Bob Keene (Robert Verrill Kuhn) was born in Manhattan Beach, CA, on January 5, 1922, but raised in Beverly Hills and Glendale. Clarinet was his favorite instrument from very early on, and he took his first lesson at the age of six. He had classical training, and by the time he was twelve he appeared as a soloist with the Los Angeles Symphony. This could have been the start of his career in classical music, but young Bob started getting more and more interested in swing music by listening to Benny Goodman records. Despite being only thirteen, in 1935 he was allowed in the Palomar Ballroom to listen to Benny Goodman’s band. It was a tipping point for him, and from then on he just wanted to become a bandleader like Goodman. In the meantime though, he continued to take private lessons with classical clarinetist Lucien Caillet, and at fifteen he was playing clarinet and alto sax with Rube...Read more
Bob Keene (Robert Verrill Kuhn) was born in Manhattan Beach, CA, on January 5, 1922, but raised in Beverly Hills and Glendale. Clarinet was his favorite instrument from very early on, and he took his first lesson at the age of six. He had classical training, and by the time he was twelve he appeared as a soloist with the Los Angeles Symphony. This could have been the start of his career in classical music, but young Bob started getting more and more interested in swing music by listening to Benny Goodman records. Despite being only thirteen, in 1935 he was allowed in the Palomar Ballroom to listen to Benny Goodman’s band. It was a tipping point for him, and from then on he just wanted to become a bandleader like Goodman. In the meantime though, he continued to take private lessons with classical clarinetist Lucien Caillet, and at fifteen he was playing clarinet and alto sax with Rube Wolf in the pit orchestra of the Los Angeles Paramount Theater.
By the time he was seventeen and attending the Glendale High School, he formed his first band, The Bob Kuhn Orchestra, an ensemble inspired by his idol Benny Goodman but a much smaller one, with a single trumpet, four saxophones, piano, bass, drums and Bob himself on clarinet. When he was setting up to play his first show at Glendale Junior College, he received an unexpected request from an employee of a local radio station, KFWB, asking Bob to broadcast the concert live to replace a half-hour show that had been canceled. Bob accepted the invitation excitedly. His live performance was a success, the college youth crowd went wild, and although he didn’t know how many people had listened to the broadcast, for him that was the beginning of his career as a bandleader. An MCA agent overheard the broadcast in his car and made an appointment with Bob the next day. He told him that Benny Goodman had left the MCA agency and they were looking for a replacement. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. Once the interview was over, the man told Bob that they would call him. After a few days of waiting, he finally received a call from the agent telling him that MCA was going to sign his orchestra, and that they were going to bill him as the “World’s Youngest Bandleader”. For over two years they played at school and campus dances on Fridays.
It was December 1941,war had already been declared with Japan, and the MCA decided to rescind Kuhn’s representation because they felt that being so young, he was highly likely to be recruited. His childhood dream of becoming a bandleader vanished with the stroke of a pen. The experience had been good while it lasted, but he did not expect it to end like that. Given the circumstances and the situation, Kuhn decided to enlist in the Army Air Force. He was not sent to the front: instead he spent his service in airbases, training as a pilot bombardier. One Saturday night he met a chorus line dancer, and they married soon thereafter. He was eventually removed from active duty after a lung infection. Bob and his new wife returned to Los Angeles. He did not resume working as amusician right away, although he continued to practice the clarinet at home. But when in 1945 he divorced, Bob decided to focus on his work as a musician full time. Trends had changed dramatically in the four years he had been away though, and Goodman was no longer in vogue. So he decided to add alto sax to his repertoire, joining Eddie Miller’s band first (1945), and then Ray Bauduc’s (1946-1948).
After leaving Bauduc, Bob remained in Los Angeles where he formed various small groups to play at cafes. He also conducted a 10-piece orchestra for the studio parties that Lana Turner, Bob Hope and other stars organized. He then was offered a job conducting the orchestra of The Hank McCune Show, a weekly radio show on NBC. For this new challenge Bob picked up his clarinet again, and at the suggestion of the producer, he changed his name to Keene, as the announcer was pronouncing Kuhn as “Coon.” The job lasted only thirteen weeks, but he reached a lot of people, and he felt ready to start his own orchestra.
Late in the summer of 1948, Ace Hudkins, former Artie Shaw drummer, decided to dust off the old Shaw library, which had been left in his care, and hatched the idea of starting an Artie Shaw-type band, composed mostly of his school band students, with Bob Keene, a capable clarinetist and a handsome young man, to front the group. The band began playing college and university campuses as well as major Southern California ballrooms.
Bob’s association with Shaw developed one of the times Artie was taking a long break from the band business. He flew to the coast, and after hearing Bob and the band he was then heading —a band strictly in the Shaw tradition— he decided to place his stamp of personal approval on the venture, allowing the use of his name, the original Shaw library, and indicating that he felt Bob was a worthy successor.
During nearly a year of engagements in School Dances, as well as appearances at the Trianon and Avodon ballrooms billed as “The Artie Shaw Orchestra under the direction of Bob Keene,” the band’s coin grew, and Hudkins was able to gradually replace tyros with accomplished musicians. Penny Parker —formerly with Joe Reichman and other name bands— was the featured vocalist.
In the spring of 1949 Hudkins reorganized the Keene orchestra with former students from the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey bands, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. The Bob Keene Orchestra achieved a high level of musicianship. They made their debut at the Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, where they performed on the nights of March 18 and 19.
Bob’s new band soon became one of the most talked about units in South California, and critics up and down the coast were most generous in their praise of the band’s ability. Discussing a one-night show at the Hollywood Palladium in May 9, 1949, Johnny Sippel wrote for Billboard: “Band is well rehearsed, cleancut in its phrasing, sharp and crisp in attacks and cut-offs.” As a result of its increasing popularity, the Pasadena Community Dance management recruited Keene’s 18-piece band to perform every Friday and Saturday night at the Civic Auditorium.
