Bob Keane: "Progenitor of Pop"
Recently, with the renewed interest in surf music, one of the first and most successful West Coast based independent labels from the '50s-'60s has been resurrected: Del-Fi. Bob Keane was, and is, the force behind Del-Fi. Along with breaking surf music, and discovering/recording the legendary Richie Valens and Bobby Fuller, Keane recorded and released numerous other recognizable names from pop music's early years. As Keane puts it: "I had a lot of guys start with me that did not do much at first, but went on to become successful." This article will focus on Keane's contributions to pop music.
Keane's experience with operating a label had an auspicious start. His first label, Keen Records, released the number one hit single "You Send Me" ('57), recorded by Sam Cooke. Cooke was originally signed to the Los Angeles based label, Specialty. However, with a myopic decision, Specialty released Cooke from the label because Cooke's manager, Bumps Blackwell, used white back-up singers on the recording of "You Send Me", which had never been done before with a black artist. Since Cooke was also the leader of a popular black act at the time known as the Soul Stirrers, Art Rupe, the owner of Specialty, thought "You Send Me" would alienate Cooke's audience. Rupe owed Blackwell some money and ending up giving Blackwell the Cooke masters (including "You Send Me") to make things even. Keane picked up the masters, released "You Send Me", and the rest is history. Because of litigation between Keane and his then partner, Keane decided to start a new label: Del-Fi.
One of Keane's first signings to Del-Fi was the Addrisi Bros (Dick & Don). Although they did not become household names at first, they later hit it big as successful songwriters (e.g., "Never My Love", recorded by the Association). "Cherrystone", released by Del-Fi, was a sizable hit for them in 1959 (BB #66). According to Keane, "in those days it was difficult to have a hit on a West Coast label because all of the hits were coming out of the East Coast. Nobody in the East would play the 'West Coast' sound. However, with the Addrisi Brothers, I was lucky enough to get them on American Bandstand." Back then Keane used independent promotion person Bob Krasnow to help him break his records. Krasnow later went on to fame and fortune as the manager/producer for Captain Beefheart, starting Blue Thumb Records and eventually heading Elektra Records. Years later, the Addrisi Brothers eventually did have other pop chart activity as performers ("We've Got To Get It On Again" [BB #25 - '72], "Slow Dancin' Don't Turn Me On" [BB #20 - '77]) and recorded for Warner Brothers, Columbia, Bell, Buddah and Scotti Bros. Don passed away in 1985.
Johnny Crawford was another early success for Keane. Johnny Crawford is probably best known as the Mark McCain character (Chuck Conner's son) on the TV show "The Rifleman" ('58-'63). Keane happened to know a person that lived next door to Crawford and that person suggested that Keane record Crawford. It was a gamble for Keane because "no one had ever recorded a little kid before doing rock & roll," but he rolled the dice. Although Crawford's first few records barely dented the charts, the song "Cindy's Birthday" went top 10 (#8 BB). Surmised Keane, that song was "right down the slot, exactly what the public wanted to hear." Crawford hit the top 40 three more times and managed to release some solid early '60s pop (e.g., "Living In The Past" from '64). In fact, Crawford's last single for Del-Fi, "Girl Next Door" was an early David Gate's song. Crawford later recorded unsuccessfully for Mike Curb's Sidewalk label, and now is the leader of a big band in Los Angeles.
Another of Keane's finds was David Gates, well before Gates became a familiar voice as the leader of Bread. Gates recorded four songs for Keane in the early '60s. One of those songs, "No One Really Loves A Clown" was also recorded by Crawford. The "Okie Surfer" and "You Had It Comin' To You" were other Gate's titles on Del-Fi. Gates put an album out in '94 on the Discovery label that did not revive his career.
Out of the many artists that entered Keane's life at that time was a young Frank Zappa. Even though in the early '60s Zappa's music was experimental, Keane "did not think he was taking a chance on releasing Zappa. If I liked it, I would put it out." In particular, Keane is fond of the Zappa song from that era, "How's Your Bird". Unlike most acts at that time, Keane would lease masters directly from Zappa, who had already recorded them.
