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Remembering Ritchie Valens

Published: Tue February 03, 2009  News Feed

Everyone knows about Buddy Holly, but the Ritchie Valens, who died at the same tragic airplane crash on 3rd february 1959, also left his mark in rock'n'roll...

Ritchie Valens

Valens was an accomplished singer and guitarist. At his appearances, he often improvised new lyrics and added new riffs to popular songs while he was playing. This is an aspect of his music that is not heard in his commercial studio recordings. Due to his high-energy performances, Valenzuela earned the nickname "The Little Richard of the Valley".

In May 1958, Bob Keane, the owner and President of Del-Fi Records, a small Hollywood record label, was given a tip about a young performer from Pacoima by the name of Richard Valenzuela. Keane, swayed by the Little Richard connection, went to see Valenzuela play a Saturday morning matinée at a movie theater in San Fernando. Impressed by the performance, he invited Ritchie to audition at his home in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, where he had a small recording studio in his basement. The recording equipment comprised an early portable tape recorder — a two-track Ampex 6012 — and a pair of Telefunken U-47 condenser microphones.

After this first 'audition', Keane decided to sign Ritchie to Del-Fi, and a contract was prepared and signed on May 27, 1958. It was at this point that he took the name Ritchie, because, as Keane said, "There were a bunch of 'Richies' around at that time, and I wanted it to be different." Similarly, it was Keane who decided to shorten his surname to Valens from Valenzuela, in order to broaden his appeal to White Americans.

Several songs that would later be re-recorded at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood were first demoed in Keane's studio. The demos were mostly just Ritchie singing and playing guitar. Some of them featured drums. These original demos can be heard on the Del-Fi album Ritchie Valens — The Lost Tapes. As well as the aforementioned demos, two of the tracks laid down in Keane's studio were taken to Gold Star and had additional instruments dubbed over to create full-band recordings. "Donna" was one track (although there are two other preliminary versions of the song, both available on ''The Lost Tapes), and the other was an instrumental entitled "Ritchie's Blues".

After several songwriting and demo recording sessions with Keane in his basement studio, Keane decided that Ritchie was ready to enter the studio with a full band backing him. Amongst the musicians were Rene Hall and Earl Palmer. The first songs recorded at Gold Star, at a single studio session one afternoon in July 1958, were "Come On, Let's Go", an original (credited to Valens/Kuhn, Keane's real name), and "Framed," a Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller tune. Pressed and released within days of the recording session taking place, the record was a success. Valens' next record, a double A-side which was the final record to be released in his lifetime, had the songs "Donna" (written about a real girlfriend), coupled with "La Bamba."

At this point, in the autumn of 1958, Valens quit high school to concentrate on his career. Keane booked appearances at venues all across the United States and performances on television programs. Valens, however, had a fear of flying brought on by a freak accident at his Pacoima Junior High School when two airplanes collided over the playground, killing or injuring several of his friends. Valens was not at school that day as he was attending his grandfather's funeral. He eventually succeeded in overcoming his fear enough to travel by airplane. One of his first stops was Philadelphia to appear on Dick Clark's American Bandstand television show on October 6, where he sang "Come On, Let's Go." In November, Ritchie traveled to Hawaii and performed alongside Buddy Holly and Paul Anka. Valens found himself a last-minute addition on the bill of legendary discjockey Alan Freed's Christmas Jubilee in New York City, singing with some of those who had greatly influenced his music, including Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, The Everly Brothers, Duane Eddy, Eddie Cochran and Jackie Wilson. December 27th saw a return to American Bandstand, this time for a performance of "Donna."

Upon his return to Los Angeles, Valens filmed an appearance in Alan Freed's movie Go Johnny Go!. In the film, he appears in a diner, miming his song "Ooh! My Head," using a Gretsch guitar borrowed from Eddie Cochran. In between the live appearances, Ritchie returned to Gold Star several times, recording the tracks that would comprise his two albums.

In early 1959, Valens was traveling the Midwest on a multi-act rock and roll tour dubbed "The Winter Dance Party." Accompanying him were Buddy Holly with a new back-up band, Tommy Allsup on guitar, Waylon Jennings on bass, and Carl Bunch on drums; Dion and the Belmonts; J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson; and Frankie Sardo. None of the other performers had backing bands, so Buddy's backup band filled in for all the shows.

Conditions for the performers on the tour buses were abysmal, and the bitterly cold Midwest weather took its toll on the party; Carl Bunch had to be hospitalized with severely frostbitten feet, and several others (including Valens and The Big Bopper) caught colds. The show was split into two acts, with Ritchie closing the first act. After Bunch was hospitalized, a member of the Belmonts who had some drum experience took over the drumming duties. When Dion and the Belmonts were performing, the drum seat was taken by either Valens or Buddy Holly. There is a surviving color photograph of Ritchie at the drum kit.

The bus they all were taking on the tour broke down and Buddy Holly decided to charter a small plane for himself and his back-up band (The Crickets name was surrendered to Buddy's former bandmates Jerry Allison and Joe Mauldin) to get to the next show on time, get some rest, and get their laundry done. After the February 2, 1959, performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly, Richardson (who pleaded with Waylon Jennings for his seat because he was stricken with flu), and Valens (who had won Tommy Allsup's seat after a coin toss) were taken to Clear Lake airport by the manager of the Surf Ballroom.

The plane, a four-passenger Beechcraft Bonanza, departed for Fargo, North Dakota, into a blinding snowstorm and crashed into farmer Albert Juhl's cornfield shortly after takeoff. The crash ended the lives of all three passengers, as well as that of the 21-year-old pilot, Roger Peterson. This event inspired singer Don McLean's popular 1971 ballad "American Pie", and immortalized February 3 as "The Day the Music Died." The event also inspired the Eddie Cochran song "Three Stars", which specifically mentions Holly, the Big Bopper, and Valens.


Valens was a pioneer of Chicano rock, Latin rock and was an inspiration to many musicians of Latino heritage. He influenced the likes of Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys, and Carlos Santana among countless others at a time when there were very few Latinos in American rock and pop music. He is considered the first Latino to ever successfully cross over into Rock & Pop mainstream. He paved the way for all the other latinos, from Santana to J-Lo.

Like Buddy Holly, he was one of the first artists to popularize the Fender Stratocaster.

Artists as varied as Cliff Richard, The Ramones and The Misfits covered his songs. And, of course, Los Lobos had a worldwide hit with their cover of 'La Bamba', for the soundtrack of the Ritchie Valens biopic of the same name, released in 1987, which introduced his music to a whole new generation.

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