Valens, Ritchie: 1941-1959: Performer

views updated Jun 11 2018

Ritchie Valens: 1941-1959: Performer

Although his career included just a handful of recording and concert dates, Ritchie Valens attained a place in music history as the first Latino rock-and-roll star. With a string of hit singles behind him at the age of seventeen, the musician's future was tragically cut short, however, when he died in a plane crash along with a group that included Buddy Holly and J. P. Richardson ("The Big Bopper"). February 3, 1959 became immortalized as "the day the music died" in rock history, yet Valens's legend grew after his death with the 1987 biographical film La Bamba, which took its name from Valens's most memorable hit song. The film's soundtrack, recorded by Los Lobos, sent the song to the top of the pop charts and familiarized a new generation of music fans with the work of the teenage rock star.

Early Interest in Music

Ritchie Valens was born Richard Steven Valenzuela on May 13, 1941, and grew up in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Pacioma, California. His parents, Joseph Steve and Concepción (Reyes) Valenzuela, were working at a munitions plant at the time of his birth. When he was three years old his parents separated, and young Richard Valenzuela spent the next several years with his father. The elder Valenzuela held a number of different jobstree surgeon, miner, and horse trainer among themand introduced his son to a love of Latin music at an early age. While his father played the guitar, Valens plucked along on a ukulele, later adding the guitar, trumpet, harmonica, and drums to his collection of instruments.

Joseph Steve Valenzuela died from diabetes-related complications in 1951, and his mother moved back into the family home with her new husband and her other children. The family eventually included Ritchie's older half-brother, Robert Morales, younger half-sisters, Connie and Irma Ramirez, and a younger half-brother, Mario Ramirez. Valens's stepfather worked as an agricultural worker, and his mother worked as a waitress and housekeeper, yet money was tight in their household. Ritchie spent much of his adolescent years living with various relatives and as a result attended a number of schools throughout the Los Angeles area while he was growing up. After his step-father separated from his mother, the family was forced to move into a tiny house in Pacioma in the San Fernando Valley, but keeping up the mortgage payments was a constant struggle.

At a Glance . . .

Born Richard Steven Valenzuela on May 13, 1941, in Pacioma, California; died on February 3, 1959, in Clear Lake, Iowa. Religion: Roman Catholic.

Career: Recording artist: "Come On, Let's Go" (single), 1958; "Donna/La Bamba" (single), 1958; "Fast Freight/Big Baby Blues" (single), 1958; Ritchie Valens (album), 1959; "That's My Little Suzie" (single), 1959; "Little Girl/We Belong Together" (single), 1959; Ritchie, (album), 1959; Ritchie Valens in Concert at Pacioma Junior High, (album), 1960; Ritchie Valens' Greatest Hits, (album) 1963; The Best of Ritchie Valens (album), 1981.

Award: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inductee, 2001.

As a student at Pacioma Junior High and later at San Fernando Valley High School, Valens often brought his guitar to play and sing at the lunch hour and after class. Playing with the nine-piece Silhouettes from October of 1957, Valens gained a reputation throughout the region for his guitar work. The Silhouettes played small club dates and school concerts during the winter of 1957 and into the spring of 1958. One date, at the Pacioma Legion Hall on May 2, 1958, led to Valens's big break.

Valens's Big Break

There are several versions of the story of Valens's discovery. One version has Valens and his mother renting the Legion Hall for a Silhouettes date in order to raise enough money to pay off the family's mortgage; by chance, a friend of a record company executive saw the show and suggested that his friend audition Valens. Another version has his mother skipping a mortgage payment to rent the hall and have the concert taped as a demo recording to get the interest of a record company. After Bob Keane heard the tape, he went to a talent show where Valens was competing to check out the talented teenager in person. In any event, Valens's performance at the Legion Hall in May of 1958 indeed resulted in an offer to record some tracks for Bob Keane's Del-Fi label at Gold Star Studios in June of 1958. The resulting single, a Valens composition called "Come On, Let's Go," was released the same month and hit number 42 in September on Billboard's Hot 100. On Keane's suggestion, the singer adopted "Valens" as his professional name over his given surname, Valenzuela. While it was not quite a bona fide top forty hit, "Come On, Let's Go" sold over 225,000 copies and led to Valens's first appearance on American Bandstand on October 6, 1958. By that time Valens was in demand for concert appearances across the country and had dropped out of San Fernando Valley High School.