One day in the spring of 1951, Bob met Paul Villepigue, the talented progressive arranger and composer of Lonely Street, which Charlie Barnet had made famous in 1947. Paul had some advanced ideas of how a band should sound. “Paul’s musical ideas, like Kenton’s, were ahead of their time, and he had a revolutionary ear for a big band sound, utilizing the clarinet with a spread of four octaves on the ensemble sections. I could just picture that sound in my mind.”
“Now with me, it’s the shadow of Artie Shaw I have to live down. I play clarinet —and I lead a band. There the resemblance stops. Of course, I used to play like Artie when I was playing his book, but I never tried to imitate him and I’m trying hard now to eliminate all of the Artie Shaw influence from my own style.”
In June 1951, Bob and Paul put together a newband through rehearsals for debut at the Balboa’s Rendezvous Ballroom. Held over five nights by popular demand, from July 3 to 7, the orchestra was featured as “One of the Greatest Bands since Artie Shaw.” The new arrangements were penned by some of the best young names in the field, Shorty Rogers, Gene Roland, Johnny Thompson, and Paul Villepigue himself. Their performances were a success with immediate consequences.
“Talking further with Paul, we decided to set up a recording session. I knew it would be useless to approach a record company, so I set up recording date (in August) at Radio Recorders in Hollywood. As we finished each song, I became more and more excited. My clarinet was inspired, and we had created a new, full, driving big band sound. Several days later, still on the high from the recording date, I convinced a small local label, Vogue Records, to release a single of my favorite song from the session, the great Gershwin classic, It Ain’t Necessarily So,” explained Keene in his book “The Oracle of Delphi.”
Between 1950 and 1954, the orchestra was engaged to appear at the South Gate Trianon (1950), Balboa’s Rendezvous, Circus Gardens in Santa Monica, the Palladium in Hollywood (three months in the summer of 1952) and several other Southern California ballrooms. However, Bob’s activity did not focus only on performances with his orchestra, and from January 1952 he also led a quartet that played nightly at the 331 Club on W 8th Street. In early 1953, Bob appeared at club Lido fronting a trio. Later, always ready to start new adventures, he got in touch with a film and television writer, and the two created The Bob Keene Show, a half-hour Sunday variety adventure show for teenagers, straight from the Circus Gardens Pavilion. The music was performed by a quintet led by Bob Keene, much in the style of Benny Goodman. The program began May 24 on Channel 2-KNXT, but ran only for six weeks due to lack of sponsors.
At the same time, the indefatigable Keene, continued keeping his band active, playing during the Saturday dancing nights at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, and at the Marabu, on 1030 Colorado Blvd. By then he had found in the famous disk jockey and businessman Gene Norman a good friend. As a result of this relationship, Norman, asked Bob to record an album to be released on his upcoming label, Gene Norman Presents. As Bob already had six songs recorded, what they did was supplement them with four others that the orchestra recorded with arrangements by Billy May, and a version of Begin the Beguine arranged by Nelson Riddle.
When a first 8-song set was released on a 10-inch album in October 1954, Norman hired Bob's orchestra to play dance sessions until the end of the year at his club Crescendo, on which stage he shared the bill with Mel Tormé.
Eventually Bob chose to disband his unit, but continued to play with smaller groups. In late 1955, he met wealthy Greek-American aerospace businessman John Siamas. “I was playing one night with my trio at The Viper Room, a small club on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood,” said Keene. “After that night, during the next several months, Siamas began showing up at some of the joints where I was playing, and we became friends.”
One day Siamas came with an interesting offer: “Bob, how would you like to come to work for me?” Bob accepted and “I became a salesman for Randall Engineering. At night though, I still played joints.”
About a month later Siamas came up with a new proposal. “Bob, how would you go about starting a record company?” Then, he added: “I’ll put the money, and you take care of finding someone to record.” So in Bob’s own words: “I knew nothing about record business. But I figured, what the hell. What I didn’t know, I’d learn.
“Siamas’ attorney suggested we set up an umbrella corporation,” said Bob. “I was to act as the Artist and Repertoire man. A month later, Rex Productions, entered in the record business with two labels Andex Disk Recording and Keen Records. John Siamas, as president of the company, and assigned Bob Keene as musical director for Andex. Bob produced the first album for the label in May 1957, presenting him as a leader of two septets, arranged by Jack Montrose, and featuring among others, jazzmen of the likes of Shelly Manne, Pepper Adams, Red Norvo and Red Mitchell. As a result, an album with the slogan “A presentation in jazz by the Bob Keene Septet” and with the title “Solo for Seven,” would come out in September of 1957.
Bob’s first discovery as an A&R man was Sam Cooke. He brought him into the company and signed a three-year exclusive contract for Keen Records. “Before we knew it, with absolutely no promotion through the media, You Send Me was on the national charts and climbing, and made him an overnight star, “but paradoxically his success also began to spell the end of my involvement with the Keen label,” explained Keene.
Bob only had a verbal contract with Siamas. When he became insistent about receiving his stock for 50% of Keen, he received a letter asking him to invest $5000 (which, of course, he did not have) in his own company, if he wanted to remain a partner. He realized that he had been tricked into finding a record of success before being kicked out from the company.
Despite all that the fiasco had done to him, Bob Keene learned from that experience, and once again quickly established his own company, Del-Fi Records, to record rock and roll. In 1958 he launched Ritchie Valens to stardom. Although Bob Keene continued to play sporadically after that, he devoted himself fully to his activity as a producer. He died in Los Angeles on November 28, 2009.
—Jordi Pujol (From the inside liner notes of FSRCD 1063)