Friday, May 13, 2016

The 75th Anniversary of Ritchie Valens's Birth

It was 75 years ago today that Ritchie Valens was born Richard Steven Valenzuela in Pacoima, California. Sadly his career would be very brief, but he would have a lasting impact on rock music. He was one of the earliest Latin rock stars and would have an impact on the genre of Chicano rock. Such bands as The Sir Douglas Quintet,  Los Lobos, and War then owe a debt to him. Sadly, Ritchie Valens would die in the plane crash that also took the lives of rock legends Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper (J. P. Richardson) in Clear Lake, Iowa on February 3 1959.

Ritchie Valens took to music while he was still young. He learned both the guitar and trumpet, and later taught himself to play drums. Growing up his musical influences were Mexican mariachi music, rhythm and blues, and jump blues. He was only sixteen when he joined a group called The Silhouettes. When their lead singer left, it was Ritchie Valens who became their lead vocalist.

It was on May 27 1958 that Ritchie Valens was signed to the Del-Fi label. Del-Fi's owner and president, Bob Keane, gave Ritchie Valens his stage name. His first name was spelled "Ritchie" because there were a number of singers named "Richie" at the time and he wanted something different. Ritchie's last name was shorted to Valens so it would sound less ethnic.

Ritchie Valens's first single was "Come On, Let's Go". The single performed remarkably well for a new artist, going all the way to no. 42 on the Billboard singles chart. His second single would perform even better. It was a double A-side with the songs "Donna" and "La Bamba". Despite "La Bamba" now being his most famous song, it was "Donna" that was the bigger hit. "Donna" peaked at no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, while "La Bamba" peaked at no. 22.

In early 1959 there was launched a package tour of the Midwest called "The Winter Dance Party". The Winter Dance Party featured Buddy Holly, Dion and the Belmonts, The Big Bopper, Frankie Sardo, and Ritchie Valens. It was after a performance on February 2 1959 that Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritiche Valens flew out of the Mason City, Iowa airport in a small charter plane. It was a little after 1:00 AM, not long after the plane had taken off, that the plane crashed for reasons that are unknown to this day. Sadly everyone on board (Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and the pilot) died.

Del-Fi albums released Ritchie Valens's album Ritchie Valens posthumously in March 1959. The album peaked at no. 23 on the Billboard album chart. The singles "Fast Freight", "That's My Little Suzie", "Little Girl", and  "The Paddiwack Song" were released following his death. Only "That's My Little Suzie" and "Little Girl" would chart. "That's My Little Suzie" went to no. 55 on the Billboard Hot 100, while "Little Girl" only peaked at no. 93. A second album, Ritchie, was released in October 1959. A live album, Ritchie Valens In Concert at Pacoima Jr. High, was released in December 1960.

In 1987 a biopic about Ritchie Valens's rise to fame, La Bamba, was released. Despite the brevity of his career, he would have a lasting impact on Chicano rock as well as yet other Latin rock performers.

In memory of Ritchie Valens, here is his biggest hit, "Donna"

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