Valens's next release was a double-sided single, "Donna" and "La Bamba." A ballad that Valens wrote for his high-school girlfriend, Donna Ludwig, "Donna" was an immediate hit; it earned a gold record award and spent two weeks at number two on the Hot 100 in January of 1959. The song remains an early rock classic as a teenager-in-love ballad. The single's flip side, "La Bamba," also became a classic of a different sort. Based on a traditional tune popular at Mexican weddings, the lyrics of "La Bamba" were adapted from the huapango, which used nonsense lyrics in boastful exchanges among singers. In Valens's rock-and-roll version, the lyrics featured a drunken sailor insisting that he could dance la bamba better than anyone else. While the song was not as popular as "Donna," it hit the top 30 on the pop charts in February of 1959.

One of the few foreign-language pop hits on the American charts, "La Bamba" was an unusual hit for its era. It was also an unusual choice for Valens to record, as he spoke only rudimentary Spanish and had to learn the lyrics to the song from his mother's relatives. Although he was aware of his Mexican heritage, Valens spoke only a couple of words of Spanish while he was growing up with his father, who was a native of California. Later on, he picked up a few more phrases, but he was never conversant in the language.

Fatal Crash Became a Legend

With three hit songs in less than six months, Valens appeared on the Alan Freed Christmas Jubilee of Stars in December of 1958. Freed also asked Valens to make a singing appearance of "Ooh, My Head" in his rock-and-roll movie Go Johnny Go. Valens then signed up for the Winter Dance Party tour of the Midwest with Buddy Holly and the Crickets, the Big Bopper, and Dion and the Belmonts for January and February of 1959. The Winter Dance Party series would be Valens's first national tour. Symbolizing his success, the teenager put a $1,000 down payment on a house for his family in Pacioma.

Before leaving on the Winter Dance Party tour, Valens entered the Gold Star studio for a final recording date in early January of 1959. With his first album, Ritchie Valens, slated for release in February of 1959, Valens joined the concert tour as it kicked off in Milwaukee on January 23rd. After playing a series of dates around the upper Midwest, the musicians played to about 1,200 fans at the Surf Ballroom at Clear Lake, Iowa, on the night of February 2nd. Hoping to catch up on some rest, headliner Buddy Holly decided to charter a plane to get to the tour's next gig in Minnesota, while the rest of the group traveled by bus. Valens and Richardson joined him for the flight, which was piloted by twenty-one-year-old Roger Peterson. Disoriented by poor visibility in the darkness, Peterson crashed the plane almost immediately after takeoff; there were no survivors of the February 3rd accident.

The sudden loss of three popular performers stunned music fans. The death of Valens, who was just seventeen years old, contributed to the poignancy of the tragic event; the young performer still had the double-sided hit "Donna/La Bamba" riding high on the charts. In the year after his death two more albums, Ritchie and Ritchie Valens in Concert at Pacioma Junior High, were released. Compilations of Valens's work have remained in print continuously.

In 1972 Don McLean's song commemorating the event,"American Pie," hit number one as it recalled "the day the music died." Valens's own music lived on, as it was performed by groups ranging from the Ramones to Led Zeppelin. Revived by Los Lobos in 1987, a remake of "La Bamba" eventually returned to the pop charts as a number one single. The song was included on the soundtrack to the film of the same name, which introduced Ritchie Valens to a new generation of music fans as the first Latino rock-and-roll star. In 2001 Valens was inducted by singer Ricky Martin into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum for his contribution to popular music.

Selected discography

"Come On, Let's Go" (single), Del-Fi Records, 1958.

"Donna/La Bamba" (single), Del-Fi Records, 1958.

"Fast Freight/Big Baby Blues" (single), Del-Fi Records, 1958.

Ritchie Valens, (album), Del-Fi Records, 1959.

"That's My Little Suzie" (single), Del-Fi Records, 1959.

"Little Girl/We Belong Together&rduo; (single), Del-Fi Records, 1959.

Ritchie, (album), Del-Fi Records, 1959.

Ritchie Valens in Concert at Pacioma Junior High, (album), Del-Fi Records, 1960.

Ritchie Valens's Greatest Hits, (album), Del-Fi Records, 1963.

The Best of Ritchie Valens, (album), Rhino Records, 1981.



The Billboard Book of Top Forty Hits, 6th Edition, Billboard Publications, 1996, p. 626.

Lehmer, Larry, The Day the Music Died: The Last Tour of Buddy Holly, the 'Big Bopper' and Ritchie Valens, Schirmer Books, 1997.

Mendheim, Beverly, Ritchie Valens: The First Latino Rocker, Bilingual Press, 1987.

World Music: The Rough Guide Volume 2, Rough Guides, 2000, pp. 466-467.


