Bob Keane dies at 87; discovered Ritchie Valens

Bob Keane, right, is credited with discovering and nurturing young Latino musical sensation Ritchie Valens, left, whose life was cut short by a plane crash in 1959.
(Del-Fi Records)

Bob Keane, who founded the West Coast independent label Del-Fi Records in the 1950s and is best known for discovering and recording rock legend Ritchie Valens, has died. He was 87.

Keane, who survived non- Hodgkins lymphoma diagnosed when he was 80, died of renal failure Saturday in an assisted living home in Hollywood, said his son, Tom Keane.

“He was like the original independent record man in those days,” said Tom Keane, a songwriter and record producer. “He was the guy going out and finding talent and developing it and getting it out to the masses.”

A clarinet player who once led his own 18-piece orchestra, Keane briefly headed Keen Records in 1957 and released Sam Cooke’s No. 1 hit single “You Send Me” before launching Del-Fi Records.

In May 1958, Keane heard about Valens, a 17-year-old Mexican American singer and guitar player from Pacoima.

“I saw him at a little concert in a movie theater,” Keane recalled in a 2001 Times interview. “There he was, a Latino kid doing just a few riffs and a couple of songs. But I was very impressed by his stage demeanor. The girls were going crazy, screaming.”

Keane invited Valens, born Richard Valenzuela, to record demos at his home studio.

“We horsed around for a while and he started singing ‘Come On, Let’s Go,’ ” Keane told the Times in 1980. “All he had was this title -- he kept playing the same riff over and over. . . . I helped him put an ending and a beginning to it and added lyrics. Then we took it into Gold Star [Recording Studios] and recorded it.”

With his name shortened by Keane, Valens was on his way.

“Come On, Let’s Go” peaked at No. 42 on the Billboard chart and was followed by “Donna” at No. 2 and “La Bamba” at No. 22.

“I promoted the hell out of him,” Keane said. “The key in those days was to get the [radio] jocks. We took care of them, made friends with them. I took Ritchie out on hops for free. That way, the jocks could charge a head charge and made some dough, then they’d turn around and play our records.

“In August, I took Ritchie back East for an 11-city tour and got him on ‘American Bandstand.’ ”

In his autobiography “The Oracle of Del-Fi,” Keane wrote that Valens “needed my guidance, and I needed his unpolished musical talent to help us both learn and go forward. We needed each other to complete the circuit.”

Their working relationship, however, did not last long.

On Feb. 3, 1959, while on tour, Valens was killed in a plane crash in Iowa that also took the lives of Buddy Holly and J.P. " The Big Bopper” Richardson.

“I still miss him,” Keane told The Times in 1994. “He was like a son to me.”

Keane, who was played by Joe Pantoliano in “La Bamba,” the 1987 film biography of Valens, went on to record artists including Little Caesar and the Romans, Brenda Holloway, Johnny Crawford, Frank Zappa, Barry White, and surf bands including the Impacts, the Sentinels, Bruce Johnston’s Surfing Band, the Lively Ones and Dave Myers & the Surftones.

Keane also had success in the ‘60s with the Bobby Fuller Four, which recorded “I Fought the Law” and other songs for Keane’s Mustang Records.

That association ended with Fuller’s mysterious death in 1966.

“After that happened, I was kind of burned out,” Keane told The Times in 1994.

Keane folded his labels in 1970 and later worked with his young sons, Tom and John -- the Keane Brothers -- as they launched their careers as performers.

He revived Del-Fi in 1993 to issue new compilation albums by Valens and the Bobby Fuller Four.

He was born Robert Kuhn on Jan. 5, 1922, in Manhattan Beach -- he changed his last name to Keen before changing it to Keane -- and started playing the clarinet at age 5. At 14, he was a guest star with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

He was leading his first band locally at 17 when he was signed by MCA, which promoted him as “The World’s Youngest Bandleader.”

After serving in the Army Air Forces during World War II, he returned to Los Angeles and led his own orchestra. He later took over Artie Shaw’s band and had his own TV variety show on Channel 2 in Los Angeles in the early ‘50s.

In addition to his son Tom, Keane is survived by his wife, Dina; his other sons Bob and John; his daughter, Chanelle Keane; his brother, Walker Kuhn; and seven grandchildren. No memorial service will be held.