Richard Steven Valenzuela (May 13, 1941 - February 3, 1959), better known as Ritchie Valens, was a pioneer of rock and roll and, as a Mexican-American with Yaqui American Indian roots born in Pacoima, California, became the first Mexican American rock and roll star.
The professional career of Ritchie Valens lasted a period of eight months, during which time he recorded some very influential songs of the 1950s rock and roll era. His best known song, "La Bamba," is probably the very first Latin Rock song to become a hit,1 making Valens the father of the Spanish language rock and roll movement.
He was born Richard Steven Valenzuela in Pacoima, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, on Mother's Day, May 13, 1941. Influenced by his mother, Connie Reyes Valenzuela, Ritchie grew up hearing traditional Mexican mariachi music as well as flamenco guitar; his father, Steven Joseph Valenzuela, inspired Ritchie's interest in flamenco, R&B, and jump blues. Surrounded by his relatives who would gather on weekend and sing songs, Ritchie was greatly influenced by the folk songs and melodies of his cultural heritage. He grew up in a rough neighborhood, but was not affected by this environment. Steve Valenzuela, a World War I veteran, ran a strict household.2 Ritchie grew to be the image of the perfect son. He was very mature and seemed older than he actually was; during his rise to fame, he gained the nickname "old man" from the performers he played with on Buddy Holly's tour.
He was encouraged by his father to take up guitar and trumpet, and it is also known that he later taught himself to play the drums (even filling in, later in his career, for a frostbitten drummer during live shows, while on tour). By the time he was five years old, Ritchie was already engaged in creating music of his own, even creating instruments of his own. One day, a neighbor found Valens trying to play a guitar that only had two strings. The neighbor re-strung the instrument and taught Ritchie the fingerings for some chords. Though Ritchie was left-handed, he was so eager to learn that he taught himself and mastered the guitar in its traditional right-handed configuration. By the time he was attending Pacoima Jr. High School, his proficiency on the guitar was such that he began to entertain his friends at school; Ritchie would bring his guitar to school with him and would sing and play songs to his friends on the bleachers. While in junior high school, he built his reputation as a performing artist by playing at high school dances and private parties.3
When he was sixteen years old, he was invited to join a local band named The Silhouettes as lead guitarist. Later, the main vocalist left the group and Valens assumed that position as well, becoming a double threat on guitar and vocals. In addition to the performances with The Silhouettes, he gave solo performances at parties and other social gatherings. It was actually at a Silhouettes performance that Valens met his high school sweetheart, Donna Ludwig.
A completely self-taught musician, Valens often improvised new lyrics and added new riffs to popular songs while he was playing them. This is an aspect of his music that is, sadly, not heard in his commercial studio recordings. Yet, there is a rare, unprofessional recording of one of his live performances at his friend, Gail Smith's, Halloween Party in 1957, around the time he became popular.4 Due to his high-energy performances, Valens earned the nickname "The Little Richard of the Valley."
Rise to fame
In May 1958, Bob Keane, the owner and president of Del-Fi Records, a small Hollywood record label, was given a tip about a young performer from Pacoima by the name of Richard Valenzuela. Keane, swayed by Valens nickname and the Little Richard connection, went to see Valens play a Saturday morning matinée at a movie theater in San Fernando. Impressed by the performance, he invited Valens to audition at his home in Silver Lake Los Angeles, where Keane had a small recording studio in his basement. The recording equipment comprised an early portable tape recorder-a two-track Ampex 6012-and a pair of Telefunken U-87 condenser microphones.
After this first audition, Keane signed Valens to Del-Fi, and a contract was prepared and signed on May 27, 1958. It was at this point that he took the name Ritchie Valens, because, as Keane said, "There were a bunch of 'Richies' around at that time, and I wanted it to be different." Similarly, it was Keane who decided to shorten his surname to Valens from Valenzuela, with the idea that a Latino name would make the DJs think that it was Latino music for a Latino audience. Keane wanted Ritchie's music to reach all audiences of every kind and have audiences be inspired by the songs themselves, not influenced by the name of the singer.
Several songs that would later be re-recorded at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood were first demoed in Keane's studio. The demonstration recordings were mostly of Valens just singing and playing guitar. Some of the demos also featured drums. These original recordings can be heard on the Del-Fi album Ritchie Valens-The Lost Tapes. As well as these demo recordings, two of the tracks laid down in Keane's studio were taken to Gold Star and had additional instruments dubbed over to create full-band recordings. "Donna" was one track (although there are two other preliminary versions of the song, both available on The Lost Tapes), and the other was an instrumental entitled "Ritchie's Blues." Many of Valens original songs were inspired by his real life. "That's My Little Susie" was about an odd-walking girl who lived next door; and "Come On Let's Go" was something Ritchie's mother used to shout to her children.5
After several songwriting and demo recording sessions with Keane in his basement studio, Keane decided that Ritchie was ready to enter the studio with a full band backing him. Among the musicians were Rene Hall and Earl Palmer. The first songs recorded at Gold Star, at a single studio session one afternoon in July 1958, were "Come On, Let's Go," an original (credited to Valens/Kuhn, Keane's real name), and "Framed," a Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller tune. Pressed and released within days of the recording session, the record was a success. In just two months after meeting Keane, Ritchie had a hit song. Valens' next record, a double A-side, which was the final record to be released in his lifetime, had the songs "Donna" (written about Donna Ludwig, his high school sweetheart) coupled with "La Bamba." Despite the legacy of "La Bamba," it was "Donna" that actually did better on the charts.