2001 Inductees: Ritchie Valens, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Web Site, 2001,

Timothy Borden

Ritchie Valens

views updated May 23 2018

Ritchie Valens

In a recording career that spanned less than two years and produced only one album released during his lifetime, Ritchie Valens (1941-1959), born Richard Steven Valenzuela, has had an enduring influence on rock 'n roll music despite the fact that he died before his eighteenth birthday in a plane crash that also claimed the lives of rockers Buddy Holly and J. P. Richardson (The Big Bopper). Valens's music is admired for his gritty proto-punk, garage-rock guitar style, lack of sentimentality, and embracement of his Hispanic heritage, which are apparent in his most successful hit single "La Bamba."

With the concurrent deaths of Holly and Valens, it has been argued that the evolution of the rock 'n roll genre stalled until the Beatles (a band whose name was inspired by the name of Holly's band, the Crickets) took up where the two American performers left off. Valens, inspired by Holly and Eddie Cochran to write and play guitar on his own compositions, displayed a tremendous degree of potential as a songwriter, guitarist, and showman as evidenced by the performances captured on his two studio albums, Ritchie Valens (1959) and Ritchie (1959), and a live recording, Ritchie Valens in Concert at Pacoima Junior High (1960). These recordings inspired such later guitarists and songwriters as diverse as The Ramones's Johnny Ramone, Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, and Los Lobos's David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas. Such was Valens's influence on Los Lobos that the band re-recorded two of his biggest hits for the soundtrack of the Valens's biographic motion picture La Bamba (1987), which revitalized interest in Valens's life and music.

Born in East Los Angeles

Valens was raised in the Los Angeles suburb of Pacoima, the son of Joseph "Steve" Valenzuela, who worked at times as a tree surgeon, miner, and horse trainer. Valens's mother, Concepcion "Connie" Valenzuela, worked in a munitions plant and had one son, Robert, from a previous marriage. The parents separated when Valens was three years old, and the young man spent much of his time with his father who introduced his son to blues, flamenco, and other traditional Mexican music and taught his son how to play guitar. The heavy ethnicity of the Los Angeles area also exposed him to the rhythm and blues music of such acts as the Drifters, the Penguins, Bo Diddley (Elias McDaniel), and, perhaps most importantly, Little Richard, as well as the rock 'n roll music of Holly, Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley.

When Joseph Valenzuela died of diabetes-related complications, Valens lived for a while with his uncle, Henry Felix, in Santa Monica, California, before moving back to stay with his mother, step-brother and two younger step-sisters in Pacoima. He continued to pursue his musical interests, studying guitar and listening to recordings by Chuck Berry, Richard, Presley, and others, while learning traditional Mexican songs from his relatives. He practiced and entertained his friends at Pacoima Junior High during lunch hours, refining the guitar skills and vocal prowess that led to an invitation to join The Silhouettes.

The Silhouettes

When he was sixteen years old, Valens accepted The Silhouettes's invitation to join the band as guitarist and singer. The racially integrated group included African American and Japanese American musicians who played local high-school dances, church social functions, and neighborhood parties. Other members of the band included vibes player Gil Rocha, who was twenty-one years old and often credited with instilling a sense of professionalism within the band. Valens shared vocal responsibilities with female vocalists Emma Franco and Phyllis Romano. His tenure with The Silhouettes is credited with assisting him overcome stage fright and shyness and led him to be nicknamed "The Little Richard of Pacoima" for one of his chief stylistic influences. His stage demeanor, however, was reportedly far more reserved than Little Richard's. Other writers claim that Valens's exhibited more of a Bo Diddley "shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits" rhythmic influence, but in either instance, it is clear that Valens was pioneering the use of rhythmic guitar as a lead rock 'n roll instrument, a style that is also used to good effect by guitarists Pete Townshend, Robbie Robertson, and Johnny Ramone as well as hundreds of guitarists in lesser-known garage and punk bands.

Bob Keane and Del-Fi Records

In May 1958, Valens auditioned for Bob Keane, the owner of Del-Fi Records. Recording at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles, Valens cut his first single, "Come On, Let's Go." Although it is recognized by contemporary critics as a classic rock 'n roll song, it failed to chart in the top-40 upon its release.

Valens's second recording session yielded a two-sided hit single, "Donna" and "La Bamba." The first song was written by Valens for his high-school girlfriend and was rush-released after Los Angeles's most popular radio station, KFWB, broadcast a test-pressing of the song to overwhelming positive response. A softly sung guitar ballad with simple lyrics and guitar-chord changes, "Donna" inspired a whole generation of feminine-named songs from Neil Sedaka's "Oh, Carol!" to Randy and the Rainbows "Denise."

