Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Keane Brothers - The Keane Brothers

I wrote in an earlier post that I spent my last year of high school in Monterey, California, after my Navy-officer dad was transferred there from our previous home in Massachusetts. As I mentioned, that first summer on the Monterey Peninsula, and that first month of school starting that September, were rough and depressing for me - up until a music-related incident occurred there that changed my whole attitude and outlook on the area. I began enjoying California more and more, and got involved in several activities - the track team and drama club at school, and my after-school job at nearby Santa Catalina (a private girls school) - that brought me a host of new friends.

One of my new buddies, Wayne, was a fellow member on the track team (he ran middle distance; I was a sprinter). Originally from Southern California, his family had moved to Monterey in the late 1970s, a couple of years before mine. In addition to the sports team, Wayne was also in a couple of my classes, and he quickly became part of a group I regularly had lunch with, either in the school cafeteria or at the pizza place in the nearby downtown area (I commented in an earlier post how flabbergasted I was at how open and liberal California schools were, compared with what I had been used to all my life in Eastern schools).

As I recall, it was during one of these noontime pizza parlor sessions with the guys that we started talking about the cartoons and other shows we liked when we were younger. We yammered on about old Saturday morning shows like Super Friends, Hong Kong Phooey
and the stalwart Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show, which had anchored CBS's cartoon schedule for years (BB/RR would ultimately air on either CBS or ABC for more than four decades, one of the longest network runs in history). The talk then shifted to the old weekday after-school shows that used to air; everyone there professed a love of Speed Racer and other great Japanese-made children's programs from the Sixties (During my first year living in Annapolis, Maryland as a kid, WDCA Channel 20 out of Washington, DC used to air a two-hour long block of
shows - Speed Racer, Marine Boy (my personal favorite), Ultraman, and Johnny Sokko & His Flying Robot - hosted by the channel's popular mascot Captain 20. During that time, there would be practically tumbleweeds rolling down the neighborhood streets; just about every kid in the neighborhood would be inside, watching those shows!). And we found that we all enjoyed Star Blazers and Battle Of The Planets.

When I mentioned that I used to be a big fan of the mid-Seventies revival of The Mickey Mouse Club, a few of the guys began to laugh and razz me a little. But Wayne stopped all of us cold with the following declaration: "I was almost ON that program." He then provided us with some info and insight on his early life: while living in the Los Angeles area, he'd been a fairly active child actor!

As a small boy, he expressed interest in acting with his parents, who responded by enrolling him in speech, music and drama classes, and taking him to casting calls for the many TV commercials being filmed in the area. He appeared in a few TV ads, mostly for local merchants. His folks helped him acquire an agent, who began looking for more lucrative opportunities for Wayne in television and movies. But nothing of that larger scope and reach ever seemed to pan out for him. When he was eleven, his agent made one final all-out effort on his behalf: he entered him into a nationwide search for child actors to host The New Mickey Mouse Club, scheduled to begin airing in early 1977. The casting call attracted thousands of hopefuls along with Wayne; according to him, he made it very far into the audition process. He claimed to have reached the next-to-last group of kids (the final two dozen or so contenders) before he was finally cut. That pretty much ended his adolescent acting days, and his family moved north, away from the hub of that sort of activity, shortly thereafter.

Of course, half the guys thought that Wayne was BSing all of us, but he backed up his claims with further questioning. The only host I remembered from the program was a black kid named 'Pop' Attmore; Mickey Mouse was the last role he had in a brief early-70's child actor career (he also appeared on the "Kelly's Kids" episode of The Brady Bunch a few years earlier). When I asked Wayne about him, he responded instantly: "Billy? Yeah - he was kind of a dick!", and regaled us with some of Attmore's actions during the audition process. And Wayne claimed to still have the mouse ears the Disney people gave him and the others in his penultimate group; a couple of weeks later, he brought them to school to show us. Yes, he could have just acquired them during an earlier visit to Disneyland... but by then I was fairly convinced his story was true.

