The legacies of Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and numerous other stars all, to a certain extent, depend on the simple fact that they met their maker with potential to spare. Tragedy even glorifies the talentless. After all, few people remember Glen Matlock, the original bassist of the Sex Pistols and composer of much of their repertoire. Meanwhile, his sorry replacement, Sid Vicious, who died of a heroin overdose surrounded by accusations that he killed his girlfriend, is deified as a prince of the punk movement.

So it makes perfect sense that when Bobby Fuller's badly beaten, gasoline-soaked body was found inside his mother's car on a hot July afternoon in 1966, the 23-year-old Baytown native was assured of a place in rock history. The death had all the makings of a true-crime thriller. Both Fuller and the vehicle in which he was found had been missing for 14 hours before both were discovered in a vacant lot next to his apartment building. The singer -- best known for his mid-'60s hit "I Fought the Law" -- had been dead for at least three hours when he was discovered, yet two of the artist's friends claimed the car wasn't even in the lot shortly before 5 p.m., when the body was found. Weird, to say the least.

For their part, members of the Los Angeles Police Department demonstrated their usual mastery of forensics, failing to dust the car for fingerprints and discarding an empty gasoline can found in the back seat. Subsequently, the LAPD ruled Fuller's death a suicide, stating, "there was no evidence of foul play" despite the bruises on the singer's face, chest and shoulders (eyewitnesses' reports also said his finger was broken). The L.A. County coroner's office proved no more competent, determining the cause of death as "asphyxia due to inhalation of gasoline." Really now, how does one accidentally douse himself with gasoline? Then again, this was Los Angeles.

Even more details surfaced after Unsolved Mysteries aired a segment on the case in 1996. But what actually happened still remains a matter of conjecture; there are as many theories about Fuller's demise as there are about Marilyn Monroe's. Some say he was snuffed out by a mob-connected club owner, jealous because Fuller had been hanging around the guy's girlfriend. Others suggest that the death was the work of a devious financial backer who held an insurance policy on Fuller's life. Or, just maybe, an envious member of the Bobby Fuller Four -- which was about to disband when its leader was found dead -- was somehow involved. One misguided soul even called Unsolved Mysteries claiming Elvis Presley did it.

But with all the fuss about Fuller's death, little energy has been expended on evaluating his proper place in rock history. Hendrix's place in music history was clear when he died, as was that of Morrison, Joplin and even infamous Who drummer Keith Moon. But Fuller had yet to carve out a unique musical niche when he passed away. He had a mere two Top 40 hits to his credit, and like Valens, he appeared to be on the rise before tragedy struck. So the questions remain. Was he an important figure whose death overshadowed his contributions? Was he an innovator? Or was he merely a run-of the-mill sum of his influences who happened to meet with a tragic fate?

The Del-Fi label's new three-CD set Never to Be Forgotten: The Mustang Years, tries to address those questions. But in the process, it raises as many questions as it answers. Forgotten assembles everything the Bobby Fuller Four recorded for the Mustang imprint from 1964 through 1966. It features more than 40 studio cuts (including singles, album cuts, stereo versions, alternate takes and unreleased tracks) spread over two discs. The third CD, Celebrity Night at PJ's, a 1965 live release previously available only on import, is little more than a quaint souvenir. As on the label's previous Fuller box set, Shakedown! The Texas Tapes Revisited, Del-Fi does a superior job with the packaging and liner notes.

More than anything, Never to Be Forgotten demonstrates that Fuller was at an artistic crossroads when he died. As an interpretive force, he was surprisingly versatile, able to tackle everything from Buddy Holly and the Beatles to pre-hippie folk and Beach Boys-style surf music. But while this wonderful singer and solid guitarist was certainly adept at drawing from his influences, he had yet to find his own musical vision. In most respects, Fuller was still in his creative infancy, which makes his death all the more tragic. His best songs -- the classic "I Fought the Law," in particular -- hint at his full-blown star potential.

A worthy gauge of Fuller's potential is the collection's title track, "Never to Be Forgotten," a great single that failed to chart in America. Announcing itself with a rousing, surf-cowboy guitar riff and a propulsive 4/4 beat, the song highlights Fuller's lilting vocals, the band's stunning sense of dynamics and an ambitious, if bottom-heavy, Phil Spectorish production. The tune's euphoric chorus is proof that Fuller was something special, even if he had a lot to learn.

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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