One of the future Beach Boys, Bruce Johnston, was also a part of the Del-Fi family. Johnston worked as a songwriter and in an Artist & Repertoire (A&R) capacity for Keane. Keane released a surf album by Johnston's group during that period. Johnston also worked on an album by a soul artist on the Del-Fi subsidiary, Donna, by the name of Ron Holden who had just enjoyed the top 10 hit "Love You So" (#7 BB - '60). In the '70s, Johnston wrote the classic "I Write the Songs", a number one hit for Barry Manilow.
The famous R&B legend Barry White was also integral to Keane in the mid '60s. White did A&R for the Bronco label which Keane formed to put out R&B. White also produced some Keane acts. One noteworthy artist that White produced, Felice Taylor, had a big hit, "It May Be Winter Outside" (#42 BB - '67) on Keane's Mustang label. Interestingly, Keane says that White was also "involved with the last 2 Bobby Fuller songs recorded." White also worked with a talented group called the Versatiles. Keane put out one record by the Versatiles in 1966 on Bronco. Soon thereafter, they changed their name to the Fifth Dimension and signed to Johnny River's Soul City label, where they originated the California Soul sound, racking up massive hits in the process.
Keane has the distinction of introducing the Bobby Fuller Four to the public. The great pop nugget "Let Her Dance" was the first recording Keane released by them. Unfortunately, the song never became a hit. As Keane explains, Keane's then "partner cut a secret deal with Liberty Records to take over Bobby Fuller," without Keane's knowledge or approval. Liberty released "Let Her Dance" at the same time as Del-Fi without any legal right to do so. Keane sued Liberty, who eventually had to pull it off the market. "That's why the song was not a hit because it was confusing everybody." However, the follow-up, "I Fought The Law", hit top ten (#9 BB - '66). Sonny Curtis (from Buddy Holly's band the Crickets) wrote "I Fought the Law" for himself to record a few years before Bobby Fuller had a hit with it. Keane reminisces how the Bobby Fuller sound was created. Keane's offices were next to a bank at Vine and Selma in the heart of Hollywood (Casey Kasem later occupied that same office!). The bank allowed Keane to use the empty vaults as an echo chamber. Tragically, Fuller died mysteriously of asphyxiation is Los Angeles in 1966. The enigma of Fuller's suspicious death still persists. To that end, Keane is planning a motion picture on Fuller's life and is now in the process of obtaining financing and distribution.
Before his heyday, Glen Campbell was heavily involved with numerous Keane recordings in the early '60s. Not only did Keane release Campbell's surf band, the Darts, Keane also used him on a lot of sessions as a guitarist. According to Keane, "Campbell was a busy sideman in those days. He played guitar and arranged many of the Rick Nelson records from that period."
Keane shut down his operation in 1969.
Keane's next foray into music was a doomed record from the early '70s called "Fly Jonathan Fly", inspired by the popular book from that period, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Keane put a group together to record the song, consisting mainly of singer Randy Pierson, an unknown, who Keane had "picked up in the rain one night hitchhiking on the freeway." Jimmie Haskell arranged the song and it was recorded at Goldstar Studios in Hollywood. Keane sold the song to A&M who released the single. Unfortunately, on the single it read that the song was "inspired by the book, which was a big mistake because the producer of the film Jonathan Livingston Seagull claimed that we were infringing on his rights. A&M had to pull it off the market."
In the mid-'70s Keane oversaw the careers of his sons, the Keane Brothers. In '76, the Keane Brothers, who were only 11 and 12, released an album for 20th Century, which contained the minor hit "Sherry" (#84 BB). This success led to a short-lived TV show in 77. For various reasons, the Keane Brothers as a group never achieved the success they were capable of. According to Keane, although only kids, they were real musicians and probably "too professional to succeed. They did not want to be like Sean Cassidy. 20th Century made a mistake because they let everyone know how young they were and hence radio would not play them." David Foster co-wrote "Sherry". He was the producer on the first Keane Brothers record and it was the first production job he ever had" after leaving the band Skylark (who hit #9 BB with the song "Wildflower" in '73). The Keane Brothers also put out a record on ABC in the late '70s. MCA then bought ABC and was not interested in further recordings. The Keane Brothers released a final album around 1980 in Japan on Columbia. Today, the Keane Brothers are still involved in entertainment. One is a top drummer and filmmaker, the other produced some records for the Jackson family & co-wrote "Through the Fire", a big hit for Chaka Chan in 1985.
As Keane so aptly puts, "a good song is something that will last forever." The perennial sales of Keane's music from the past confirms this.Copyright 1996, Ben McLane
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