Born Richard Steven Valenzuela, 13 May 1941, Pacoima, Los Angeles, California. Died 3 February 1959, near Clear Lake, Iowa
The recording career of Ritchie Valens lasted only eight months, yet his musical legacy is an important one. Of Mexican descent, he was the first major Hispanic-American rock star, scoring five entries in the Billboard Top 100, among which one enduring double-sided million seller.
As a child, Richie was exposed to various musical influences : Mexican mariachi music, flamenco guitar, rhythm and blues and country & western. An exotic fusion that was later to serve him well. He showed an interest in making music at the age of five, and, encouraged by his father Steve, took up the guitar and the trumpet, eventually adding the drums to his repertoire. He started writing songs in his early teens and was soon singing and playing in high school. Adept at improvisation, Richie would make up his own lyrics to popular songs of the day. In 1957 he was invited to join a group called The Silhouettes (not the "Get A Job" group) as guitarist and later also lead singer. Valens also performed solo and was heard by Bob Keane, owner of Del-Fi Records, who signed Richie to the label in May 1958. Keane shortened his surname (Valenzuela) to Valens and altered the spelling of his first name to Ritchie with a 't'. On virtually all of his studio recordings, Valens had the benefit of being accompanied by top L.A. session players : usually Rene Hall on guitar or Danelectro bass, Carol Kaye on guitar, Red Callender on stand-up bass, Ernie Freeman on piano and Earl Palmer on drums. The first single, the self-penned "Come On Let's Go" (recorded on June 18), peaked at # 42 on Billboard's pop charts in November 1958. The second single would be the last record to be released in his lifetime and would make him immortal. It was an unusual coupling that featured a dreamy, doo-wop style ballad on one side and a rocked-up version of a traditional Mexican folksong (sung in Spanish) on the other. "Donna" was inspired by Ritchie's high school sweetheart Donna Ludwig and was the bigger hit, reaching # 2. "La Bamba" peaked at # 22, but has proved to be the more fondly remembered song and was more influential, perhaps even revolutionary, by introducing Hispanic music to a rock n roll audience. In the 1960s, "La Bamba" charted in versions by the Tokens (1962), the Crickets (1964, a UK hit) and Trini Lopez (1966) and in 1987 it topped the Billboard charts in a Spanish-language version by Los Lobos (from the movie "La Bamba", about Ritchie's tragically short life).
Ritchie quit school around September 1958 to focus on his music career. He played all over the USA and made several TV appearances including Dick Clark's American Bandstand. Early in 1959, Valens filmed an appearance in Alan Freed's movie "Go Johnny Go", miming his song "Ooh My Head". In between the live appearances, Ritchie returned to Gold Star studio several times, recording the tracks that would comprise his two studio albums. On January 23, 1959, Valens began a gruelling three-week tour of the Mid- West alongside Buddy Holly, Dion and the Belmonts, J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper), Frankie Sardo and a backing band comprising Tommy Allsup (guitar), Waylon Jennings (bass) and Carl Bunch (drums). Conditions on what was dubbed the Winter Dance Party were atrocious from the start. Frustrated with the broken heater in their dilapidated tour bus, Valens, Holly and the Big Bopper wanted to avoid the region's below-zero temperature and chartered a small plane after performing at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa on February 2, 1959. Around 1:00 a.m. on the cold snowy morning of February 3, the Beechcraft Bonanza plane (flown by 21-year old pilot Roger Peterson) took off in a blizzard. It never made it to its destination, Fargo, North Dakota. It was found later that morning in a cornfield some six miles north of the Mason City airport. The crash killed all three passengers and the pilot.
February 3, 1959 has become known as "the day the music died", thanks to Don McLean, whose 1971 megahit "American Pie" turned the plane crash into a metaphor for the moment when the United States lost its last shred of innocence.
In the wake of Valens' death, Bob Keane released five further singles (two of which - "That's My Little Suzie" and "Little Girl" - were minor hits) and three LP's, including the live album "Ritchie Valens In Concert At Pacoima Junior High", all in 1959-60. Ritchie's status grew in the years following his death, culminating in the 1987 biopic "La Bamba", with Lou Diamond Phillips in the role of Valens.
In 2001 Valens was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. By kick-starting the Latino Rock movement he paved the way for such artists as Chan Romero, Chris Montez, Eddie Quinteros, Trini Lopez, Freddie Fender, Cannibal and the Headhunters, Carlos Santana and Los Lobos.
More info : - http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Ritchie_Valens.aspx - Official website : http://www.ritchievalens.com/
Books: - Beverly Mensheim, Ritchie Valens : The first Latino rocker. Tempe, Arizona : Bilingual Review Press, 1987. 160 pages. Still in print. - Larry Lehmer, The day the music died : the last tour of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. New York : Schirmer, 1997. 324 pages.
CD's : The most complete overview currently available is "The Complete Ritchie Valens" on Jasmine (2010, 35 tracks), but if you don't want the demos and the live Pacoima tracks, there are plenty of other choices, like "La Bamba" (Snapper, 2010), with the 23 tracks of the first two LP's.
DVD : The Complete Ritchie Valens (2000). Documentary (93 minutes) with an audio programme offering all 28 of his studio masters.
Discography : http://www.rocky-52.net/chanteursv/valens_r.htm
Acknowledgements : Sam Szczepanski (liner notes for the Snapper CD), Wikipedia, several encyclopedias.
Dik, March 2012
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