Ritchie Valens Biography

Richard Steve Valenzuela, 13 May 1941, Pacoima, Los Angeles, California, USA, d. 3 February 1959, Iowa, USA. Valens was the first major Hispanic-American rock star, the artist who popularized the classic 50s hit ‘La Bamba’. He grew up in the city of Pacoima, California, and was raised in poverty. His parents separated when he was a child and Valens lived with his father until the latter’s death in 1951. Afterwards he lived with his mother and brothers and sisters, but occasionally they stayed with other relatives who introduced him to traditional Mexican music. He also enjoyed cowboy songs by Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and began playing in junior high school. It was while attending school that Valens was first exposed to R&B music and rock ‘n’ roll. In 1956 he joined the Silhouettes (not the group that recorded ‘Get A Job’), who performed at record hops in the San Fernando Valley area. Valens also performed solo and was heard by Bob Keane of Del-Fi Records, who took him into Gold Star Studios to record several songs. (Keane also shortened the singer’s name from Valenzuela to Valens and added the ‘t’ to Richie.)

A session band including Earl Palmer (drums), Carol Kaye (guitar), Red Collendar (stand-up bass), Ernie Freeman (piano) and Rene Hall (guitar) played behind Valens (who also played guitar). Their first single, the Valens original ‘Come On, Let’s Go’, reached number 42 in the USA, and following its release the singer went on an 11-city US tour. In October 1958 the single ‘Donna’/‘La Bamba’ was issued. Contrary to popular belief it was actually the ballad ‘Donna’, written by Valens about his high school friend Donna Ludwig, that was the bigger hit, reaching number 2. ‘La Bamba’, the b-side, only reached number 22 in the USA but has proved to be the more fondly remembered song. ‘La Bamba’ was a traditional huapango song from the Vera Cruz region of eastern Mexico, performed as early as World War II, and sung at weddings. (A huapango is a Mexican song comprising nonsense verses, the meaning of the lyrics often known only to the composer.) Valens was reportedly reluctant to record the song, fearing its Spanish lyrics would not catch on with American record buyers. Following the record’s release, Valens again went on tour, performing in California, Hawaii and on the American Bandstand show in Philadelphia.

It was during the winter part of the tour that Valens and his fellow performers met their fate, choosing to charter a small aeroplane rather than ride to the next concert site in a bus whose heater had broken. It was on 3 February 1959 when he, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper were killed in an aeroplane crash following a concert in Clear Lake, Iowa. In the wake of Valens’ death, several further singles were issued, only two of which - ‘That’s My Little Suzie’ and ‘Little Girl’ - were minor chart hits. Three albums - Ritchie Valens, Ritchie and Ritchie Valens In Concert At Pacoima Junior High - were released from sessions recorded for Del-Fi and at a performance for Valens’ classmates. Valens’ status grew in the years following his death, culminating in the 1987 film La Bamba, a dramatized version of Valens’ brief life and stardom. His songs have been covered by several artists, including the Hispanic-American group Los Lobos, who supervised the film’s music and recorded ‘La Bamba’. Their version, ironically, went to number 1 in 1987, outperforming Valens’ original chart position.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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