Rock critic Lester Bangs summed up the appeal of "Donna" in this way: "Valens sang with an unassuming sincerity that made him more truly touching than any other artist from his era. 'Donna' is one of the classic teen love ballads, one of the few which reaches through layers of maudlin sentiment to give you the true and unmistakable sensation of what it must have been like to be a teenager in that strange decade." Bangs continued: "The agonizing sense of frustration which is so crucial to adolescent life is never very far from his lyrics, and in his best songs, like 'Donna' and 'Come On Let's Go,' it is right up front, just as it is in Eddie Cochran's classic 'Summertime Blues."' "Donna" entered the pop-music charts on December 29, 1958, and became a number 2 hit with fourteen weeks on the Billboard American charts; it climbed to number 20 in Great Britain.

The single's flipside, however, may have contributed significantly to the success of "Donna." "La Bamba" was a huapango—a traditional Mexican folksong of celebration that is often sung at wedding receptions. Reputedly taught to Valens by his cousin, Dickie Cota, "La Bamba" is the song that became most closely associated with the singer, guitarist, and songwriter. While it rose to only Number 22 on the Billboard American charts, the song combines a flamenco-influenced lead guitar riff to a more visceral garage-band rhythm, resulting in one of rock 'n roll's seminal records of the 1950s.

All three singles were collected on the album Ritchie Valens, which was released February 12, 1959, slightly more than one week after Valens's death. In October 1959, however, Del-Fi Records released a second album of Valens's recordings, Ritchie, which yielded no hit singles but remains essential to fans of 1950s rock, proto-punk, and garage rock. Del-Fi also released Ritchie Valens in Concert at Pacoima Junior High, which included live concert versions of "Come On, Let's Go," and "Donna" and cover versions of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" and the Mexican folksong "Malaguena." Reviewing the record, Bangs wrote: "Richie Valens was a quiet, underrated yet enormously influential member of that handful of folk visionaries who almost single-handedly created rock and roll in the Fifties. … It is a dignified, sincere memorial and a beautiful document out of the Fifties, but it is also a greatrock and roll recording in its own right, because Richie Valens himself was a great artist." Numerous repackages of Valens's music have been released since his death.

Played with the Big Boys

Capitalizing on the success of "Donna," the upcoming release of his first album, and the forthcoming release of "La Bamba" as a single in its own right, Valens was asked to appear on Dick Clark's American Bandstand and Alan Freed's Christmas Show in New York in December 1958. He also filmed an appearance in the 1959-released film, Go, Johnny, Go, in which he appears with Freed alongside performances by Cochran and Jackie Wilson.

In January 1959, Valens joined Buddy Holly and the Crickets, the Big Bopper, and Dion and the Belmonts on a package-concert tour organized by Clark, called "The Winter Dance Party." Such package shows were popular during the 1950s and 1960s and typically featured two shows every evening that allowed each act fifteen minutes to one-half hour to perform their hits. After a performance on February 2, 1959, several of the performers elected to fly in a plane chartered by Holly rather than ride on the tour bus with a broken heater in sub-zero temperatures. Valens earned a seat on the plane by winning a coin toss with Crickets guitarist Tommy Allsop and was killed along with Holly, the Big Bopper, and the twenty-one-year-old pilot when the plane crashed in a cornfield.

Enduring Popularity

Since his death in 1959, Valens's music and life have enjoyed renewed interest through the song "American Pie" by Don McLean, which presents the fatal plane crash as an allegory for lost innocence, and through the heavily fictionalized film biography La Bamba, featuring actor Lou Diamond Phillips as Valens. The film's title track, performed by the band Los Lobos, became a number one hit single the same year. Valens's name also appeared in music news when Led Zeppelin songwriter and guitarist Jimmy Page was sued for plagiarizing Valens's "Ooh! My Head" for the British band's song "Boogie with Stu." Page, who acknowledged Valens as "my first guitar hero," settled the suit for an undisclosed sum in 1978.


Nugent, Stephen and Charlie Gillett, Rock Almanac: Top Twenty American and British Singles and Albums of the '50s, '60s, and '70s, Anchor Books, 1978.


"The Real Story of Ritchie Valens," The Rockabilly Hall of Fame,

"Ritchie Valens," Ritchie Valens,http:www/

"Ritchie Valens," The Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame,

"Ritchie Valens," (review by Lester Bangs), Rolling Stone,http://www.rollingstone/recordings/r. □