February 3, 1959 – Ritchie Valens was born Ricardo Esteban Valenzuela Reyes on May 13, 1941 in Pacoima, California. Of Mexican decent he was brought up hearing traditional Mexican mariachi music, as well as flamenco guitar, R&B and jump blues. He expressed an interest in making music of his own by the age of 5.
Growing in Pacoima, Valens developed a love of music early on and learned to play a number of different instruments. But the guitar soon became his passion. And he found inspiration from various sources, ranging from traditional Mexican music to popular R&B acts to innovative rock performers like Little Richard.
At 16, Valens joined his first band, the Silhouettes. The group played local gigs, and Valens was spotted at one of these performances by Bob Keane, the head of the Del-Fi record label. With Keane’s help, the young performer was about to have a career breakthrough.
Valens auditioned for Keane’s record label in May 1958. And before long, he had his first single out on Del-Fi. The song, “Come On, Let’s Go,” became a minor hit. Keane also encouraged the young singer to shorten his last name to “Valens” to make it more radio friendly. Valens had even greater success with his second single, which featured “La Bamba” and “Donna.” “Donna,” an ode to his high school girlfriend Donna Ludwig, became a popular ballad, eventually climbing as high as the number two spot on the pop charts. While not as big a hit, “La Bamba” was a revolutionary song that fused elements of a traditional Mexican folk tune with rock and roll. Valens was not a native Spanish speaker and had to be coached on the all-Spanish-language song.
Riding the success of his latest single, Valens entertained a national audience on American Bandstand that December. He also appeared on Alan Freed’s Christmas Show around that time. In January 1959, Valens went on the road with the Winter Dance Party tour. The tour featured such acts as Buddy Holly, Dion and the Belmonts, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. Over three weeks, these performers were set to play 24 concerts in the Midwest.
Ritchie became a rock and roll pioneer and a forefather of the Chicano rock movement. Sadly his recording career lasted only eight months, but during this time, he scored several hits, most notably his 1958 “La Bamba”, which was originally a Mexican folk song that he transformed with a rock rhythm and beat, making him a pioneer of the Spanish-speaking rock and roll movement.
He died in the plane crash “the day the music died”. He was a good 3 months short of his 18 birthday when he died on 3 February 1959.
Only 17 years old when he died, Valens left behind a few recordings. His first, self-titled album was released shortly after the accident and did well on the charts. A live recording was later released as Ritchie Valens in Concert at Pacoima Junior HIgh. And his life story was memorialized on the big screen in the 1987 hit La Bamba, which introduced a new generation of music fans to the pioneering Latino performer. Lou Diamond Phillips played Valens, and the band Los Lobos recorded the soundtrack.
Valens was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.