Valens, Ritchie (1941-1959)

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Valens, Ritchie (1941-1959)

The Latino teen rock sensation had a brief but brilliant career. Most famous for his song "La Bamba," a rock 'n' roll version of a traditional Mexican ballad, Ritchie Valens fused different kinds of music together to form his own remarkable style. Influenced by some of the biggest names in rock 'n' roll, including Elvis Presley, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard, he earned himself the nickname "The Little Richard of San Fernando." Although his career was cut short by a fatal plane crash, Ritchie wrote and recorded songs that would influence future generations of rock musicians, including the Beatles and Led Zepellin.

Born Richard Steve Valenzuela in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Pacoima, California, Ritchie received a good Catholic upbringing from his parents despite money being tight. As a child, Ritchie made himself a guitar out of a cigar box and a broom handle and strung it with household string. His home life gave him a grounding in traditional Mexican mariachi music played by his relatives, and the radio exposed him to the rhythm and blues sound. In 1956 Ritchie joined a band called The Silhouettes who performed at "hops" around the San Fernando Valley area. The Silhouettes were a multiracial band featuring two African Americans, a Japanese American, and Ritchie, a Mexican American. After various reshuffles in the band, Ritchie sang lead vocals and played the guitar.

Ritchie was discovered at the tender age of 16 by Bob Keane of Del-fi Records at one of the San Fernando garage hops. Once Keane saw how audiences responded to the band's charismatic lead singer he gave him a recording contract. Keane changed his name to Ritchie Valens: a catchier, rockier, and Anglicized version of his real name. Ritchie's first hit was a rock 'n' roll number "Come On Let's Go," which he wrote himself. It reached number 42 on the U.S. charts. In October 1958, Del-fi released "La Bamba" with a lovesong entitled "Donna" on the other side. This lovesong was written by Ritchie about his high school sweetheart, who was forbidden by her father to go out with "that Mexican." It turned out to be the more successful track, selling over a million copies and reaching number two on the U.S. charts. "La Bamba" only climbed as high as number 22.

Keane found Ritchie an unorthodox musician to work with; Ritchie would make up songs and then forget them, or he would base a whole song on just eight guitar chords and two lines of lyrics. The pair successfully recorded a large number of songs in Keane's basement studio at his home in Silverlake, California. Keane wanted to get Ritchie out on the road on tour since his major talent was in performing. He assessed that Ritchie "could rock like a rough street kid while simultaneously exuding a shy, appealing vulnerability," a combination that dazzled his teenage audiences.

Ritchie's final tour was called "The Winter Dance Party." He headlined with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. Ritchie, with the success of "Donna" under his belt, was not obliged to play low profile concerts in the Midwest but reportedly did so out of loyalty to his fans. The weather was bitterly cold and the heating had broken on their tour bus. Buddy Holly chartered a plane with space for himself, his guitarist, and the Big Bopper. Ritchie could not cope with the sub-zero temperature levels and talked Buddy's guitarist into tossing a coin for the last seat. Ritchie won the toss. The plane crashed shortly after takeoff in a field outside of Fargo, North Dakota. All passengers were killed. The occasion was dubbed by the press as "The Day the Music Died."

Had he lived longer, Ritchie would have likely become one of the most significant musicians of the 1960s. The cultural critic George Lipsitz wrote that "Valens' tragic death at the age of seventeen deprived the Los Angeles Chicano community of its biggest star, and it cut short the career of one of rock and roll's most eclectic synthesizers." Ritchie's talent lay in his ability to mix radically different types of music: black rhythm and blues, white folk music, and Mexican mariachi songs—the sounds that surrounded him as he grew up in postwar California. Despite being the only musician of Mexican ancestry to make it in the mainstream pop scene, Ritchie regarded himself as first and foremost American. He did not speak Spanish and had to be coached for singing the Spanish lyrics of "La Bamba." In 1987 a bioptic called La Bamba, made by the Chicano film director Luis Valdez was released, regenerating interest in Ritchie's music, demonstrating how Ritchie's music continued to touch young people. Ritchie's music didn't die with him.

—Candida Taylor

Further Reading:

Culler, Jim. The Art of Democracy: A Concise History of Popular Culture in the United States. New York, Monthly Review Press, 1996.

Lipsitz, George. "Cruising Around the Historical Block." Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Stambler, Irwin. The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1974.