However, the thing Wayne said that clinched my belief in him was "I had the same agent as the Keane Brothers." Holy flashback - I'd almost all but forgotten about those guys! The Keane Brothers were a short-lived preteen pop group out of Southern California who achieved some mid-70's national recognition (including a network TV program) without the merest shred of chart success or any remote semblance of an expansive fan base.

The story of Tom Keane (born 1964) and John Keane (born 1965) begins with their father, Bob Keane. The elder Keane was a long-time record producer and label owner who, through a series of bad breaks and insanely bad luck, never quite made it into the big time. To wit:
  • In the mid-Fifties, Keane entered into an oral agreement with a Los Angeles businessman in setting up his first label, Keen Records. As the A&R man (Artists & Repertoire, i.e. talent scout), Keane did all the legwork
    and quickly came across a demo cut by a gospel singer, Sam Cook, trying to break into pop music. He signed the artist to a long-term deal, and the demo of "Summertime" b/w "You Send Me" was pressed as the label's first
    release, under the singer's new name of Sam Cooke. The B-side eventually reached #1 on the Billboard charts in late 1957, making Keen Records a fortune - but Bob Keane never saw a nickel of it. Since he didn't have a written contract, his businessman "partner" screwed him over, and ruthlessly forced him out of the company.
  • Keane set up a new label, Del-Fi Records, in 1958, and had some minor successes early that year with a couple of the imprint's singles releases. That May, he received a tip that a teenaged performer from nearby Pacoima, known locally as "the Little Richard of San Fernando", would be playing a weekend matinee show at a theater in the valley. Keane went to see this kid in action, and was so blown away by his performance that he immediately invited him over to audition at his basement recording studio. By the end of the month Keane had signed the seventeen-year-old Richard Valenzuela to Del-Fi, who through Keane's
    recommendation changed his recording name to "Ritchie Valens". Valens' first single, "Come On, Let's Go" (co-written by the singer and label head) was released in July to great acclaim, and by the autumn of 1958, Valens was a major star. Keane served as his manager, booking appearances for his charge at locations across the United States and arranging performances on television programs (including American Bandstand) and movies (Go, Johnny, Go!). With the release of "Donna" b/w "La Bamba" in late December, Valens' fame shot into the stratosphere, and it seemed that Keane had made up for his earlier
    mistake with Keen Records. Both his and Ritchie's future looked bright and limitless... right up until February 3rd, 1959, when Valens was killed in a Iowa plane crash while on tour (along with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper, the "Day The Music Died"). Keane had been associated with Ritchie for all of nine months.
  • After Valens' death, Del-Fi Records limped along for many years, releasing a lot of music by surf bands (including The Lively Ones and The Surfaris), Frank Zappa (some of his early recordings), and Chan Romero, who had a late-50's hit with "Hippy Hippy Shake". But Keane wouldn't find his next big star until 1964, when the label signed The Bobby Fuller Four. The band recorded eight singles and two
    albums on Del-Fi, including the late-1965 smash hit "I Fought The Law" that shot the group to stardom. But once again, fate intervened... group leader Bobby Fuller was found dead, soaked in gasoline, in his mother's car outside of his Hollywood apartment in July 1966.
The circumstances behind Fuller's death - whether suicide, murder or misadventure - have never been fully explained. But Fuller's death led to the imminent demise of the group, and subsequently that of Del-Fi Records - the label shut down in 1967. Bob Keane then entered a new career far removed from the music business, selling burglar alarm systems to his celebrity friends. That was his main focus until the early Seventies, when he discovered that his young sons Tom and John had developed natural musical ability on their own. Seeing them as his entree back into production, Keane began actively coaching and promoting his progeny's talents.