It is hard to accurately state how immense the impact of this album was. On a purely sonic level, the bass driven sound of "La Bamba" was unlike anything before it. It was that full-sounding, thick bass end that made the song so powerful musically. This song also inspired the Latin American communities who, before that time, did not have any Latino rock and roll stars with which to identify themselves. It is amazing that one song could motivate generations of Spanish speaking musicians to pursue careers in music, in their mother tongue. Ritchie Valens truly gave the Mexican and Latino communities a reason to feel a sense of worth and value; his success was their success, and Valens pursued his music with all his teenage energy and passion.
After his double-A side recording became a hit, in the autumn of 1958, Valens quit high school at 17 years old to concentrate on his career. Keane booked his young protege appearances at venues all across the United States, and performances on television programs such as Dick Clark's American Bandstand, on October 6, where he performed "Come On, Let's Go." In November, Ritchie traveled to Hawaii and performed alongside Buddy Holly and Paul Anka, among others. Valens found himself a last-minute addition on the bill of Alan Freed's Christmas Jubilee in New York City in December, singing with some of those who had greatly influenced his music, including Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers, Duane Eddy, Eddie Cochran and Jackie Wilson. On December 27, Valens returned to American Bandstand, this time to give a performance of "Donna."
Upon his return to Los Angeles in January 1959, Valens filmed an appearance in Alan Freed's movie, Go Johnny Go!. In the film, he appears in a diner, miming his song "Ooh! My Head" while playing guitar. In between his live appearances, Ritchie returned to Gold Star several times, recording the tracks that would comprise his two albums. In between performances, he would also make time to play at parties and at his old schools, Pacoima High School and Jr. High, never forgetting where he came from nor letting the big business get to his head.
In early 1959, Valens was traveling the Midwest on a multi-act rock and roll tour dubbed The Winter Dance Party. Accompanying him were Buddy Holly with a new line-up of the Crickets, Tommy Allsup on guitar, Waylon Jennings on bass, and Carl Bunch on drums; Dion and the Belmonts; J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson; and Frankie Sardo. None of the other performers had backing bands, so the Crickets filled in for all the shows.
Conditions on the tour buses used for the performers were abysmal, and the bitter Midwest American weather took its toll on the party; the drummer, Carl Bunch, had to be hospitalized with frostbitten feet, and several others (including Valens and Richardson) caught colds. The performances, however, were deemed to be some of the greatest shows in rock and roll history. The show was split into two acts, with Ritchie closing the first act. After Bunch was hospitalized, a member of the Belmonts who had some drum experience took over the drumming duties. When Dion and the Belmonts were performing, the drum seat was taken by either Valens or Buddy Holly. There is a surviving color photograph of Valens at the drum kit.
Buddy Holly, reportedly annoyed with the conditions traveling on the buses, decided to charter a single engine plane for himself and the Crickets to get to the next show on time, get some rest, and get their laundry done. After the February 2, 1959, performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly, Richardson, who pleaded with Waylon Jennings for his seat because he was stricken with flu, and Valens, who had won Tommy Allsup's seat after a coin toss, were taken to Clear Lake airport by the manager of the Surf Ballroom.
The three stars, Holly, Richardson, and Valens, arrived at the airport shortly after midnight and were met by their 21-year-old pilot, Roger Peterson, and Jerry Dwyer, the plane's owner. It was a little before 1 a.m. when the single engine aircraft, a four passenger Beechcraft Bonanza, departed into a blinding snow storm. Peterson was inexperienced and was actually not supposed to fly under conditions requiring navigation by instruments. Peterson reportedly was unaware of the special advisories concerning poor visibility. Peterson probably became confused in reading the unfamiliar gyroscope and may not have realized he was descending and not ascending. Just minutes after takeoff, the plane crashed into farmer Albert Juhl's cornfield.6
The crash killed all three passengers, as well as the 21 year-old pilot. The wreckage was spotted at approximately 9:35 a.m. the next morning, when a worried Dwyer decided to investigate, after not having heard from the airport of destination. Holly and Valens lay twenty feet from the plane while The Big Bopper was thrown forty feet away. Ritchie Valens was only 17 years old. His career lasted for less than a year, yet his impact and legacy has stood the test of time.
