Ritchie Valens (1941-1959) was a musician stolen from the world far too young. At the time of his death he had released only two singles, one of which sat on the pop charts in the number two slot when he died in 1959. He was the first Latin American pop/rock musician to have any chart success. Since he died so young with so little material recorded, it is very hard to gauge what might have been, but one thing is for sure: the young man had a great deal of musical talent. The story of his life was immortalized in the 1987 film La Bamba.
Ritchie Valens was born in 1942 in the suburbs of Los Angeles. He grew up on the edges of the City of Angels and largely taught himself to play the guitar, inspired at first by the recordings of Woody Guthrie, then later by Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and especially Little Richard. In 1955 he played his first public performance at a local school dance, a gig he would repeat throughout 1956 and 1957. The first known recording of Valens is from one of those dances in 1957, a junior high dance mostly filled with slow numbers with an occasional Little Richard cover.
He opened a few minor shows in the Los Angeles area for local rock stars in early 1958 at the age of fifteen, and his music was discovered by producer Bob Keane in the spring of that year. According to Keane, Valen's talent was as bright as the neon lights on the Las Vegas strip; he immediately signed the young boy, just past his sixteenth birthday, to his Del-Fi record label.
In the late summer of 1958, Valens released his first single, Come On Let's Go, a brash Little Richard-styled rock number. It rose to number forty-two on the pop charts during the autumn and, as a result, he returned to the studio to record another single and make preparations for an album that he would record in early 1959. He also agreed to go on a dance hall tour throughout the Midwest with one of his heroes, Buddy Holly, and another popular act at the time, the Big Bopper, who scored big with the song Chantilly Lace.
In October of 1958, Valens recorded both sides of the single Donna b/w La Bamba and made a few demo recordings of some intriguing songs that he intended to build into an album after the tour. He left on the tour in January 1959 with the single (both sides of it, actually) streaking up the pop charts. The b-side, La Bamba, was particularly innovative: it was sung entirely in Spanish and featured some amazing guitar work for the time, as well as the thick sound of a Danelectro bass, which gave the song a huge electric sound that had never been heard before on a rock & roll disc. As the boy turned seventeen, he was already revolutionizing the music world.
Of course, as we all know, tragedy struck on February 3, 1959, as the plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie, and the Big Bopper crashed, killing everyone on board. After his death, the remaining songs (mostly unfinished demos and experiments in the studio) were made into two albums, Ritchie Valens and Ritchie, both released in 1959 with moderate success. Each album spawned a middling hit single, That's My Little Suzie from the former and Little Girl on the latter. The former of the albums cracked the top ten, mostly due to the fact that it included both Donna and La Bamba.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, artists tried to emulate Ritchie's style with varying degrees of success. Perhaps the most successful was Chan Romero, who released the dance number Hippy Hippy Shake. In the 1980s and 1990s, the band Los Lobos gained some popularity, claiming Ritchie as their primary influence. The 1987 film La Bamba told the story of Ritchie's life through the distorted lens of Hollywood, with Lou Diamond Phillips turning in what might have been the best performance of his career as Ritchie. The soundtrack featured several songs from Los Lobos, including a cover of La Bamba, which cracked the top ten in the United States near the end of 1987.
Valens is one of those people that makes you wonder what might have been. He had great showmanship and an impressive level of talent for someone so young, as evidenced by his one killer single, Donna b/w La Bamba. His legacy lives on today in artists such as Los Lobos.