In a recording career that spanned less than two years and produced only one album released during his lifetime, Ritchie Valens (1941-1959), born Richard Steven Valenzuela, has had an enduring influence on rock 'n roll music despite the fact that he died before his eighteenth birthday in a plane crash that also claimed the lives of rockers Buddy Holly and J. P. Richardson (The Big Bopper). Valens's music is admired for his gritty proto-punk, garage-rock guitar style, lack of sentimentality, and embracement of his Hispanic heritage, which are apparent in his most successful hit single "La Bamba."
With the concurrent deaths of Holly and Valens, it has been argued that the evolution of the rock 'n roll genre stalled until the Beatles (a band whose name was inspired by the name of Holly's band, the Crickets) took up where the two American performers left off. Valens, inspired by Holly and Eddie Cochran to write and play guitar on his own compositions, displayed a tremendous degree of potential as a songwriter, guitarist, and showman as evidenced by the performances captured on his two studio albums, Ritchie Valens (1959) and Ritchie (1959), and a live recording, Ritchie Valens in Concert at Pacoima Junior High (1960). These recordings inspired such later guitarists and songwriters as diverse as The Ramones's Johnny Ramone, Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, and Los Lobos's David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas. Such was Valens's influence on Los Lobos that the band re-recorded two of his biggest hits for the soundtrack of the Valens's biographic motion picture La Bamba (1987), which revitalized interest in Valens's life and music.
Born in East Los Angeles
Valens was raised in the Los Angeles suburb of Pacoima, the son of Joseph "Steve" Valenzuela, who worked at times as a tree surgeon, miner, and horse trainer. Valens's mother, Concepcion "Connie" Valenzuela, worked in a munitions plant and had one son, Robert, from a previous marriage. The parents separated when Valens was three years old, and the young man spent much of his time with his father who introduced his son to blues, flamenco, and other traditional Mexican music and taught his son how to play guitar. The heavy ethnicity of the Los Angeles area also exposed him to the rhythm and blues music of such acts as the Drifters, the Penguins, Bo Diddley (Elias McDaniel), and, perhaps most importantly, Little Richard, as well as the rock 'n roll music of Holly, Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley.
When Joseph Valenzuela died of diabetes-related complications, Valens lived for a while with his uncle, Henry Felix, in Santa Monica, California, before moving back to stay with his mother, step-brother and two younger step-sisters in Pacoima. He continued to pursue his musical interests, studying guitar and listening to recordings by Chuck Berry, Richard, Presley, and others, while learning traditional Mexican songs from his relatives. He practiced and entertained his friends at Pacoima Junior High during lunch hours, refining the guitar skills and vocal prowess that led to an invitation to join The Silhouettes.
When he was sixteen years old, Valens accepted The Silhouettes's invitation to join the band as guitarist and singer. The racially integrated group included African American and Japanese American musicians who played local high-school dances, church social functions, and neighborhood parties. Other members of the band included vibes player Gil Rocha, who was twenty-one years old and often credited with instilling a sense of professionalism within the band. Valens shared vocal responsibilities with female vocalists Emma Franco and Phyllis Romano. His tenure with The Silhouettes is credited with assisting him overcome stage fright and shyness and led him to be nicknamed "The Little Richard of Pacoima" for one of his chief stylistic influences. His stage demeanor, however, was reportedly far more reserved than Little Richard's. Other writers claim that Valens's exhibited more of a Bo Diddley "shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits" rhythmic influence, but in either instance, it is clear that Valens was pioneering the use of rhythmic guitar as a lead rock 'n roll instrument, a style that is also used to good effect by guitarists Pete Townshend, Robbie Robertson, and Johnny Ramone as well as hundreds of guitarists in lesser-known garage and punk bands.
Bob Keane and Del-Fi Records
In May 1958, Valens auditioned for Bob Keane, the owner of Del-Fi Records. Recording at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles, Valens cut his first single, "Come On, Let's Go." Although it is recognized by contemporary critics as a classic rock 'n roll song, it failed to chart in the top-40 upon its release.
Valens's second recording session yielded a two-sided hit single, "Donna" and "La Bamba." The first song was written by Valens for his high-school girlfriend and was rush-released after Los Angeles's most popular radio station, KFWB, broadcast a test-pressing of the song to overwhelming positive response. A softly sung guitar ballad with simple lyrics and guitar-chord changes, "Donna" inspired a whole generation of feminine-named songs from Neil Sedaka's "Oh, Carol!" to Randy and the Rainbows "Denise."
