Bob Keane, the colorful Hawaiian shirt-wearing record man whose independent label Del-Fi Records produced hits by Latino rock star Ritchie Valens and Texas-bred singer-guitarist Bobby Fuller, died Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 87.
Keane had been living in a home for the elderly for the past year and died of natural causes, according to former Del-Fi staffer Bryan Thomas.
Born Robert Kuhn, he was a clarinet student as a youth, and decided to pursue a music career after seeing Benny Goodman in concert.
After service during WWII, he played with such top swing names as Artie Shaw and Woody Herman, and gigged with West Coast luminaries like Shelly Manne, Red Norvo and Nelson Riddle.
After changing his last name to Keene and finally Keane during the ’50s, he hosted his own TV show on CBS’ L.A. outlet KNXT and played the lounges in Las Vegas.
In 1957, Keane founded an independent label, Keen, with Greek businessman John Siamas. Former Specialty Records A&R man Bumps Blackwell brought the new imprint a former gospel singer making his first move as a pop performer.
However, a falling-out with his partner saw Keane exiting the label just as Keen released its first 45: “You Send Me” by Sam Cooke.
In 1958, Keane established Del-Fi Records (after the Oracle of Delphi, in a possible slap at his former partner). He quickly hit pay dirt with a Pacoima teen named Richard Valenzuela, whom he rechristened Ritchie Valens.
Del-Fi recorded prolifically into the ’60s, scoring minor hits by rocker Chan Romero (“Hippy Hippy Shake”), R&B group Little Caesar and the Romans (“Those Oldies but Goodies Remind Me of You”), surf acts Dick Dale and the Del-Tones and the Lively Ones (whose “Surf Rider” was used in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”), teen idol-TV star Johnny Crawford and the young Frank Zappa.
Keane folded Del-Fi in 1967. In the late ’70s, he went on to host a network musical variety show, which featured his young sons.
He reactivated Del-Fi in the 1990s, overseeing a young staff that lovingly reissued the label’s old masters. Keane is survived by three sons and a daughter.