L.A.’s Instro Surf Labels Pt 1

Los Angeles County was home to small independent record labels that recorded & released instro surf & hot rod LPs and jukebox singles in the few short years the music was popular (before the Beatles destroyed everything).  Makes sense because the surf bands were predominately located on the west coast, home of the Beach Boys & Dick Dale. This first part presents the indie labels that released the most surf/hot rod LPs just as the larger labels like RCA, Capital & Liberty got into the act. 



Bob Keane’s Del Fi Records was one of the most successful surf music labels though they are best known for releasing Richie Valens’ first hit Come On, Come On and Bobby’ Fuller’s I Fought The Law (on one of Keane’s later labels Mustang). (Bob Keane, a one-time jazz band leader, recruited Sam Cooke for the Keen label. When Keane was denied a partnership in Keen, he left and started Del Fi.)


Del Fi recorded a long list of surf bands in just a few years with the Lively Ones releasing the most Del Fi surf LPs. Besides the Lively Ones, Del Fi also released LPs by the Sentinels, the Impacts, the Surf Stompers, Dave Meyers & the Surftones, the Surf Mariachis, Charades, Rhythm Kings, Jim Waller & Deltas, the Biscaynes, the Soul Kings, the Bruce Johnston Band & the Centurians; a few of these bands might have been studio musicians and not performing bands. Del Fi also recorded a few hot rod bands, releasing LPs by the Darts, the De-Fenders & the Deuce Coups. Can any SoCal label beat Del Fi for surf band releases?


Keane’s other labels included Mustang, Donna and Ronda Records.


This is a fine page of Del Fi LP covers plus lots of info on the label.  Here’s a post about what happened to the Del Fi Selma location–be sure to read the comments. More on the Keen label.


Downey Records was produced in the back room of Wenzel’s Record Shop on Lakewood Blvd in Downey, California. Both label & record shop were the product of MGM sound engineer Bill Wenzel. Downey Records released LPs on its own label but also on Dot which handled some of their distribution. Downey released the hit single Pipe by one of Wenzel’s biggest acts, the Chantay’s, but the bands LP was on Dot (though produced by Downey). Wenzel’s first label Jack Bee (named after his sons) was also produced in the back of his record shop. The Rumblers was another surf/garage band of Wenzel’s released on Dot with production credit given to Downey.



Dot-Downey2Downey wasn’t just about white surf music, however, as Barry White’s first recordings appear on Downey (as Lee Barry) and Wenzel’s LA blues recordings were featured on a now deleted CD comp on UK’s Ace Records. Ace has subsequently released 4 collections from the Downey catalogue including surf, R&B, blues, garage and pop. Check out their quality releases here.



Vault Records was started in 1963 by record shop veteran Jack Lewerke and Ralph Kaffel, a warehouse worker for Les Konig’s jazz businesses. Vault’s first three LPs were by the surf band The Challengers, a group that evolved from the premier SoCal surf band the Belairs. Belairs’ drummer Richard Delvry brought other surf musicians like Gary Usher to Vault.

Notes about the Vault Challenger LPs: The front covers on these LPs have a cellophane coating that eventually starts peeling.The 2nd & 3rd releases of these Challenger LPs are illustrated by Rick Griffin who grew up surfing in SoCal before being lured to San Francisco by the psychedelic scene. Griffin created the flying eye ball designs for the Dead posters and contributed to Zap Comix. By 1970 he had converted to Christianity which influenced the direction of his work. He died in 1991 following a motorcycle accident. 




Vault’s first four years of releases were dominated by surf & hot rod but by 1967 surf was dead and Vault turned to jazz, pop & psychedelia.  Vault even released an LP by the Black Panthers Elaine Brown. Read more details about Vault’s wild ride and view their discography at the excellent Both Sides Now listing for the label.


The Challengers ended up on the GNP Crescendo label, a label that was introduced in 1954 as GENE NORMAN PRESENTS. Gene Norman owned several jazz clubs in Los Angeles and first released a series of live recordings from the clubs. The label was renamed GNP Crescendo (after one of his nightclubs). GNP Crescendo’s first surf LPs appeared in 1963 with these two LPs  

GNPCrescendeThe Challengers appeared on GNP Crescendo in 1964, first calling themselves The Good Guys (perhaps because they were still recording on the Vault label). The LP was reissued in 1974 using the Challengers’ name.

SidewalkSurfinIn 1966 the Challengers released several more LPs on GNP Crescendo at the same time as the label released the classic Seeds LP A Web Of Sound. For more about GNP Crescendo plus a full discography, check out Both Sides NowGNP Crescendo is still family owned and releasing material. 

There’s a connection between GNP & Modern/Crown Records: In 1951, the Biharis’ Modern Records released their first LPs, a series of volumes on jazz. Volumes 12 & 13 were recordings leased from Gene Norman, recordings that ended up later on Norman’s own label. Of course a lot of this early GNP material leased to the Biharis would be re-released on various Modern & Crown budget LPs in later years. 

Music producer Tony Hilder produced many of these early surf band sessions that were recorded in the garage of Ted Brinson, South LA’s postman/recording engineer.  For more details read this earlier post. 

Next:  smaller labels & budget LP surf/hot rod releases.


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