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.