The boys began small, playing at shopping malls, store openings and the like in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. With their father's drive, backing and industry experience, they began expanding their horizons and looking beyond local success - not that the boys were necessarily concerned with that. By all indications, they got into music because they genuinely enjoyed it, and weren't obsessed with becoming stars. Their
first studio effort, the single "Sherry" b/w "God Loves Little Girls", was released in 1976, when the boys were twelve and eleven years old, respectively. This lightweight, bubblegummy record did relatively little here in America, reaching only #84 on the Billboard charts. But it was a Number One hit in Canada, and got them noticed south of the border here in the States. Their first self-titled LP was released shortly thereafter in early 1977, and Tom and John began making well-received appearances on shows like Dinah, The Tonight Show and - yes - The New Mickey Mouse Club to promote it. On the strength of these features, Bob Keane negotiated a deal with CBS for the boys to host their own prime-time variety series, to air on the network during the summer of 1977 in the timeslot for Wonder Woman, then on seasonal hiatus.

As for why CBS would take such a chance and provide relatively unknown performers with substantial airtime, you have to remember that in the Seventies, the networks routinely scheduled short-run summer replacement comedy/variety shows headlined by fresh talent as an alternative to reruns, to retain viewership while their regularly-scheduled series took time off. These shows were relatively inexpensive to produce in comparison to the programs they were subbing for, and early 
on, some of them became hits. Hee Haw, for example, started out as a summer replacement for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1969; the show ended up running for nearly a quarter-century. And Sonny & Cher also began that way, as a 1971 seasonal replacement for Ed Sullivan; it proved so popular that it led to the performers' long-running prime time series. In the first half of the 1970's, The Carpenters, Melba Moore, Jerry Reed, Helen Reddy, Tony Orlando & Dawn, The Hudson Brothers, Mac Davis and The Manhattan Transfer all headlined their own short-lived summer TV variety showcases. All of these met with varying degrees of success, but none of them proved to be the runaway hits that the network hoped for, and none were picked up as a regular season series.

Looking for a guaranteed winner, in 1976 CBS scheduled a summer show starring The Jacksons, who at that point had fallen on hard times; their string of big Motown hits had dried up two years earlier, and they were in the midst of a protracted dispute with their label that led to them leaving Motown for Epic Records in 1975. The network figured that their stardom and youth appeal would draw eyeballs, and despite Michael Jackson's trepidation regarding what the show would do the the band's image and sales, the
group signed on. CBS's calculations were spot-on - The Jacksons garnered huge ratings that summer during its four-week run (my family and I never missed an episode), so much so that the series was picked up as a mid-season replacement in January 1977 following Good Times. But the program got spanked in the Nielsens by the Top 20 hit show The Bionic Woman, and was off the air by March of that year.

The Jacksons was pretty much the peak of the summer replacement format; by then, the genre was becoming increasingly dated and passe. But CBS gave it one more shot in 1977, scheduling summer variety shows with Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr. (formerly of The 5th Dimension), one-hit wonders The Starland Vocal Band (a program which featured the talents of a then-unknown comedian named David Letterman), the mime duo Shields & Yarnell... and The Keane Brothers. The Keane Brothers Show began airing that August, for a half-hour at 8:30 pm on Friday. I watched every one of the four shows, as I was fascinated that two kids exactly my age had come so far. Here's the show opening:

The format was standard variety-show hokum, with Tom and John interacting with their various guest stars from the world of prime time TV (like Betty White and Sonny Bono) in lame comedy routines, interspersed between the duo performing a couple of songs off of their then-sole album. The boys were fresh-faced, professional and engaging on TV, and you could see that they had some genuine musical talent. Tom could whale on the keyboards, and exhibited a great set of pipes - at times belting out a song with abandon, sounding preternaturally like a preteen Elton John. His brother John was a virtuoso at the drum kit, and was no slouch in the vocal department himself.  But the material they performed (almost all of the songs on the album were written by the two of them) was abysmal, even judging it by the standards of Seventies pop - their music made The Bay City Rollers seem like The Sex Pistols by comparison.

Here's what I regard as the nadir: their on-air performance of "Amy (Show The World You're There)", a 'tribute' to Amy Carter, the nine-year-old daughter of the newly-elected U.S. President Jimmy Carter - I think the lyrics are absolutely HYSTERICAL:

If anything, this tune could serve as The Keane Brothers' ironclad entry into the Unintentional Comedy Hall of Fame.

