Friday, December 4, 2009

Bob Keane, Founder of Del-Fi Records, Passes On

Bob Keane, the man who helped start the careers of Sam Cooke and Frank Zappa, and discovered Ritchie Valens, passed at the age of 87 on November 27. He died of kidney failure caused by non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Bob Keane was born Robert Kuhn on January 5, 1922 in Manhattan Beach, California. He was only five years old when he took up the clarinet. By age 17 he was the head of his own big band. He was even signed by the talent agency MCA. It was in 1941 that he enlisted in the United States Army and served in the Air Force training pilots. Following the war he continued to play the clarinet, even playing with Artie Shaw's band. It was in 1950 when he served as the conductor for the radio show The Harry McCune Show that he changed his last name to "Keene." He later changed the spelling to "Keane."

It was in 1955 when Keane was playing clarinet around Los Angeles that he met businessman John Siamas. The two of them founded Keen Records. After hearing a demo by Sam Cooke, Keane signed the young singer to a three year contract with the label. Keen Records had its first hit with "You Send Me" performed by Sam Cooke, which actually the B-side of his first single (the A-Side was his rendition of "Summertime"). Sadly, Bob Keane only had a verbal contract with Siamas. He found himself pushed out of his own company.

At his wife's suggestion, Keane founded Del-Fi Records, a play on the word Delphi, the site of the famous oracle from Greek history. While Del-Fi produced a fair number hits, but hit gold when Keane saw Ritchie Valens performing at a Saturday matinee at a movie theatre in Los Angeles. He signed the young singer to a contract with Del-Fi. He had a minor hit with "Come On, Let's Go," then had the biggest it of his career with the single "Donna" back by the B-Side "La Bamba." "Donna" hit #2 on the Billboard charts, while "La Bamba" hit #22. Sadly, Valens' life would be cut short by the plane crash that also took the lives of Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper.

Del-Fi maintained an open door policy, whereby anyone with music could walk in and be heard by Bob Keane. Over the years Del-Fi released records by such artists as Johnny Crawford (Mark McClain on The Rifleman), Brenda Holloway, and Chan Romero (who had a hit with the original version of "Hippy Hippy Shake" in 1959). It was in 1963 that Frank Zappa walked in with a collection of doo-wop songs he had written. They were later released as the album Cucamonga. It was in 1964 that Keane signed The Bobby Fuller Four. The band had a huge hit with the song "I Fought the Law" in 1964. Unfortunately, in 1966 Bobby  Fuller was found dead in his car. It has always been a matter of debate whether his death was a suicide or murder. Following Fuller's death, Keane shut Del-Fi Records down.

Keane went on to teach accordion lessons and to sell home burglar alarms. He also managed the career of his two sons, who performed under the name The Keane Brothers. Del-Fi was briefly revived in the Nineties after the movies La Bamba and Pulp Fiction propelled the label back into the spotlight. In 2003 Keane sold the Del-Fi catalogue to the Warner Music Group.

Bob Keane certainly had an ear for talent. Over the years he discovered Sam Cooke, Ritchie Valens, Frank Zappa, and Bob Fuller. Del-Fi was one of the centres of surf music, featuring such acts as The Centurions, The Surfraris, and The Lively Ones. For a minor label it produced a number of hit artists. Not many men could boast discovering as much talent as Bob Keane did.

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