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.
"Bob Keane is an important guy," Johnston says. "Here he was president of the label, produced most of the recordings and ran the label and talked to the distributors and collected money. You know the harmonies on 'Donna'? That's him singing in the studio. He wanted to be a star, and he had a big band just as it all went out, so he wound up having a label. I learned so much from him in the studio. Seventeen years old in high school and I have a gig working for him. How cool can that be?"
In the early 1960s Del-Fi scored its share of regional hits and several national hits, but it didn't have any breakout acts on its roster until Bobby Fuller joined the label in 1964. A good-looking singer and blistering guitarist filled with charisma, Fuller was everything a record label wanted. Though Keane and Fuller had their personal differences, Fuller was clearly the label's best shot at a national star.
After making a number of records with Fuller, Keane had Fuller cut "I Fought the Law," which cracked the Top Ten in early 1966. It looked like Fuller was headed toward superstardom. Or maybe not. Rumors suggest he was being courted to work with legendary producer Phil Spector. Whatever the case, everything ended in July 1966, when Fuller's 23-year-old beaten, gasoline-soaked, rigor mortis body was found inside his mother's car. Fuller's death essentially marked the end of Del-Fi Records. Though Del-Fi continued operations through early 1968, Keane lost interest in the company. "When Bobby Fuller got killed," Keane says, "that was the third one in a row. First was Ritchie Valens, then Sam Cooke, then Bobby Fuller. That was enough for the moment.
"Bobby Fuller was our great white hope. I figured at that point we didn't have anything new to go to. The majors had so monopolized the business at that time that it was practically impossible to be successful. It was starting to get real expensive to promote anything. So I figured I would just wrap it up."
Keane closed up shop and went into the home security business, selling systems to movie stars, psychiatrists and "their mistresses." He also managed his sons' careers, the Keane Brothers, who landed a CBS summer variety show in the 1970s and toured internationally. Though Keane licensed out Del-Fi material for some movies and various record compilations, he pretty much stayed out of the record business until 1987. La Bamba, the highly fictionalized movie of Ritchie Valens's life, created renewed interest in Valens. Since the CD reissue craze was just beginning, Keane got the inspiration to resurrect Del-Fi and put Valens's songs out on CD for the first time.
"When La Bamba came out," Keane says, "I found out they were bootlegging my stuff all over the place. Ritchie Valens had albums out from Germany that I had nothing to do with. I got a catalog in the mail from Denmark and here's my stuff in there. I'd been out of business. That gave me the first clue. They had guys in this country that were selling the rights to my stuff, and so that's when I decided to jump back in."
Keane shut down the pirates and in the early 1990s started reissuing the Del-Fi catalog, including several compilations of surf, hot rod, doo-wop and exotic novelties. The reissues, while appreciated by pop aficionados, didn't really capture the public's imagination until the Pulp Fiction soundtrack created a surf revival in 1994 to '95. Capitalizing on its incredibly deep surf catalog, Del-Fi put out Pulp Surfin' in 1995, which exploited the Pulp Fiction surf craze to the hilt.
Pulp Surfin' sold well by surf standards, which is to say it sold about 25,000 to 30,000 units domestically. Compared to the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, which went gold, that doesn't seem like a lot. But for Del-Fi's independent operation that was very profitable. Whereas a major label considers an album that sells under 100,000 units a failure, Keane thinks a reissue that sells 1,000 units is a success.
The success of Pulp Surfin' led to another concept album, Shots in the Dark, which featured Henry Mancini songs as covered by alternative rock/surf/lounge acts. Shots sold about as well as Pulp Surfin', which is to say it turned a profit. The latest concept album, Delphonic Sounds Today!, should also sell well because the concept is brilliant, and tribute discs still sell.
"They pretty much give free rein," says Easton, who cut tracks for Pulp, Shots and Today!. "They call and say, 'Hey, we'd like you to contribute a track to some sort of disc.' Then it's inspiring for me to try and come up with something."
While reissues and concept albums are Del-Fi's main sources of revenue, the label is also trying to work its way into the new music scene. Last year the company released International Pop Overthrow (a compilation of 20 new artists who would rather chew bubble gum than throw fits of rage), and it has had success, with Kari Wuhrer's debut CD. Wuhrer's disc, which has generated a ton of ink because of her babe quotient, suggests she's not too talented to be a Spice Girl. But the CD, which was originally available only on the Internet and via phone orders, has already moved more than 2,000 units and is now being released to retail. Those numbers may not seem impressive, but for Del-Fi they mean profit.
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This summer Del-Fi will also launch the DF2K imprint, which will focus exclusively on new acts. Slated for summer release are albums by Outrageous Cherry (think alternative meets Phil Spector) and Cloud Eleven (formerly Jiffipop). Rick Gallego, the mastermind behind Cloud Eleven's light psychedelic late-1960s/early-'70s sound, says that being associated with Del-Fi has tremendous advantages.
"They're all really into the music," Gallego says. "That's what a band needs: for the label to be behind your music and to do everything they can to get it out there. If I was to sign with a major label, sure, there might be a bunch of money up front, but who knows how much they're going to promote it. You might just get shuffled to the back burner, like a lot of the pop bands do. They make one record and they get dropped. Plus the Del-Fi name has been around for so long. Ritchie Valens, the fateful plane crash. That's something that's part of rock history, and Del-Fi's part of that."
Del-Fi makes a lot of money selling reissues in Japan, where surf is still hot. For his part, Bob Keane, who is in his seventies, shows up to work every day and oversees operations. "I don't really do a lot anymore," Keane says, "because the guys here are all great, and they kind of say, 'We're going to do this,' and I say, 'Well, I'm not going to try to tell you how to because you guys are in the street and I'm sitting here.' That's one reason why we were successful, was because we were in the street. We were talking to the people that buy records. We weren't sitting on the 13th floor trying to count our money or come up with a real snazzy contract. We try to do everything. Anything that I think is going to fly, we'll record it or put it out because today all of the independent companies that are successful are tied in with majors, or the majors own a piece of them, and they're a specialist company. But our catalog is very eclectic."
Keane's philosophy, which was refreshing in the 1950s, is downright revolutionary today. You can learn a lot from a maverick.