Ritchie Valens (left) and Bob Keane, 1958

Legacy and Legend

By David McGee

Bob Keane
January 5, 1922-November 28, 2009

Some people would be satisfied going to their grave knowing they had launched Sam Cooke’s secular recording career on their own label. That wasn’t enough for Bob Keane, though. When he broke with his partner in Keen Records, Bob Siamas, in 1957, following a contract dispute on the heels of the unexpected chart topping success of Cooke’s “You Send Me,” what he lacked in money—which was basically nothing—he more than made up for in ambition. On his own he launched the Del-Fi label (named after Delphi, the Greek god of music and inspiration) in ’57, closed it down in 1967 and reactivatedit in 1994 after songs by two of early ‘60s surf bands, the Lively Ones and The Centurions, were used in the film Pulp Fiction. Keane then reissued a wealth of compelling material from its vaults, and signed some new acts, but could not duplicate Del-Fi's earlier success. In 2003 he sold the Del-Fi catalogue to the Warner Music Group and effectively retired from the business.  Sam Cooke turned out to be only a minor part of his legacy: during the Del-Fi years Keane wrote his name large in the rock ‘n’ roll history books by discovering and producing the first recordings of Ritchie Valens, Dick Dale and the Bobby Fuller Four (who were signed to Del-Fi subsidiary Mustang Records). An odd trail of tragedy followed Keane’s major finds: Valens, the pioneering Mexican-Indian-American rocker, who is still revered by the Latin community, especially in and around his home turf of Pacoima, CA, figured in the first major rock ‘n’ roll tragedy when he, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, died in plane crash outside Clear Lake, Iowa, in 1959; Cooke was shot to death at a seedy Los Angeles motel in 1963; in 1965, shortly after having his biggest hit with “I Fought the Law,” Fuller was found dead in his automobile, covered with gasoline and bearing multiple wounds on his body in what was ruled “accidental asphyxiation,” although rumors abound that he was murdered, for reasons unspecified.

Sam Cooke sings ‘You Send Me’ on American Bandstand

Born Robert Kuhn in Manhattan Beach, CA, in 1922, Bob Keane entered the music business as a big band clarinet player in the Benny Goodman-Artie Shaw mold. Following his first show fronting a band, at Glendale Junior College in 1939 when he was 17, Keane was signed to MCA by an agent who had heard the concert on radio. Fearing Keane would be drafted, MCA dropped him in 1941; instead, Keane enlisted in the Army Air Force. After being retired from active service due to a lung infection, Keane resumed playing clarinet in various bands, conducting a band on a popular local radio show, and making the rounds of Los Angeles clubs. (He changed his name from Kuhn to Keen and later to Keane at the behest of a radio producer who suggested the name change so that an announcer would stop pronouncing his surname as “Coon.”) During this time he met Siamas, who enlisted him as a partner and A&R man in a new label project, which they dubbed Keen Records. Right off the bat Siamas and Keane were approached by Bumps Blackwell, a hitmaking machine of a songwriter-producer who had put Art Rupe’s Specialty Records on the map big time with Little Richard, foremost among others. Having fallen out with Rupe, Blackwell was looking for a package deal for himself and Sam Cooke, who had abruptly left the label (and the Soul Stirrers gospel group) after his own falling out with Rupe over the royalty rate for his forthcoming solo career and various issues relating to his recording sessions (Cooke was adamant in refusing Rupe’s request to drop the white pop backup singers he had used on his secular demos). Blackwell presented an acetate culled from some of Cooke’s own demo sessions and from Blackwell-produced sessions in New Orleans. Four songs were up for grabs: two Cooke compositions, “You Send Me” and “You Were Made For Me”; an R&B version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime”; and “Things You Do To Me,” written by Blackwell’s protégé, Sonny Bono. Through another musician, a saxophonist named Art Foxall, word reached Keane that Blackwell was label shopping with Cooke. In Peter Guralnick’s acclaimed biography of Cooke, Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, Keane recalled how his and Blackwell’s paths crossed: “Foxall was a pretty sharp guy, he knew what was going on, and he asked me if I was going to have an r&b division. I said, ‘Yeah, what else is there?’ ‘Cause I had never been in the record business before. I didn’t know what was going to sell. I didn’t even know how to make a record, for Christ’s sake. So he gave me a little story about Sam: [how] he got kicked off the label. He told me about Sam’s manager, too, and he put me in touch with Bumps, and the next thing I know, Bumps and J.W. Alexander are sitting up in my little house at the top of the hill on Dillon Street. I remember saying to my wife, Elsa, ‘I love that ‘Summertime’—we were sitting on the couch, and we made some kind of handshake deal.”

