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Oracle of Del-Fi

Steve Rhodes’ piece on Joe Pantoliano reminds me that Joe played Bob Keane in the film La Bamba, which I loved though Bob didn’t. Here’s a profile of Bob.

An archetypal Southern California figure, Bob Keane’s fascinating career in
music extends over 60 years from the ’30s to the present. From his days as a
child prodigy jazz clarinetist to his ownership of Del-Fi Records (and subsidiaries
Donna, Mustang, Bronco and Edsel) in the ’50s and ’60s (and its resurrection in
the ’90s) Keane has played, produced or released great music from his own big
band jazz to Sam Cooke, Ritchie Valens, and the Bobby Fuller Four.

In addition, Keane’s famous “open door” policy at Del-Fi helped fuel the SoCal
surf music boom in the early-60s, and helped inaugurate the careers of such
future notables as Frank Zappa, David Gates (Bread), Leon Russell, Arthur Lee (Love), Glen Campbell, the Versatiles (The 5th Dimension) and Barry White.

Bob Keane was born Robert Kuhn in Manhattan Beach, CA on January 5, 1922
to a family that built homes along the coast from Palos Verdes to El Segundo.
Keane began playing clarinet at age 7, and continued on the instrument when
the family moved to Mexico City for three years (his father was an engineer who
was contracted to help build the Pan-American Highway).

Back in L.A., Keane performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at
age 14. At 16, Keane started his own dance band; within the year Keane’s band
was hired as the opening act for a remote radio broadcast, and when the
headliner canceled at the last minute, Keane’s band performed live over KFWB.
The next day an MCA talent agent called Keane and offered to promote him as
“The World’s Youngest Band Leader,” an offer he accepted.

Seeking the best, Keane often sneaked down to the Central District to play with black musicians like Nat “King” Cole and members of Duke Ellington’s band. Keane was offered a music scholarship to USC, but then World War ll interrupted many a plan and Keane enlisted in the Air Force as an aviation cadet.

After the war Keane reformed his band and became very popular up and down
the West Coast. Keane recorded for Gene Norman’s GNP label, and even
fronted Artie Shaw’s band when the clarinet giant took a year off.

By the ’50s Keane was walking where the big shoes tread: hosting a TV variety show in L.A., conducting his 12-piece orchestra on NBC’s Hank McCune Show, even dating a young Lana Turner. Keane took up the pseudonym “Keene” (changed to “Keane” around 1970) when the announcer on the McCune show mispronounced “Kuhn” as “Coon” – an epithet not to be hurled lightly in 1951. But by the mid-50s rock ‘n’ roll and R&B were replacing big band in the hearts of the young and Keane could smell a new wind blowing.

In early-57, a fan of Keane’s named John Siamas (who was a member of a
wealthy family of Greek aircraft parts manufacturers) approached Keane about
starting a record company to record pop versions of Greek standards. Keane
sensed that this concept was not necessarily the path to fortune and said so; at
which point Siamas asked Keane if he knew any black musicians. He did, and
thus began Keen Records.

The deal was that Keane would find and record talent, Siamas would put up the
money, and they would split the profits evenly. Bumps Blackwell had lost Little Richard to gospel and was now trying to return the favor by leading gospel singer Sam Cooke into pop. Specialty Records owner Art Rupe strongly disapproved of the move and released Cooke from his contract. Blackwell took Cooke to Keen, and in the summer of ’57 they released “You Send Me.”

“You Send Me” was a smash, but all Keane got out of the deal was the recording
equipment Siamas had purchased for him. Keane sued but never got his half of
the royalties because the agreement was oral. With the equipment from Keen
and $2,500 from another investor, Keane started Del-Fi – named after the Greek
oracle of inspiration, because as his wife (a former comedienne) remarked – “You just got fucked by Greeks.”

Del-Fi found success immediately with a recording of “Caravan” by pianist Henri
Rose, which dominated the L.A. airwaves through the Christmas season. Warner
Brothers was just starting a record division and they purchased Rose’s contract
(and an album to be recorded by Keane) for $8,000; with which Keane bought
out his partner and set sail alone.

Keane was having his new business cards made up when the salesman told him
about a 15-year-old kid from Pacoima (known as the “Little Richard of the San
Fernando Valley”) named Ritchie Valenzuela. Keane went out to Pacoima that
Saturday and watched the kid do a 15-minute set before a matinee at a movie
theater.

“He was up there with a little amplifier just banging away when I walked in and everyone was jumping up and down. He had complete control of the audience. Ritchie was like a young bull: humble yet very powerful. That’s what I saw when I went in the movie theater,” Keane says.