The Keane Brothers Show aired its fourth and final episode on August 26th, 1977. This also signaled the end of the networks' experiments with summer replacement variety shows; it would be eleven years before CBS tried again, with The Smothers Brothers in 1988. And with that seemingly came the end of the Keane Brothers as a pop act - after that summer, they seemed to fall off the face of the Earth, and I don't recall hearing another thing about them again. In a very short time, the duo became a vague and distant memory. I assumed they'd moved on from music after they reached their teens... but I was incorrect.

The Keane Brothers continued to perform and record for another five years. Their second album, the disco-influenced Taking Off, was released in 1979. In the early '80s, the boys added a couple of new members (including future Chicago bassist Jason Scheff) and changed their band name to Keane (not to be confused with the future Britpop band of the same name). Keane put out two pop LPs on CBS/Sony, a self-titled album in 1981 and Today, Tomorrow and Tonight in 1982. All of these releases went exactly nowhere.

Since that time, both brothers have continued their careers in music. Tom found success as a songwriter, churning out well-received tunes for the likes of Chaka Kahn, Jermaine Jackson and Patti LaBelle. And John established a lucrative career scoring hit television shows, including The Amazing Race and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. They both still do session work on occasion, and over the past twenty years, each has released a couple of solo albums that were all received with resounding crickets.

It's been many years since I'd seen or thought of my old friend Wayne; he only recently came to mind again when I was browsing through an old high school yearbook. And in thinking of him, I recalled his connection to The Keane Brothers, and began seeking some of their music out. Needless to say, most of it has long been out of print here in the States (a couple of their LPs were reissued on CD in Japan in 2011). But I managed to track down their debut album. Again, it's no Grammy Award winner... but it's still a nice and amusing dollop of innocent adolescent pop music from that long-ago decade, the Seventies.

Here's The Keane Brothers, released on 20th Century Records (a subsidiary of 20th Century Fox Film Corporation) in January 1977. Enjoy (if you're able), and as always, let me know what you think.

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  1. How cool you found them! I also recall watching them on tv back then. I thought they were pretty cool, and still do. ABBA they are not, but I still enjoyed listening to this and remembering the good times. :) Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. I forgot to add thanks for their info as well. I didn't know about their father's connection to the business. So sad to learn of the bad luck they all had. :(

    1. It really is... Bob Keane discovered both Sam Cooke (the secular version of him) AND Ritchie Valens, and got nothing (money and/or recognition) out of it. He potentially could have been regarded as the American George Martin - instead, he ended up selling burglar alarms. Life is cruel that way, sometimes...

  3. Great research here. I'm the age of you and the Keane Bros. and remember that mid-season replacement series. And I remember them doing "Amy." Plus there was an episode teaser where one brother said to the other something like "Gee, that's really keen!"

    That said, the brotherly teen duo from the 1970s I want to hear again is the one that did "Say It Again" -- Andy and David Williams, who appeared on the "Partridge Family." I'd gotten them mixed-up with the Keane Bros. as the decades passed.

    Both of these groups can sleep safe and secure each night knowing they paved the way for...Nelson! I'm not kidding either. I really think part of Nelson's appeal to us in our twenties is that they conjured the ghosts of all these half-forgotten teen idols.

    1. Hey! Thanks for the great comment. Wow - it wasn't until you mentioned it above that I recalled (just barely) Andy and David Williams and that Partridge Family episode. Man, talk about obscurity! Those guys made the Keane Brothers look like publicity hogs!

      I looked them up a little; after their teen idol years, they apparently went back to school, majoring in music studies, before reemerging in the late 80s with a more mature sound. In their new incarnation, they actual had a couple of early 90's semi-hits. So, good on 'em!

      Now I'm going to have to see if I can track any of their '70s stuff down - you've got me curious!

      (Looking back, the Partridge Family did its best to promote other artists/bands into commercial success, with dismal results - in addition to The Williams Brothers, they featured a five-year-old moppet named Ricky Segall on some of their later episodes (his rendition of "Say Hey Willie" still haunts my dreams...), and I recall some attempted spinoff show about songwriters (starring Bobby Sherman) that also never went anywhere. Oh well...)