Ritchie Valens, ‘Donna,’ live at Pacoima Jr. High

We know what happened to Cooke, but Keane’s career proceeded in a fruitful, behind-the-scenes manner. He bailed on Keen Records after he found out the hard way that he didn’t have the percentage of the company he thought was part of his (handshake) agreement with Siamas. Taking up his wife on her suggestion that he open his own label, he launched Del-Fi in 1957 with a single by one Henri Rose, “Caravan,” that sold well enough to prompt Warner Bros. Records to offer Keane $8000 for the Rose single. In May 1958 a chance trip to a music show at a theater in Pacoima, CA, introduced him to a teenage Mexican-Indian-American performer who impressed him with his energy, conviction and crowd appeal. He invited the artist, Richard Valenzuela, to audition for Del-Fi in the Keane residence's basement studio. Impressed, especially with Valenzuela’s rocking “Come On Let’s Go” tune, Keane booked Gold Star Studios in July 1958, and soon released Valenzuela’s first single under the new stage name he had crafted for the artist, Ritchie Valens. It was a smash, and was followed by a double-sided smash, “Donna” b/w “La Bamba,” both certified rock ‘n’ roll classics, part of the basic language and literature of the new music’s first generation.

The Bobby Fuller Four, ‘I Fought the Law,’ #9, 1966; issued on Bob Keane’s Mustang label. Play it loud.

Following Valens’s tragic death in the infamous February 1959 plane crash with Holly and J.P. Richardson, Keane hardly closed up shop. One of his first post-Valens signings was a California artist so charismatic Keane thought he had a chance to be the next Elvis Presley; instead of becoming the new King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, though, Dick Dale became King of the Surf Guitar, after leaving Del-Fi, retooling his image and founding his own Deltone label. Johnny Crawford, the young, dark and handsome co-star of The Rifleman TV show, was signed by Keane and emitted a trio of Top 40 hits, sensitive paeans to teen love in all its manifestations (“Cindy’s Birthday,” “Your Nose Is Gonna Grow,” “Debbie”) with lush string arrangements and assured, warm vocals on Crawford’s part. Frank Zappa was, briefly, a Del-Fi artist; so was Chan Romero, whose “Hippy Hippy Shake” became a bonafide hit—for England’s Swingin’ Blue Jeans in the early stages of the 1964 British Invasion; a pre-Motown Brenda Holloway first tested the commercial waters as a Del-Fi artist. If he didn’t see what he really had in Dick Dale, Keane regrouped quickly by signing top-notch surf bands the Surfaris, the Lively Ones and the Centurions. By 1967 the hits had dried up and Keane closed Del-Fi’s door for good three years later; but he went out in style with his last hit, 1964’s enduring monster, “I Fought the Law,” by the ill-fated Bobby Fuller Four, who were signed to the Del-Fi Mustang subsidiary; Keane also had an R&B subsidiary, Bronco, whose in-house producer/A&R chief/multi-instrumentalist was a physically imposing fellow named Barry White. Spurred by renewed interest in Ritchie Valens’ work after the success of the 1987 biopic, La Bamba, Keane went into his vaults and began reissuing, through Rhino, the artist’s original recordings (including a box set containing two studio albums and—a true rock 'n' roll rarity in the '50s—a poorly recorded but fascinating live album capturing a Valens performance at Pacoima Jr. High), as well as Ritchie’s own home demos, alternate takes, and some previously unissued sides that showed Valens headed in intriguing directions with his music. For all his achievements as a record man, Bob Keane will forever be linked primariy to Ritchie Valens, whom he not only discovered and produced, but for whom he also served as manager and booking agent.

In 1992 Keane issued one of the most interesting of all posthumous Valens albums. The Ritchie Valens Story, which, in addition to the most familiar and most rare Valens sides, included expository narration by Keane himself that provides valuable context for the career arc the music suggests. For a column I wrote for Pro Sound News, I spoke to Keane shortly after the release of The Ritchie Valens Story. Here’s the heart of that column, featuring an interview with the man Ritchie really did call “Bob-o,” as Lou Diamond Phillips, playing Ritchie, addressed the Keane character portrayed by Joe Pantoliano in La Bamba.