Some blame Keane for Valens death, accusing him of overworking Valens, a plausible reason for death. Valens was supposed to receive a gold record award for "Donna" when he came home from the tour; Keane presented it, instead, to Valens' mother.
This event inspired singer Don McLean's popular 1971 ballad "American Pie," and immortalized February 3rd as "The Day the Music Died." The event also inspired the Eddie Cochran song, "Three Stars," which specifically mentions Buddy Holly, the J.P. Richardson, and Ritchie Valens.
Ritchie Valens is interred in the San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills, California. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6733 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California. Ritchie's mother died in 1987, and is buried alongside him.
Though his career and life were short, Ritchie Valens' influence on culture has been felt long after his death. His legacy affects not only the world of rock n' roll music, but the world of Hispanic culture as well. As an American born to Mexican parents, Valens inspired the minorities of Latino and Mexican decent to feel a sense of worth in themselves; he inspired countless Hispanic artists to pursue their dreams of stardom and success. Valens made amazing progress in the development of rock music but also had a cultural impact on minorities in America.
Valens was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, and his pioneering contribution to the genre has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the Guitar Center Rock Walk on October 8, 1997.7
The 1987 biographical film, La Bamba, introduced actor Lou Diamond Phillips as Valens and co-starred Esai Morales as his older half-brother, Bob Morales. The band Los Lobos supervised the film's music and recorded their own version of La Bamba, which, ironically, went to number one on the American Music Charts in 1987, outperforming the Valens version's original chart position. The movie turned a younger audience on to Ritchie's music and a new boom in demand was created. Valens manager, Bob Keane, reprinted his albums and provided them on compact disc for the new generation of fans.
Ritchie Valens has also been featured prominently in hundreds of articles and a more than a dozen books written about the early days of Rock and Roll, including a biography (Ritchie VALENS: The First Latino Rocker)8 first published in 1987, and in Larry Lehmer's book The Day The Music Died.
Valens was also one of only a few rock n' roll artists to have been honored with a U.S. postage stamp, along with Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, and Elvis Presley.9
September 16 2003.
Valens was a pioneer of Chicano rock and Spanish language rock and roll and influenced the likes of Chris Montez, Los Lonely Boys, and Carlos Santana. Valens' classic song, "Come on Let's Go" was covered by The Ramones and The Paley Brothers jointly, The Ramones on guitar, bass, and drums, and The Paley Brothers on vocals. "La Bamba" would prove to be Valen's most influential recording as by not only performing a rock and roll song in Spanish but blending traditional Latin American music with rock and roll, Valens became the first to use a formula that would be used by such artists as Caifanes, Cafe Tacuba, Circo, El Gran Silencio, Aterciopelados, Gustavo Santaolalla, and many others in the Latin Alternative scene.
Ritchie's hometown of Pacoima is filled with tributes to their hometown hero: A mural of Ritchie at Pacoima Junior High School, the Ritchie Valens public pool, and the Ritchie Valens Recreation Center.10
In 1988, Ken Paquette, a Wisconsin fan of 1950s era music, erected a stainless steel monument depicting a guitar and a set of three records bearing the names of each of the three performers. It is located on private farmland, about one quarter mile west of the intersection of 315th Street and Gull Avenue, approximately eight miles north of Clear Lake, Iowa. He also created a similar stainless steel monument to the three musicians near the Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay, Wisconsin. That memorial was unveiled on July 17, 2003.
- ↑ Corey Levitan, Latino rockers no longer lost in translation, The Daily Breeze. Retrieved November 7, 2007.
- ↑ Ritchie Valens.org, Ritchie Valens Biography. Retrieved July 20, 2007.
- ↑ Hankstermania, Our Hall of Fame Rock and Roll. Retrieved July 19, 2007.
- ↑ Hankstermania, Our Hall of Fame Rock and Roll. Retrieved July 19, 2007.
- ↑ Ritchivalens.org, Ritchie Valens Biography. Retrieved July 20, 2007.
- ↑ Classic Bands, Ritchie Valens. Retrieved July 23, 2007.
- ↑ Guitar Center, Hollywood's Rock Walk. Retrieved July 23, 2007.
- ↑ Beverly Mendheim, Ritchie Valens The First Latino Rocker (Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1987). ISBN 9780916950798
- ↑ Larry Lehmer, The Day the Music Died: The Last Tour of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens (New York: Schirmer Books, 1997, ISBN 0028647416).
- ↑ Hankstermania, Our Hall of Fame Rock and Roll. Retrieved July 23, 2007.
- Lehmer, Larry. The Day the Music Died: The Last Tour of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens. New York: Schirmer Books, 1997. ISBN 0028647416
- Mendheim, Beverly. Ritchie Valens: The First Latino Rocker. Tempe, AZ: Bilinguual Press/Editorial Bilingue, 1987. ISBN 0916950794
- Penn, W.S. As we Are Now: Mixblood Essays on Race and Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. ISBN 0520210727
All links retrieved July 28, 2019.