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Valens, Ritchie (originally, Valenzuela, Richard)

Valens, Ritchie (originally, Valenzuela, Richard)

Valens, Ritchie (originally, Valenzuela, Richard), Latino rock star whose career was cut tragically short; b. Pacoima, Calif., May 13, 1941; d. near Clear Lake, Iowa, Feb. 3, 1959. Of Mexican-American and Native-American descent, Richard Valenzuela grew up in poverty in Pacoima, Calif. He took up acoustic guitar at age nine and manufactured his first electric guitar at 11. While attending Pacoima J.H.S., he joined the mixed-race band The Silhouettes and quickly became the group’s frontman. In the spring of 1958, he auditioned for Bob Keene, owner of the Hollywood-based label Del-Fi Records. Keene signed him to the label, shortening his name to Ritchie Valens, and his first recording session yielded “Come On, Let’s Go,” a major R&B and moderate pop hit. In August he made his first U.S. tour with Eddie Cochran and appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. He returned to Los Angeles to record his own ballad “Donna” and a rocked-up version of the traditional Mexican folk song “La Bamba.” He later performed at his old junior high school and filmed a segment for the film Go, Johnny, Go.

In November “Donna” became a smash hit, quickly followed by the major flip-side pop hit “La Bamba.” He again appeared on American Bandstandand subsequently joined “The Winter Dance Party” tour with Buddy Holly, J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and Dion and The Belmonts. Following a concert at Clear Lake, Iowa, Ritchie Valens, then 17, Buddy Holly, and The Big Bopper died when their chartered plane crashed shortly after takeoff. Released posthumously in April, Ritchie Valens’s debut album contained the three hits plus “That’s My Little Suzie,” a minor pop hit. Within a year, Del-Fi had assembled two more albums.

Beginning in the early 1980s, Ritchie Valens’s recordings were reissued by Rhino. In 1987, at the behest of the Valenzuela family, the Chicano rock band Los Lobos recorded eight songs, including versions of Valens’s first three hits for the film musical biography of Valens, La Bamba,starring Lou Diamond Phillips. Los Lobos scored hits with “La Bamba” and with “Come On, Let’s Go.” Unreleased tapes by Ritchie Valens discovered in 1990 were issued by Ace Records as The Lost Tapes.


Ritchie Valens (1959); Ritchie (1959); Ritchie Va-lens/Ritchie in Concert at Pacoima Jr. High (1960); The Original Ritchie Valens (1963); The Original “La Bamba” (1963); The History of Ritchie Valens (1981); The Ritchie Valens Story (1993); The Lost Tapes (1992).


Beverly Mendheim, Ritchie Valens: The First Latino Rocker (Tempe, Ariz., 1987); Larry Lehmer, The Day the Music Died: The Last Tour of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens (N.Y., 1997).

—Brock Helander

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