You cannot write a history of LA music without mentioning Bob Keane, who died at 87 this past weekend. Though he was a young prodigy clarinetist and bandleader in the pre-rock era, Keane was not destined to make his contribution as a performer–as a discoverer, nurturer, and marketer of talent, however, the mastermind behind Del-Fi Records and a plethora of subsidiary labels was one of the architects of the original West Coast Sound.
His LA Times obit headline, somewhat predictably, reads “Bob Keane dies at 87; Discovered Ritchie Valens.” That he did, but that was far from his only accomplishment. The son of east coast immigrants, the man born Robert Kuhn in Manhattan Beach, was a kind of Roger Corman of the music world, taking chances not only on the first bona-fide Mexican American rock star (“La Bamba,” “Come Go With Me,” “Donna”), but on Chan Romero (“The Hippy Hippy Shake”), surf greats the Lively Ones
and the Surfaris, early Frank Zappa, exotica's Eden Ahbez, Kim Fowley, a pre-Beach Boys Bruce Johnston, a young Barry White, and the incendiary, proto-punk Texan garage of the Bobby Fuller Four (“I Fought The Law”).
Keane ran Del-Fi from 1958 until 1967. The untimely deaths of Valens (famously lost in the same plane wreck that killed Buddy Holly on February 3rd, 1959, “the day the music died”) and Fuller (mysteriously found dead in 1966), his biggest stars, haunted Kene for years, but he eventually resurfaced as a genial mentor during the CD heyday of the 1990s. He supervised the reissues of his earlier masters and even signed new surf acts to a revamped Del-Fi. His liner notes were always characteristically sunny and his Tarantino-baiting compilation Pulp Surfin was a cult hit in the mid-1990s. (Always the old-school record man, Keane repackaged collections of obscure novelty and surf tracks with pictures of 1990s pinup Kari Wuhrer frugging in retro bikinis.)
A few years ago, Keane told his tales in an enormously entertaining autobiography called The Oracle of Del-Fi. It should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in Los Angeles showbiz from the 1930s to the 1990s, in the unique forms of racial integration that gave birth to the peculiar sound of our city, and in the evolution of that strange concept called “surf music.”
Here's to Bob Keane then, one of the last of the great Los Angeles mid-20th-century vinyl hustlers!