RITCHIE VALENS AND THE BIRTH OF LATINO ROCK
How did Ritchie Valens meld traditional Mexican music and Rock and Roll, marking the birth of Latino Rock?
In many ways, Ritchie Valens was an unlikely person to become known as the “father of Latino Rock.” His recording career lasted less than a year, cut short in February 1959, when he was killed in the same plane crash that took the lives of Rock and Roll star Buddy Holly and disc jockey/musician J.P. Richardson (better known as “The Big Bopper”).
Valens released only two singles during his lifetime. The second, featuring the love ballad “Donna,” soared to No. 2 on the Billboard Pop singles chart and established Valens as a rising star. Newspaper accounts of his death referred to him as “a young sensation… rapidly becoming one of the hottest singing talents in the country,” and even “the next Elvis Presley.”
But it was the B-side of that single, featuring the traditional Mexican wedding song “La Bamba,” that secured Valens’ legacy. The lyrics of the song were entirely in Spanish, sung over a tune that would have been immediately recognizable to most Mexican-Americans. Born Richard Valenzuela to a Latino family in Southern California, Valens had played the song growing up and with various bands at school. His biographer reports that he may have been reluctant to record a Rock and Roll version of the song, both because he thought it might be disrespectful to the original and because he didn’t speak Spanish very well. But his recording, driven by Latin percussion, enjoyed commercial success -- particularly for a single’s B-side – cracking the Top 40 and peaking at no. 22.
In this lesson, students will compare Valens’ version of “La Bamba” to a traditional version of the song, and examine how Valens was able to successfully incorporate a Latin feel into a mainstream Rock and Roll recording. They will further evaluate why the song became influential, paving the way for later artists to develop and explore the genre of Latino Rock, and how it illustrates Rock and Roll’s capacity to absorb multiple influences and redefine itself.
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
Imagine that you are Ritchie Valens, and that you have been able to read about the success of your recording of “La Bamba” and its influence on Rock and Roll. Write a journal entry in which you describe your reaction to the success of the song and being dubbed the “father of Latino Rock.” Are you surprised? Is this something you set out to do? How do you feel about being thought of in this way? Be sure to make specific reference to sources discussed in this lesson.
How did Ritchie Valens merge Rock and Roll with traditional Latino music? Why is he often referred to as the "father of Latino Rock"?
1. Have students read the Rock's Backpages article "Chicano Rock," by Bill Millar. Have them research one of the artists mentioned in the piece and write several paragraphs comparing that artist's music and career to Richie Valens'.
2. The band Los Lobos covered “La Bamba” for the 1987 biopic about Ritchie Valens, also entitled La Bamba. Their version reached no. 1 on the Pop chart in the United States. Ask students to compare Los Lobos’ version both to the traditional version and to Valens’ version.
College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text
College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects
Writing 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12
Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
Core Music Standard: Responding
Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators' and/or performers' expressive intent.
Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
Core Music Standard: Connecting
Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.