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Hi Del-Fi

New sounds from famed label

Before independent rock record labels today, there was the independent rock record label. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Del-Fi Records represented something more than the eccentric, nonconformist side of the recording industry. Run by maverick Bob Keane, a clarinet player, Del-Fi Records was a player. It knocked out a number of regional hits on the West Coast and scored on the national Top 40 charts with songs by Ron Holden, Little Caesar and The Romans, Bobby Fuller and former Mouseketeer Johnny Crawford. Del-Fi also issued the only recordings ever made by a kid named Ritchie Valens.

To get a sense of Del-Fi's unique history, there's Delphonic Sounds Today!, a compilation of songs recorded on Del-Fi during the '50s and '60s, except they're remade by contemporary artists. The Brian Jonestown Massacre does the Bobby Fuller Four; Elliot Kendall does Ritchie Valens; Man or Astro-Man? does Yo Yo Hashi; and Elliot Easton does the Centurians. The revised look at Del-Fi's unusual canon -- one filled with rock and roll, R&B, surf, hot rod, jazz, doo-wop and "exotic" screwball songs -- gives a unique spin on the label's unique history. Even the CD cover, which is a picture of Bob Keane's portable Ampex 2-Track, the same 2-Track he used to record Ritchie Valens's vocals on "Donna," has a feel of today's retro movement.

"Del-Fi Records conjures the image of the early days of the Los Angeles recording scene," says former Cars guitarist Elliot Easton, who has made some tracks for Del-Fi's new projects and is currently on tour with Creedence Clearwater Revisited. "It was a time where a guy could start an independent label and record all kinds of varied stuff from Eden Ahbez to Frank Zappa to Bobby Fuller Four."

Founded by Keane in 1957, Del-Fi Records was actually Bob Keane's second label. His first label was Keen Records, which was financed by one of his fans. Keane's first major move was to buy the master tapes of an unknown singer named Sam Cooke. In August 1957 Keen released Cooke's smooth ballad "You Send Me," which sailed to No. 1. What looked like the beginnings of a solid recording career was cut short by Cooke's death in 1964, when he was shot by a hotel manager under mysterious circumstances. Keen Records was off and running, but Bob Keane quickly found himself out of the picture.

"No one told me about that old saying, 'Beware of the Greek bearing gifts,' " Keane says with a laugh. "When 'You Send Me' took off, and it took off very rapidly, the money started coming in like a flood. One day I came into the offices, which I set up myself because this guy didn't know anything about music, and all the locks were changed on the doors."

So Keane lifted an Ampex 2-Track (the one on the cover of Delphonic Sounds Today!) from the company, got another financier, and Del-Fi Records was born. Keane then signed another unknown, this time a Hispanic singer named Ritchie Valens. "I saw this kid Valens perform, and he had so much going for him," Keane says. "He didn't play much; he just banged away on the guitar and played a few riffs. That's where I first heard 'Come On Let's Go,' which is all he knew about the song. He would say, 'Come On Let's Go,' and then go off on some other thing. So we ended up writing it and making it into a song before we recorded it."

The first Valens demos from May 1958 are classic do-it-yourself projects made in Keane's home studios (with that Ampex 2-Track). Keane later took Valens into Gold Star studios and cut "Come On Let's Go," which hit No. 1 in Los Angeles and reached No. 46 nationally. Next up for Valens was the double-sided hit "Donna" with "La Bamba." Released in December 1958, "Donna" peaked at the No. 2 spot in January 1959, while the throwaway track, "La Bamba," unexpectedly reached No. 22. Del-Fi had its first star, a 17-year-old kid from Los Angeles. Valens's energetic rock and roll and natural good looks were the right ingredients for stardom. His career ascended quickly until February 3, 1959, when he was killed in the plane crash that also claimed the lives of rock and roll stars Buddy Holly and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson and pilot Roger Peterson.

Though personally devastated by Valens's death, Keane moved forward with Del-Fi. He quickly adopted an open-door policy, which meant if you had the talent, or could pay for the sessions, Del-Fi would record you. "We just opened the door and everybody walked in because they couldn't get in anywhere," Keane says. "There was nowhere else to go. You couldn't get in the majors. They'd stop you at the elevators."

Keane embraced every genre of pop music imaginable: rock and roll, doo-wop, hot rod, R&B, jazz and surf. There wasn't much at stake for Keane. (Well, if the act is paying some of the cost up front, what's the risk?) His open-door policy attracted an interesting lot of talent that would later make a tremendous impact on pop music. Frank Zappa, David Gates (doing surf?!), Leon Russell, Arthur Lee, Brenda Holloway and the Fifth Dimension (known then as Versatiles) all recorded early stuff at Del-Fi. Soul icon Barry White also worked as an A&R man/producer/engineer/jack-of-all-trades for Del-Fi's soul imprint, Bronco Records, in the mid-1960s. Another guy who worked at Del-Fi Records who would later go on to a successful music career was Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, who, like White, did whatever Keane needed.

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