Ritchie Valens’s original demo recording of ‘We Belong Together,’ with vocal, guitar and drums, recorded in Bob Keane’s home studio.

Narrated by Keane, The Ritchie Valens Story collects a number of previously unreleased demo recordings made in Keane’s project studio along with several of Valens’s best-known songs (“La Bamba,” “Donna,” and others, which were recorded at Los Angeles’ fabled Gold Star studio. The ragged home demo of “Come On Let’s Go” indicates how far Valens traveled to get the final version of a song that has become a rock ‘n’ roll standard. We hear the beautiful “Donna” in its crude form, with a different melody, stilted, unrhymed lyrics, tentative vocal and a crude guitar break. It’s followed in the sequence by the final version, a masterpiece of teen longing with its haunting, winsome feel, piercing guitar fills and Valens’s ethereal, echoed voice—an instant classic of teen misery. Lesser-known gems, such as the demo version of “In a Turkish Town,” show Valens developing a feel for the straight-ahead pop love song. Track eight finds Valens working out the musical track of “La Bamba” with his crack studio band (an all-star group of players that included Earl Palmer on drums, Buddy Clark on bass and Carol Kaye on rhythm guitar), and before the music starts we hear Keane, in the control room, braying: “Look, Ritchie, it doesn’t sound anything in here like it does out there. So don’t worry about it. It’s got echo on it and everything. Take seven.” The truly obscure gem is “Big Baby Blues,” a slow, grinding blues number Valens cut after “Donna” and had released under the name Arvee Allens.

However much some may consider Keane’s pronouncements about Ritchie Valens’s music and his role in shaping it to be boastful, the demos on Story bear out his assertion that the inexperienced artist “didn’t have any idea what was going on.” Keane did recognize Valens’s prodigious gifts, though, and hung in through some trying times, as the studio banter on “La Bamba” indicates. Consider, for another example, the arduous task of literally piecing together “Come On Let’s Go.”

“When he came to me he was singing out of meter,” Keane recalled from his home in Los Angeles, where he’s administering the re-release of all his Del-Fi material on CD. “He didn’t care; he didn’t know the difference. So once we put the pressure on him to try to sing it in meter, he didn’t respond. We put him on the spot and confused him a little bit. That’s why we had so many takes. He could never quite get that. But we fixed it up by editing.”

Ah, yes, the editing—remember, there was no “fix it in the mix” in 1958. Keane: “I forget how many takes we had—30 or 40 takes. We had a whole bunch of splices, too. I still think that’s the best record he ever made.”

From the Ritchie Valens biopic, La Bamba, the recording session for ‘Come On, Let’s Go.’ Joe Pantoliano as Bob Keane, Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie, Esai Morales as Ritchie’s brother, Bob. ‘I still think that’s the best record he ever made,’ Keane said.

Keane’s studio, where all work with Valens began, was as simple as the basement room depicted in La Bamba: it had soundproofing on the walls and was equipped with an Ampex 601-2 tape player and Telefunken U87 microphones. Keane later set up a Del-Fi studio in three unused bank vaults in L.A., which he equipped with false walls and echo chambers. At the label’s closing in 1970, more than 800 singles had been released on Del-Fi, virtually all produced by Bob Keane.

The Ritchie Valens Story also gives Keane a chance to correct the record regarding several inaccuracies in La Bamba, but his interest is mostly in closing the gaps in the artist’s musical history. A few demos remain unissued, in the vault, but, he says, “they’re pretty much the same.” He has an idea for a  three-CD package that would close the book on Ritchie Valens by containing “everything he ever did.”

Keane said he’s secure about the historical merit of Story, and continues to receive confirmation of its worth almost daily in the form of fan mail. “I just got a letter from a woman in Alabama who has three kids, and they’d never heard ‘La Bamba’ before they saw a TV ad pitching the Best of album, which they bought. When they found out about the new one, they bought it and then went out and bought [Story]. She enjoyed the new album because it laid to rest a lot of questions she’d had. So I’m happy about that—it’s achieved the purpose we intended.”

Pay your respects at Bob Keane’s MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/bobkeane

Buy The Ritchie Valens Story at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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