Ritchie Valens: The Young Singer Who Pioneered Chicano Rock

WHEN ROCK'N'ROLL first stopped calling itself rhythm and blues in the mid Fifties, it became a young man's game. Teenage performers like Ritchie Valens began to influence the course of popular music; his double-sided smash hit 'Donna'/'La Bamba' dominated the charts in December 1958. But, unlike rock'n'roll, Ritchie Valens did not survive to face the Sixties.

Ritchie's is not the most famous name in rock'n'roll but he had as many or even more hits than some celebrated stars. In a remarkably short career – he was not yet 18 years old when he died – Valens made some excellent individually-styled records, in which his plaintive, light vocal style contrasted with a dominant gutsy guitar sound. He was also the first in a series of 'Chicano' rock stars – singers of Mexican extraction who mixed rock'n'roll with rhythms from south of the border to produce exciting results.

Rockin' the Southwest

The Chicanos were mostly from California or the Southwest. They included Chan Romero (who recorded the original of 'Hippy Hippy Shake'), Eddie Quinteros, Freddy Fender (the leader of the Texas Chicano blues-rock scene), and later Sunny and the Sunglows ('Talk To Me'), Trini Lopez ('If I Had A Hammer') and Chris Montez ('Let's Dance'). Chicano rock was something of a catch-all term for a collection of influences that included Mexican mariachi bands, country, blues and even the swamp-pop of Louisiana and East Texas. Many whites took up the Mexican theme, notably the Champs with 'Tequila' and, later, the Sir Douglas Quintet. The Chicano records sold well in California and the Southwest, especially to the Mexican and Puerto Rican minorities, but some did well nationally and a few, notably the recordings of Ritchie Valens, became international hits.

Richard Valenzuela was born of Mexican-Indian stock in Los Angeles on 13 May 1941. Little is known about his upbringing as he never gave a really detailed interview. The photographs and film stills that survive him show a slightly chubby youngster wielding his guitar below a proud but embarrassed grin. Mexican Americans were among the lower social strata of US society and Valens' later success was in stark contrast to the fate of so many of his kind. Ritchie took an early liking to the guitar and organised a group of schoolpals into a band in 1956. Based at the Pacoima High School in Los Angeles, the band was called the Silhouettes. Their identity remains as shadowy as their name, but it is known that they played all the new R&B and rock'n'roll songs mixed with a few more traditional items. The seeds of a sound were being sown.

From schoolboy to star

By the time Valens was 16 he looked some ten years older; his heavy-jowled, thickset features with greased-back hair belied his youth and ran contrary to the prevailing move towards 'pretty' teen stars in the Fabian/Frankie Avalon mould. Early in 1958 Ritchie's activities in playing at school hops and local gigs came to the notice of Bob Keene, one of LA's premier record men. He also owned the Keen label, for which Sam Cooke recorded, and later ran the Mustang company. Before he came across Valens, Keene had worked as a producer and talent scout for Specialty and other Californian record labels.

It was, then, an experienced and successful hitmaker who saw in the very young Ritchie Valens the two things that made a star: talent, and a marketable quality – in Ritchie's case, ethnic youth. Keene took Ritchie into a recording studio in March 1958. Soon, 'Come On Let's Go' appeared on Keene's Del-Fi label. It was a good latin rocker, very reminiscent of Bobby Freeman's then-recent hit, 'Do You Wanna Dance'. In September 1958 it entered theBillboard chart and in October it peaked at Number 42. A cover version by Tommy Steele sold well in the UK.

Two sides of Ritchie

With the next single came the ultimate achievement of the Valens style. Issued in November 1958, it coupled 'Donna', an intense but catchy teen ballad, with 'La Bamba', a latin rocker with a heavy bass guitar line. Both sides set a pattern for the several hastily-arranged recording sessions that followed. 'Donna' hit the Top Ten in December 1958 and soon reached Number 2 in the chart. A self-penned number, it was dedicated to Valens' high-school sweetheart, Donna Ludwig.

This success sparked off a wave of cover versions, but also got Valens booked onto the Perry Como TV show with its national audience, and took him off on a tour of Hawaii. There was also a short appearance in the movie, Go Johnny Go, where Valens sang 'Ooh My Head' in the company of Alan Freed, Chuck Berry and a multitude of up-and-coming popsters. By January 1959, 'La Bamba' had taken over from 'Donna', reaching Number 22.

The Valens name was now hot enough for Keene to contemplate issuing an album, and Ritchie was booked on a tour of the Midwest to promote it. Starring Buddy Holly as the headline attraction, the 'Winter Dance Party' also featured the Big Bopper, Dion and Frankie Sardo. During the cold snowy early morning of 3 February, a light aircraft carrying Holly, the Bopper and Valens between gigs in lowa and North Dakota crashed, killing all inside.

Valens' latin legacy

Ritchie Valens scored two posthumous hits in 1959, 'Little Girl' and 'Come On Little Susie', the latter a good rocker but very similar to 'Come On Let's Go'. Keene spread 33 Valens performances over four albums and an EP and managed to lease some of the same tracks to labels like Crown. One of the Del-Fi albums, Ritchie Valens In Concert At Pacoima Jnr High, was reputedly recorded by a fan and the music can only just be heard above the audience noise.

His other albums, including two reissue gets labelled Greatest Hits, did contain some fine music. There were several bluesy instrumental workouts between Valens and his session musicians, who included the New Orleans drummer Earl Palmer, Bill Pittman (bass) and Rene Hall (guitar). The instrumentals were really only session fillers, but proved noteworthy nonetheless. 'Ritchie's Blues' was a very slow basic blues but with a brushes and bongoes beat. 'Big Baby Blues' was in the Chuck Berry mould and 'Fast Freight' was a pacey guitar rocker with an unusual string-bass solo. Of the vocal tracks, 'Cry Cry Cry' was a good rocker and 'Hurry Up' was an Everlys-style message to a teenage girlfriend. The song was written by Sharon Sheeley and given to Valens by her fiance, Eddie Cochran.

Most of the songs were credited as Valens originals. A few were blatant lifts, such as 'Ooh My Head' from Little Richard's 'Ooh My Soul'. A few, it must be said, were awful ballads, like 'Stay Beside Me', but most were effective rock'n'roll songs, uncomplicated but intense and with just enough latin flavour to be different. Ritchie Valens was hardly old enough to have assimilated too many influences in his music – what you hear is what he was. Whether, had he lived, he would have gone on to be a superstar or a discarded hero, the fact is that he had already made his mark by February 1959.

© Martin Hawkins, 1982

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