The Golden Oldies of Ritchie Valens Proved That Rock and Roll Also Has A Latin Beat

Music | February 22, 2018

Photo of Ritchie Valens UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Ritchie Valens Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Richard Steven Valenzuela (May 13, 1941 – February 3, 1959) was best known by his professional name, Ritchie Valens.  He was a young, up and coming, American vocalist, songwriter, and accomplished guitarist. Valens was a rock and roll pioneer of the Chicano rock and roll movement. Valens' recording career lasted only eight short months. Unfortunately, his career and his, very young, life ended unexpectedly when he died in a plane crash.

During his brief stardom, Ritchie Valens had become well known and had several hits, most notably, La Bamba, which sold over a million records. He had rearranged and adapted the hit song from an old Mexican folk song. Valens transformed the song to an upbeat rock and roll rhythm, which turned out to be his claim to fame. The famous song had an unmistakable beat, and it became a huge hit in 1958. This distinction skyrocketed Valens to epic fame.

February 3, 1959, has become known as, "the day the music died.”

That is the date that Valens died in a plane crash in Iowa. That horrific accident also claimed the lives of fellow musicians Buddy Holly and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, as well as their pilot, Roger Peterson.

Valens was born Richard Steven Valenzuela in Pacoima, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles. Although he was born in the United States, he was of Mexican descent and was brought up listening to traditional Mexican, mariachi and flamenco guitar music, R&B and jump blues.

Richie Valens was interested in making his own music by the time he was five years. He was actually encouraged, by his father, to take up guitar and trumpet, and later taught himself the drums. Though Valens was left handed, he was hell bent on learning to play the guitar; so much so, that he mastered the traditionally right-handed version on his own. By the time he attended junior high school, he began bringing his guitar to school so he could sing and play songs for his friends.

When he was just 16 years old, Valens joined a local band, The Silhouettes, as a guitarist. This was a small time local band and not the famous group known for the hit song, Get a Job. When the lead vocalist left the group, Valens stepped up to assume the position. Being a self-taught musician, Valens was an accomplished singer and guitarist. He often improvised lyrics and added new grooves to popular songs as he was playing them.

Valens was likened to the iconic artist, Little Richard!

Bob Keane, a small, Hollywood record label executive, was turned on to Valens in 1958 by one of Valens’ fellow students. At the time Valens had made a name for himself with his high school community and was likened to “Little Richard” of San Fernando. This comparison gained Valens much attention. He was eventually invited to audition for the big time!

Valens was soon signed to the Del-Fi record label on May 27, 1958. This is the time that the young musician officially took the professional name of "Ritchie Valens."  At the time, there were a lot of musicians named, Richard. Keane recommended taking the name to distinguish himself from other current musicians.

Richie Valens – The Lost Tapes, have been well known for featuring Ritchie Valens’ unsurpassed talent as a guitarist and a vocalist, but especially on the drums. Shortly thereafter the making of these tapes, Valens was well recognized. He would be a front guy with a full band accompanying him.

By late 1958, the demands of Valens' career (seemingly) forced him to drop out of high school; that is how epic he had become. He began his early career by making live appearances across the United States as well as performances on television programs.

Valens had been known for having a fear of flying in airplanes because of a freak accident at his junior high school. In 1957, 2 airplanes collided over the playground of his school, killing and injuring many of his friends. It left a lasting impression on him, to say the least.

Obviously, Valens eventually overcame his fear of airplanes, which was evidenced by his willingness to travel by airplane for his (then) new found career. He had frequently traveled by air to make personal appearances as well as taped appearances.

Prior to his untimely death, Ritchie Valens had flown to Pennsylvania to appear on Dick Clark’s, American Bandstand, television show as well as to Hawaii, New York City and other places. At the time, other forms of transportation included buses, which were sub-par, at best.

Especially when traveling throughout the Midwest, bus transportation conditions for the performers were abysmal, to say the very least. In those climates, they were bitterly cold and resulted in the performers becoming sick; even suffering the dreaded flu and severe frostbite. This well-known fact is probably the reason Valens decided to agree that it might be okay to travel by airplane.

