Bob Keane already used the best title for his book, and since he’s gone now, I have no qualms about using it here.
Before he was Bob Keane, he was Bob Keene, and before that Bob Kuhn; he played clarinet and fronted big bands, to the extent that big bands would permit themselves to be fronted by a kid like Kuhn.
Somewhere around 1957, Keene went to work for John Siamas at Keen Records. (Note the absence of a final E.) Their first signing was a gospel singer named Sam Cook. (Note the absence of a final E.) Cook had been doing gospel sides for Art Rupe at Specialty, and Rupe was apparently fine with Sam doing secular stuff, until he found out that Sam wasn’t trying to reach the same market as Specialty’s other R&B hitmaker, Little Richard. “You Send Me” and other hits by Sam Cooke made a lot of money for Siamas, not so much for Keene, and Keene decided he wanted to own his own label outright.
“Del-Fi” was indeed like the oracle, only in, um, hi-fi. Keene (not yet “Keane”) had been recording Mexican pachuco stuff around L.A., and out in the San Fernando Valley he happened upon a high-school kid named Richard Valenzuela who played a mean guitar. Signed to Del-Fi in 1958, the youngster was dubbed “Ritchie Valens,” and his first single, “Come On Let’s Go,” charted; the second, “Donna,” was a smash — as was the B-side, a reworking of the old Veracruz folk song “La Bamba.”
One more single was waxed — an instrumental called “Fast Freight,” listed on some labels as by “Arvee Allens,” before February made us all shiver. Keane continued to issue local L.A. stuff, generally with either surf or vocal-group (the word “doo-wop” was studiously avoided in some circles) acts; one of my favorite obscurities continues to hide out in Del-Fi’s archives.
In 1966, Keane’s Mustang label issued tracks by the Bobby Fuller Four, a passel of Texan expats who sounded like Buddy Holly brought up to date; their biggest single, in fact, was “I Fought the Law,” written by latter-day Cricket Sonny Curtis, and they followed it up with a cover of Holly’s “Love’s Made a Fool of You.” For reasons unknown, Bobby Fuller wound up dead; a year later, so did Del-Fi.
In the middle 1990s, Keane reactivated Del-Fi, and, to the delight of record-collector geeks, he started his new numbering sequence where the old one had left off. About the time he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, he sold the label to Warner Music Group. At this writing, Del-Fi.com has gone dark, perhaps in tribute to Bob, who died Friday at 87.