He was raw, only played a few songs and had just a couple interesting guitar riffs, but Bob Keane would say later there was just something special about the teenager he would rename Ritchie Valens and turn into one of the biggest stars in rock ‘n’ roll history.
Keane, who died Saturday of kidney failure at age 87, was a hustling independent record producer in 1958 when he caught 17-year-old Richard Valenzuela’s act at a small theater in a barrio section on the edge of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.
“I saw him at a little concert in a movie theater,” Keane told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. “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.”
He immediately put Valenzuela under contract, shortened his name, brought him to the same studio where Phil Spector recorded his greatest works and set about helping him write and record Valens’ first hit, “Come On, Let’s Go.”
By the time Valens died eight months later in a plane crash with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, he had two more hits on Keane’s Del-Fi label (“Oh Donna” and “La Bamba”) and was a teen idol.
Keane, meanwhile, had become one of the hottest record producers in the business.
“A lot of people came through the door after Ritchie Valens,” Keane’s son, musician Tom Keane, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “He was instrumental in beginning the careers of people like Barry White, Sam Cooke, Frank Zappa … “
He released Cooke’s hit “You Send Me” on his Keen Records label and worked with some of the best-known session musicians of the time, including bassist Carol Kaye and guitarist Glen Campbell.
In the 1960s, he recorded the Bobby Fuller Four, a group fronted by a young man from Texas who was being proclaimed as the next Buddy Holly when he and his band burst on the scene with the hit “I Fought the Law” on Keane’s Mustang Records label.
Just a year after the record’s 1965 release, however, Fuller died under mysterious circumstances, his body found in his car. Keane, shaken by the tragedy, decided to get out of the business.
After folding his record companies, he promoted the careers of his young sons, Tom and John, who had formed an early bubblegum band, the Keane Brothers, in the mid-1970s. Both remain in the business, Tom as a songwriter and producer, and John as a composer for the television show, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”
Keane was born Robert Kuhn in Manhattan Beach in 1922 and began playing the clarinet at age 5. He would go on to pursue a career as a big band leader before becoming a producer.
He is survived by his sons and two other children, Chanelle Keane and Bob Keane; his wife, Dina; his brother, Walker Kuhn and seven grandchildren.