(1941 – 1959)
The first Rock and Roll star of Latin-American descent, Ritchie Valens had only a brief musical career, which was cut short when he died at 17 in the same 1959 airplane crash that killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. He’s best known for his single “La Bamba,” a rocked up version of a traditional Mexican wedding song, which was only a minor hit on its release, but has endured as a classic of the early Rock and Roll era, as well as perhaps the first example of Latin culture and Rock and Roll intersecting.
Born Richard Valenzuela, Valens grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles. By his early teens he had taught himself to play guitar and was entertaining classmates with his own brand of Rock and Roll, fusing aspects of the traditional Mexican music he had grown up hearing with influence from R&B and early Rock and Roll acts like Little Richard and Buddy Holly. Word of the young entertainer reached Del-Fi Records founder Bob Kean, who auditioned Valens and promptly signed him to the label.
Valens’ first single was the spirited original “Come On, Let’s Go,” which was a minor hit, reaching No. 42 on the singles chart. His second release fared markedly better, becoming a double-sided hit. The A side was the tender teen love ballad “Donna,” which reached No. 2 and brought Valens national attention. The flip side was “La Bamba.” Valens’ version added a Rock and Roll beat to the traditional Mexican huapango, and captures the teen singer’s irrepressible sprit – sung entirely in Spanish, it nonetheless broke the Top 40 and became one of the most well known and well covered songs of the era.
Valens quit school and began a busy schedule of promotional appearances. In February of 1959 Valens was on a multi-act tour called “The Winter Dance Party" when after a show at Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, headliner Buddy Holly chartered a four-seat plane to fly to the next gig in Fargo, North Dakota. Valens and Holly’s guitarist Tommy Allsup flipped a coin to determine who would get the last seat on the plane. The plane crashed minutes after taking off, killing Valens, Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson ("The Big Bopper"), and the pilot.
Valens’ life was depicted in the 1987 movie La Bamba, in which he was played by Lou Diamond Phillips. The soundtrack included a version of “La Bamba” by the Los Angeles band Los Lobos, which became a No. 1 hit.