And not what he saw when he watched Lou Diamond Phillips portray Valens in
La Bamba (1987). “He played Ritchie like a whiney mama’s boy in that movie, which was about 25% accurate. But what the hell, it brought Ritchie back into the public’s mind.”

Keane and Valens (shortened at Keane’s request) made a great team. Valens was full of energy, charisma and ideas; the Spanish-speaking, veteran musician Keane was able to relate to Valens personally, culturally and to shape his ideas into songs. Keane used his growing knowledge of the studio (the recording equipment was in his Silverlake home) to create “Donna” in his basement.

Keane’s great innovation was to match the voice recording with a copy of itself milliseconds apart, thereby spreading and thickening the vocal sound across the listener’s ears – the technique of “doubling” used to this day.

Valens’ rockers were recorded at Hollywood’s Gold Star studios with professional jazz and R&B musicians; the combination of Ritchie’s raw vocals, wild reverbed guitar and the musician’s solid grooves made classics out of “Come On Let’s Go” and “La Bamba,” and inspired generations of Mexican-Americans (from Chan Romero to Los Lobos) to take up arms and rock out in a Latino mode.

Ritchie’s death (with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper) in a plane crash in early-59 devastated Keane personally and nearly killed the label; but he soldiered on, and his open door policy generated over 500 singles of every stripe including 17 Top 50 national hits by the likes of Chan Romero (the classic “Hippy, Hippy Shake”), Ron Holden (“Love You So”), Little Caesar and the Romans (“Those Oldies But Goodies”), Bobby Curtola (“Fortune Teller”) and teen actor Johnny Crawford (“Cindy’s Birthday,” “Rumors”).

Says Keane, “If I heard something I liked I’d either buy it from them if they’d already cut it, or I’d go into the studio and redo it or change it around. That’s how I picked up David Gates and Leon Russell: they had just arrived from Oklahoma.

“Barry White walked in one day and Frank Zappa another with his doo wop stuff. That’s how we did it. If I liked it, I put it out.”

But it was the surf and hot rod instrumentals by the likes of the Centurians (“Bullwinkle Part ll”), the Lively Ones (“Surf Rider”), the Sentinels, the Impacts, Bruce Johnston’s (later of the Beach Boys) Surfing Band, and the Darts (with lead guitarist Glen Campbell) that established Del-Fi as the indigenous L.A. label.

The surf tunes, with their throbbing rhythm and super-charged picked electric guitar or sax leads, are party music galore, and a pure recapitulation of the feelings generated by contact with the wet, the waves and the wild of the sea. Hence, their timelessness.

Del-Fi had its own studio as part of its offices near Hollywood and Vine, and was
technically ahead of its time from Keane’s Valens innovations to “the first transistorized eight-track 300 Ampex deck in the city” in the mid-60s. That’s where the Bobby Fuller Four, Keane’s last great discovery, recorded.

Fuller was a Buddy Holly fanatic from El Paso who came to Del-Fi in ’63 with some good material but no single that Keane could hear. Fuller came back over a year later with “Keep On Dancing,” which Keane helped transform into “Let Her Dance” (with Keane himself tapping his way into percussive history on a coke bottle) wherein they married the “La Bamba” beat to Fuller’s (Hollyesque) West Texas tenor drawl and somehow made the hybrid work.

Fuller’s next hit was one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest recordings, “I Fought the Law.”
“Law” announces its arrival with a classic drum breakdown, followed by monumental hand claps and the best-recorded rhythm guitar (played by Fuller) of the ’60s. Fuller’s clean, clear vocals find the perfect balance between defiance and resignation on (Holly guitarist) Sonny Curtis’ story of desperate action, retribution and lost love.

Unfortunately, the real world was again crueler than fiction; Fuller was found dead from asphyxiation, covered in gasoline and blood in his mother’s car in July of ’66. The case is unsolved.

This final tragedy was too much, and combined with the change from a singles-based industry to a (much more expensive) album-based industry, drove Keane out of the business. He got divorced, raised three sons (two of whom performed as the Keane Brothers, and at 12 and 13 had their own national TV show in the summer of ’77) and golfed.

La Bamba renewed interest in Valens, and Pulp Fiction (with “Bullwinkle” and “Surf Rider”) in ’94 solidified interest in Del-Fi’s surf classics; now Keane has reissued most of his material on a series of excellent CD’s and Del-Fi is a sporty presence on the Internet. Not bad for an old clarinetist.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014.Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: [email protected], Facebook.com/amhaunted, Pinterest America's Most Haunted.Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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