Rock critic Lester Bangs summed up the appeal of "Donna" in this way: "Valens sang with an unassuming sincerity that made him more truly touching than any other artist from his era. 'Donna' is one of the classic teen love ballads, one of the few which reaches through layers of maudlin sentiment to give you the true and unmistakable sensation of what it must have been like to be a teenager in that strange decade." Bangs continued: "The agonizing sense of frustration which is so crucial to adolescent life is never very far from his lyrics, and in his best songs, like 'Donna' and 'Come On Let's Go,' it is right up front, just as it is in Eddie Cochran's classic 'Summertime Blues."' "Donna" entered the pop-music charts on December 29, 1958, and became a number 2 hit with fourteen weeks on the Billboard American charts; it climbed to number 20 in Great Britain.
The single's flipside, however, may have contributed significantly to the success of "Donna." "La Bamba" was a huapango—a traditional Mexican folksong of celebration that is often sung at wedding receptions. Reputedly taught to Valens by his cousin, Dickie Cota, "La Bamba" is the song that became most closely associated with the singer, guitarist, and songwriter. While it rose to only Number 22 on the Billboard American charts, the song combines a flamenco-influenced lead guitar riff to a more visceral garage-band rhythm, resulting in one of rock 'n roll's seminal records of the 1950s.
All three singles were collected on the album Ritchie Valens, which was released February 12, 1959, slightly more than one week after Valens's death. In October 1959, however, Del-Fi Records released a second album of Valens's recordings, Ritchie, which yielded no hit singles but remains essential to fans of 1950s rock, proto-punk, and garage rock. Del-Fi also released Ritchie Valens in Concert at Pacoima Junior High, which included live concert versions of "Come On, Let's Go," and "Donna" and cover versions of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" and the Mexican folksong "Malaguena." Reviewing the record, Bangs wrote: "Richie Valens was a quiet, underrated yet enormously influential member of that handful of folk visionaries who almost single-handedly created rock and roll in the Fifties. … It is a dignified, sincere memorial and a beautiful document out of the Fifties, but it is also a great rock and roll recording in its own right, because Richie Valens himself was a great artist." Numerous repackages of Valens's music have been released since his death.
Played with the Big Boys
Capitalizing on the success of "Donna," the upcoming release of his first album, and the forthcoming release of "La Bamba" as a single in its own right, Valens was asked to appear on Dick Clark's American Bandstand and Alan Freed's Christmas Show in New York in December 1958. He also filmed an appearance in the 1959-released film, Go, Johnny, Go, in which he appears with Freed alongside performances by Cochran and Jackie Wilson.
In January 1959, Valens joined Buddy Holly and the Crickets, the Big Bopper, and Dion and the Belmonts on a package-concert tour organized by Clark, called "The Winter Dance Party." Such package shows were popular during the 1950s and 1960s and typically featured two shows every evening that allowed each act fifteen minutes to one-half hour to perform their hits. After a performance on February 2, 1959, several of the performers elected to fly in a plane chartered by Holly rather than ride on the tour bus with a broken heater in sub-zero temperatures. Valens earned a seat on the plane by winning a coin toss with Crickets guitarist Tommy Allsop and was killed along with Holly, the Big Bopper, and the twenty-one-year-old pilot when the plane crashed in a cornfield.
Since his death in 1959, Valens's music and life have enjoyed renewed interest through the song "American Pie" by Don McLean, which presents the fatal plane crash as an allegory for lost innocence, and through the heavily fictionalized film biography La Bamba, featuring actor Lou Diamond Phillips as Valens. The film's title track, performed by the band Los Lobos, became a number one hit single the same year. Valens's name also appeared in music news when Led Zeppelin songwriter and guitarist Jimmy Page was sued for plagiarizing Valens's "Ooh! My Head" for the British band's song "Boogie with Stu." Page, who acknowledged Valens as "my first guitar hero," settled the suit for an undisclosed sum in 1978.
Nugent, Stephen and Charlie Gillett, Rock Almanac: Top Twenty American and British Singles and Albums of the '50s, '60s, and '70s, Anchor Books, 1978.
"The Real Story of Ritchie Valens," The Rockabilly Hall of Fame, http://www.rockabillyhall.com/RitchieValens.html .
"Ritchie Valens," Ritchie Valens, http:www/ritchievalens.net/bio/rvbio.html .
"Ritchie Valens," The Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame, http://www.rockhall.com/hof/inductee.asp?id+1145.
"Ritchie Valens," (review by Lester Bangs), Rolling Stone, http://www.rollingstone/recordings/r.