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Ritchie Valens

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Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Although Mexican-American rocker Ritchie Valens recorded only a handful of singles, including the hits "La Bamba" and "Donna," he became an iconic figure in the history of popular music by inspiring fellow Latino artists to enter the white-dominated pop and rock fields and pursue the same degree of success he briefly enjoyed before his tragic death in 1959. The trajectory of Valens' entire career lasted less than a year, beginning in the summer of 1958 with the single "Come On, Let's Go" and encompassing the two aforementioned hits, both released later that same year, before he embarked on a fateful Midwestern tour in early 1959 and the flight that claimed his life at the age of 17 along with Buddy Holly and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson in February of that year. The impact of their deaths on the first wave of rock-n-roll fans, who cited the incident as the end of rock's initial purity - later immortalized in the 1971 Don McLean classic "American Pie" - as well as the raw joy of Valens' music, canonized the singer as a pioneer of the genre, as well as a forebear of Latino rock-n-roll who opened the door for subsequent artists like Carlos Santana, Los Lobos and many others. Valens' short life and...

Although Mexican-American rocker Ritchie Valens recorded only a handful of singles, including the hits "La Bamba" and "Donna," he became an iconic figure in the history of popular music by inspiring fellow Latino artists to enter the white-dominated pop and rock fields and pursue the same degree of success he briefly enjoyed before his tragic death in 1959. The trajectory of Valens' entire career lasted less than a year, beginning in the summer of 1958 with the single "Come On, Let's Go" and encompassing the two aforementioned hits, both released later that same year, before he embarked on a fateful Midwestern tour in early 1959 and the flight that claimed his life at the age of 17 along with Buddy Holly and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson in February of that year. The impact of their deaths on the first wave of rock-n-roll fans, who cited the incident as the end of rock's initial purity - later immortalized in the 1971 Don McLean classic "American Pie" - as well as the raw joy of Valens' music, canonized the singer as a pioneer of the genre, as well as a forebear of Latino rock-n-roll who opened the door for subsequent artists like Carlos Santana, Los Lobos and many others. Valens' short life and career served as both one of rock's greatest tragedies, as well as a flashpoint for countless musicians from all ethnic backgrounds.

Born Ricardo Esteban Valenzuela Reyes on May 13, 1941 in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Pacoima, Ritchie Valens was the son of Mexican-American parents who raised him on a steady diet of traditional Mexican music as well as R&B and early jump blues. He took up a number of instruments in his early years before settling on the guitar, which despite being left-handed, he taught himself to play in its traditional right-handed format. At 16, Valens was playing with a local band called the Silhouettes while also performing as a solo act at parties and other social events. Producer Bob Keane, who owned the Del-Fi record label, caught one such performance at a movie theater in 1958 and invited Valens to audition at his home studio. Keane later signed Valens to his label while also suggesting that he adopted the more Anglicized moniker of "Ritchie Valens" for broader appeal. After recording a slew of demos, Valens cut two songs at the famed Gold Star Studios in Hollywood, including "Come On, Let's Go" (1958), which shot to No. 42 on the Billboard 100. Within a few months' time, he waxed his second single, "Donna," a ballad about his then-girlfriend, and a revved-up version of the traditional Mexican folk song "La Bamba" sung entirely in Spanish - though ironically, Valens spoke little Spanish and had to learn the lyrics to the song phonetically. The former single was a bona fide smash, rising to No. 2 on the national charts, while the latter - which only reached No. 22, despite its buoyant guitar and heavy rhythm line courtesy of iconic Wrecking Crew bassist Carol Kaye - cemented Valens' status as an up-and-coming rock-n-roller while also serving as a building block of the subsequent Chicano rock and rock en español movements.

By the fall of 1958, Valens had quit high school to focus on his skyrocketing career. He was soon booked for a variety of live appearances around the country, including DJ Alan Freed's Christmas Jubilee in New York City, where he appeared alongside many of his influences, including Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Eddie Cochran, as well as an appearance on "American Bandstand" (ABC/USA Network/syndicated, 1952-1989). Making good on these bookings, however, presented a challenge for Valens, who was deathly afraid of flying after a freak accident involving two planes that collided over his junior high school, killing several of his friends below. He reluctantly agreed to take a plane to many of the dates, which included an appearance in the low-budget rock-n-roll picture "Go Johnny Go!" (1958), before returning to Gold Studios to record a handful of additional tracks slated for his debut album. In early 1959, Valens joined the Winter Dance Party, a Midwestern package tour that included Texas rocker Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson, who performed as "The Big Bopper," and New York's Dion and the Belmonts. The tour, which was schedule to perform at 24 locations in three weeks, took place during a bitterly cold winter, which was made worse by a broken heater on the bus shared by all the musicians. On Feb. 2, 1959, Holly had grown tired of the abysmal conditions and chartered a plane to take him from Clear Lake, IA to the tour's next date in Fargo, ND.

Richardson, who was suffering from the flu, took the seat originally intended for future country music star Waylon Jennings, who was serving as Holly's bassist. Both Valens and Holly's guitarist, Tommy Allsup, wanted the remaining seat on the three-passenger Beechcraft Bonanza, which was settled by a coin toss thrown by local DJ Bob Hale. Valens won the toss and departed from the Mason City airport after midnight on Feb. 3, 1959 with the other two musicians and pilot Roger Peterson. Shortly after takeoff, Peterson became disoriented due to low visibility and deteriorating weather conditions, which caused the plane's right wing to hit the ground, sending the aircraft tumbling across a bean field less than six miles from the airport and killing all four passengers. At the time of the accident, Valens was only 17 years old. Del-Fi would release his eponymous debut album a month later, which reached No. 23 on the Billboard 200. A second album, Ritchie, which featured the remainder of the Gold Star tracks as well as the audition demos recorded at Keane's house, followed later that year. The tragic circumstances of Valens' death, as well as the posthumous success of his albums, gave rise to legions of Ritchie Valens fan clubs, which kept his memory alive for subsequent generations. The impact of Valens' death on the music industry was dramatized in highly poetic fashion by folk singer Don McLean's epic "American Pie" (1971), which dubbed the tragedy as "The Day the Music Died."

Valens' most significant posthumous contribution as an artist was his influence over other Mexican and Latino performers, who drew inspiration from his brief success to try their hand at the white-dominated rock and pop scene. Among his earliest acolytes were Chan Romero and Chris Montez, who proudly embraced their heritage in songs like "Hippy Hippy Shake" (1959) and "Let's Dance" (1962). In turn, their success gave later performers like Carlos Santana and Los Lobos the impetus to record in both Spanish and English, which laid the groundwork for a diverse array of Latino performers, from Selena and Café Tacuba to Los Lonely Boys. Valens' small library of original songs also became staples of the garage rock songbook, with artists ranging from the Ramones to Tommy Steele recording their own versions of "Donna" and "La Bamba." Los Lobos would enjoy a chart topping hit with their 1987 cover of the song, which they recorded for the soundtrack to "La Bamba," a biopic based on Valens' life directed by Luis Valdez and starring Lou Diamond Philips as the singer. Valens was further honored with a monument erected at the site of the crash in 1988, as well as induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

By Paul Gaita

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CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Hometown USA (1979)
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