The fatal accident that Ritchie Valens suffered was, in and of itself, confirmation that his fear of flying was justified. That, at the time, was of no comfort to Valens or anyone who loved him. The fact was that he had ultimately lost his life by the very thing he had feared.  

In the blink of an eye, the talented and young Ritchie Valens was gone! He was only 17 years old and he died much too young! He and Buddy Holly were lost way too soon in that small airplane that they had chartered. Everyone on board was killed instantly so, thankfully, no one suffered!

Ritchie Valens was the youngest to die in the historic airplane crash at 17 years young.  This very tragedy inspired the famous singer, Don McLean, to write his hit song, “American Pie,” in 1971. This song, which was a huge hit, served to immortalize the young musicians.

Valens was a pioneer of Chicano and Latin rock music and inspired countless musicians of Mexican heritage. He influenced artists including the likes of Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys, and Carlos Santana. He had actually become nationally successful at a time when very few Latinos were popular in the American rock and pop music genres. Ritchie Valens is considered the first Latino to successfully cross over into mainstream, American rock and roll.

La Bamba proved to be Ritchie Valens’ most influential recording. This, not only by becoming a pop chart hit sung entirely in Spanish, but also because of its successful blending of traditional Latin American music with American rock and roll. Valens was the first to capitalize on this formula, which was later adopted by such varied artists including Selena, Caifanes, Café Tacuba, Circo, El Gran Silencio, Aterciopelados, Gustavo Santaolalla, and many others in the Latin alternative scene.

It is ironic that Ritchie Valens’ family only spoke English in their home. Despite his Latin ethnicity, he knew very little of the Spanish language. Valens actually taught himself the Spanish lyrics to La Bamba, phonetically, by listening to the language.

Ritchie Valens was actually the inspiration to many other celebrated American rock and roll artists, including Chan Romero, Carlos Santana, Chris Montez, Keith O'Conner Murphy and even the epic Jimi Hendrix.

Only 17 years old when he died, Ritchie Valens left behind a few iconic recordings. His first, self-titled album was released shortly after the fatal accident and did well; making it to the Billboard Music charts. A live recording was later released as Ritchie Valens in Concert at Pacoima Junior High. Ritchie Valens' life story was memorialized on the big screen in the 1987 hit movie, La Bamba. La Bamba, the movie, introduced a new and younger generation of music fans to the talent of the Latino, pioneer performer, Ritchie Valens.

Actor, Lou Diamond Phillips, played Ritchie Valens, in the movie and the band Los Lobos recorded the movie soundtrack.

Ritchie Valens was a mega talented musician that made a huge name for himself in music history. His epic career was cut short way too soon. It is interesting to imagine what might have been if his life had been spared.

Valens had a music recording career that spanned only less than two years and produced just one album released during his short lifetime. Despite his short-lived music career, Ritchie Valens has had an enduring influence on rock and roll music history. The tragic airplane crash that claimed his life, also claimed the lives of equally epic rock and roll icons, Buddy Holly and J. P. Richardson.  Valens' music is known and admired for his gritty, proto-punk, garage type rock guitar style. His signature style, although, had a lack of sentimentality and didn't necessarily embrace his Hispanic heritage. This is especially ironic considering that his hit single, La Bamba, is what made his famous.

With the concurrent deaths of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, it has been widely argued that the evolution of the rock and roll music genre had all but stalled until the Beatles (a band whose name was, ironically, inspired by the name of Buddy Holly's band, the Crickets) took up where the two epic, American performers left off. Ritchie Valens was reportedly originally inspired by Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran to write and play guitar on his own compositions.

Ritchie Valens had displayed a tremendous degree of potential as a vocalist, songwriter, guitarist, and showman as was evidenced by the performances captured on his two (and only) studio albums, Ritchie Valens and Ritchie, both in 1959; as well as a live recording, Ritchie Valens in Concert at Pacoima Junior High in 1960. Valens, rightfully so, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. Valens is among the many talented and successful artists that have beeb lost much too soon.  

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Rebeka Knott


Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.