I understand you got your start with "You Send Me."
Yes, and I picked "Summertime." And my wife -- who was a comedienne and known as a pretty good singer at that time -- picked the other side. I said in my book [the upcoming Oracle of Del-Fi], "Sure as hell, it's going to be the other side." You realize that kind of music didn't exist then in the black market. That's why I got it: because the majors had turned it down. I said, "Screw the black market, this is a pop record, daddy-o!"
Did you realize what you had on your hands?
I knew right there that was a hell of a good record. They had the white girls in the tight harmony, a la Glenn Miller, and the melody was so great. It was a love song, and he wrote that while he was on tour, sitting on his bed in a Chicago hotel with his guitar and a little rinky-dink tape. He brought the tape here to Bumps Blackwell, his manager at Specialty. I didn't know it, but Bumps had a band up in Seattle -- and two of the guys in the band were fifteen-year-old Quincy Jones and Ray Charles.
I was struck by the difference between some of the demo versions of Ritchie's songs and the final cut. How did those songs progress?
The thing with Ritchie was that he had these little ideas like, "I had a girl/Donna was her name." That's all he had. I had to write the song for him. For "Come On, Let's Go," he had "C'mon, let's go, let's go, let's go, little darling" -- that's all he kept singing. He just had little riffs and stuff -- he couldn't put a song together, and he couldn't write a bridge. All he knew was like two or three chords, but he was a great guitar player. When I saw him for the first time, he was at this little theatre in Pacoima, and these kids were going bananas. He had such command just playing his bunch of riffs. I said to myself, "If I can put that guy on record, and get these girls like this, I'm gonna have something." So I had him come up to the house, and we recorded it in my bedroom. I went in and overdubbed bass and drums and vocals at Gold Star -- I think that cost me about a hundred bucks. And that was his Number One record. I took it to KFWB, and on the way home they were already playing the hell out of it. You can't do that anymore.
At what point did you realize Ritchie was becoming a star?
"Donna" happened very quickly, went to Number One in Chicago, just like that. When that happened, we took our first flight, on a Constellation: bunks where you could sleep, ten hours to get to Chicago on an airplane with propellers. Then magazines had daily reports by the city, and I could see in this city it was Number Five, this city Number Four, and I thought, "Oh boy, we've got a hit!"
Why do you think "La Bamba" was never a huge hit until the Valens biopic La Bamba in 1987?
When Ritchie died, "Donna" was Number Two and "La Bamba" had gone up to Twenty-two. But, of course, when he died, they stopped playing it, and then he was a one-hit wonder from the West Coast. He wasn't a big star. I sold his publishing for $5,000 after he died -- it wasn't worth anything.
I heard that you learned about Ritchie dying on the radio.
Yeah. I talked to him in his hotel room the night before, from the payphone by Jack's on the Beach on the pier in Venice. Ritchie said, "Man, I'm freezing my ass off," so I said, "Well, c'mon home." But he said, "I'm going to try and stay because it's snowing like hell and all these kids are coming from out of state to see the band." Buddy Holly was there -- but Ritchie was Number One, the big star, believe it or not. He was exotic: nobody had ever heard of a Mexican rock & roller. They thought he was from another planet or something. The next morning I'm driving to work, and the DJ says, "Now the great, late Ritchie Valens." It was like somebody hit me in the gut with a baseball bat. I couldn't believe it. I was in front of the Palladium and my offices were around the corner, and I got up there and everybody was crying and the phones were off the hook and the reporters were there. It was a bummer. It was a real bummer. You know, I don't know whether to tell you this or not, but you know I never made a dime from Ritchie Valens?
I'm serious -- why not tell the truth? And I'll tell you why: because he had just gotten started. He only had singles to sell, and they were selling for ninety cents retail. I had spent so much money promoting this guy before that happened, ferrying him around the country by airplane and putting him up, that I was really in the hole. There was a posthumous release, but it didn't do much. A one-hit wonder.
I understand that you are among those who don't believe the police's ruling that Bobby Fuller's death was a suicide.
The fact that he got a phone call at 2 a.m., and that he went out and drove off in his car when he was still in his bathrobe -- the guy was a meticulous dresser. What was that? The next time we saw him he was dead.
Were you upset with the police investigation?
There was no investigation. They were in on it, no question about it. They had to be. I was the first one there, and the plainclothes guy came and opened the back door and said, "Oh, a can of gas," and threw it in the dumpster. I said, "Wait a minute, man. What the fuck? Aren't there prints on here?" And he said, "Nah, another rock & roller overdosed." So when I got [inside], I picked up his head and his hair was stiff as a board, like from gasoline that had dried. And there were matches on the floor: someone was going to torch him, and he was banged up a little, and they said "suicide." And you know what? They sealed everything. When his brother went down [to the police department] with his uncle, they said, "Look, he's gone. Just forget it."
You recently launched Keane Records. How does the climate for independent music now compare with when you started Del-Fi?
I decided to stick with the open-door policy I had. We were right there on Record Row at Vine and Selma. Across the street was RCA and down the block was Columbia, but [artists] couldn't get in the door there, so they all came up my stairs. That's where Zappa walked in, Bobby Fuller, Leon Russell. Now, not only can you not get in the door, but if you can, they're not going to record you. Me, I don't promote, no front money. I give them a sliding scale, so if we make it, they make it -- that's the way you've got to go. When we started, bands were pushing themselves. Now bands sit on their asses and wait around for the record company to do something. From my standpoint, the opportunity is incredible for me right now. I'm all alone; I have an eclectic label; I get eight or nine submissions a day. The last two months I got 250, and we only took a couple ads out. I call it "Open Door America."