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Ritchie Valens Proved Rock 'N Roll Could Have A Latin Beat

Music | February 22, 2018

Left: Ritchie Valens' grave. Right: Photo of Ritchie Valens. Sources: Wikimedia Commons; Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Ritchie Valens left us "La Bamba," "Donna," and "Come On, Let's Go" -- classics of '50s rock -- but he wasn't around long enough to show us what else he could do. A gifted musician writing pop songs without a blueprint, Valens died before his 18th birthday in the plane crash that also claimed the lives of Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson). As the child of two Mexican immigrants who had a major hit entirely sung in Spanish ("La Bamba"), Valens presaged the Mexican-American or Chicano rock movement -- and that's in addition to being a major figure in mainstream rock 'n roll and what we'd later call rockabilly.

Richard Steven Valenzuela (May 13, 1941 – February 3, 1959) was better known by his professional name, Ritchie Valens. His recording career lasted only eight short months.

Valens was born in 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 old. 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.

Valens' signature tune -- which wasn't his biggest hit -- is "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.

"La Bamba" was a B-side that reached #22 on the pop chart. The A-side, "Donna," was actually Valens' biggest hit, peaking at #2.

Ritchie Valens's First Group Was Called The Silhouettes

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 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 Got On That Plane

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.

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 a fear of flying in airplanes because of a freak accident at his junior high school. In 1957, two 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.

As a rock star on the rise, Valens had to overcome his fear of airplanes, as his career now required travel all around the country to play concerts and make personal appearances.

Prior to his untimely death, Ritchie Valens had become a frequent traveler, having flown to Pennsylvania to appear on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, as well as to Hawaii and New York City.

Valens' final tour, alongside Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, crisscrossed the midwest during a bitterly cold winter. For performers, even those with a fear of flying, riding the bus was a grim option -- bus travel was cold, and performers were known to get sick as they shivered through the long nights. We can't know whether Valens was actually over his fear of flying or just didn't want to rough it on the bus -- either way, he got on that plane, and didn't survive the journey.

In the blink of an eye, the talented and young Ritchie Valens was gone. He was the youngest to die in the historic airplane crash, at 17 years of age.  This very tragedy inspired Don McLean's “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, which introduced a new and younger generation of music fans to Valens' music.

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, though, had a lack of sentimentality and didn't always embrace his Hispanic heritage.

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 those two 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 been lost much too soon.  

Tags: La Bamba | Ritchie Valens | What Did He Do?...

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

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.