      Thanks again for writing!

    2. Funny you should mention that because I once did a rip of the Ricky Segall and the Segalls album on my blog. If "Say Hey..." gives you nightmares, I'd recommend NOT sitting through a half hour of this stuff. That Willie song was actually one of the better ones...

    3. Yeah, I know... I requested and you sent me a copy of Ricky Segall's album a year or so ago (much appreciated again)! And you're right: relatively speaking, "Say Hey Willie" is the "Baba O'Riley" of that disc! "Sooner Or Later" is MUCH worse...

    4. WOW! Little Ricky too??? I must have that just for old times sake. :)

      I remember the Williams brothers also. I looked them up via G a few years ago. Glad to know they survived and are doing well.

      I'll see if I can find any mint lps or cds of the Williams and the other Kean lps, and send ya copies. I might get you to do the lp rips, as I have no clue how to do it nor how to clean them up digitally.

    5. Hi Opie! That would ROCK if you could track any of their stuff down... I shook the bushes pretty hard in the past few weeks, but couldn't get anything to fall out. I'll be happy to rip anything you happen to come across - thanks, and I hope to hear from you again soon!

    6. And I'll send you the Ricky Segall album - shoot me another comment with your email address - it'll save me from running it down in my voluminous inbox; I won't publish it, but use it to forward the files your way.

  4. Hi again! SORRY for not replying earlier. :( I had major issues with my laptop, and didn't have a back-up of my faves to use on anyone else's pc. :( I'll be happy to look again for any Keane or Williams brothers lps for us. :) I just will need time and moola. ;) I'd LOVE to hear little Ricky's lp, since I recall enjoying his songs back then. Do you have the fake Danny Bonaduce lp? I don't recall seeing it back then, or else I'd have begged my mom for it. LOL! :) I know he doesn't sing on it, but the short sample I heard was pretty good. Are there any other bands you need from back then? I MIGHT still be able to get one of the Jimmy and Kristy McNichol lps, as I saw it a few years ago, and it could still be there. I have a MP3 (YUCK!) cd copy of Johnny Whitaker's Sigmund lp, and a copy of his Littlest Angel Soundtrack lp as well. The only other "boyband" stuff I have that I can think of is Gary and The Hornets, and some Menudo. Yes, those guys. LOL Hey, I was i high school when they invaded sat morning tv, and a year or so later record in English. I thought they were good. So sue me. LOL!

    My email is IF you do need any of this, lmk and we can get the ball rolling. I'm always happy to make a new friend, and to share music with others. :)


    1. Hi Jeff!

      Good to hear from you again! I'll forward you the Ricky Segall album this evening - get ready, though; it's BRUTAL! And I'll see what I can do to track down Bonaduce's legendary solo album - there's reportedly a classically infamous song on it, where he's trying to chat up a woman to sleep with him... he was twelve at the time!

      And yes PLEASE - send me those Johnny Whittaker LPs ASAP!!! I used to LOVE "Sigmund & The Sea Monsters" when I was a kid [quick aside: the parallels between Whittaker's and Butch Patrick's careers in the immediate teenaged wake of their post-child star fame ("Sigmund" and "Lidsville" are uncanny...].

      And for years, I've been regaling my kids with stories about "The Littlest Angel" holiday special, and how utterly horrible and reprehensible it truly was (for example, the boy becomes an angel after being lured to his death by a bird - ostensibly sent by God Himself... and at one point, the now ghost-boy goes back to his parents' house, who have no knowledge of his death and talk about how they can't wait for him to come home... just trauma galore for little kids viewing this show in the late '60s!).

      So thanks, and look for my email later this evening!

      All the best to you from Pee-Pee Soaked Heckhole

  5. Many thanks for your prompt link to the Buddy Holly (Purple Chick) collection.
    I had the privilege of briefly meeting Buddy here in Vancouver in 1957.
    New Zealand offered a smile today with the covid song "Moist Breath Zone" which was played on the radio.
    Bob in Vancouver