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Richard Steven Valenzuela (May 13, 1941 – February 3, 1959), known professionally as Ritchie Valens, was an American singer, songwriter and guitarist. A rock and roll pioneer and a forefather of the Chicano rock movement, Valens' recording career lasted eight months, as it abruptly ended when he was killed in a plane crash.[1]

During this time, he had several hits, most notably "La Bamba", which he adapted from a Mexican folk song. Valens transformed the song into one with a rock rhythm and beat, and it became a hit in 1958,[2][3] making Valens a pioneer of the Spanish-speaking rock and roll movement.

On February 3, 1959, on what has become known as "The Day the Music Died", Valens died in a plane crash in Iowa, an accident that also claimed the lives of fellow musicians Buddy Holly and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, as well as pilot Roger Peterson. Valens was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.



  • 1 Early life
  • 2 Career
  • 3 Death
  • 4 Legacy
  • 5 Representation in other media
  • 6 Tributes
  • 7 Discography
    • 7.1 Original albums
    • 7.2 Compilation albums
    • 7.3 Singles
  • 8 See also
  • 9 References
  • 10 External links

Early life[edit][]

Valens was born Richard Steven Valenzuela in Pacoima, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles, on May 13, 1941.[4] His parents were Joseph Steven Valenzuela and Concepcion Reyes. He was of Mexican descent. Brought up listening to traditional Mexican mariachi music, flamenco guitar, R&B and jump blues, he expressed an interest in making music of his own by the age of 5. He was encouraged by his father to take up guitar at the age of 9 and trumpet, and he later taught himself the drums. One day, a neighbor came across Ritchie trying to play a guitar that had only two strings. He re-strung the instrument and taught Ritchie the fingerings of some chords. While Ritchie was left-handed, he was so eager to learn the guitar that he mastered the traditionally right-handed version of the instrument. [5] Valens attended Pacoima Junior High School (now Pacoima Middle School).[6] By the time Valenzuela was attending junior high school, he brought the guitar to school and would sing and play songs to his friends on the bleachers.[7]

When he was 16 years old, Valenzuela was invited to join a local band named 'The Silhouettes' as a guitarist.[citation needed] Later, the main vocalist left the group and Valenzuela assumed this position as well.[citation needed] In addition to the performances with The Silhouettes, he would play solo at parties and other social events.[citation needed]


A self-taught musician, 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.

Bob Keane, the owner and president of small record label Del-Fi Records in Hollywood, was given a tip in May 1958 by San Fernando High School student Doug Macchia about a young performer from Pacoima by the name of Richard Valenzuela. Kids knew the performer as "The Little Richard of the Valley". Swayed by the Little Richard comparison Keane went to see Valenzuela play a Saturday morning matinée at a movie theater in San Fernando. Impressed by the performance, he invited the youth to audition at his home in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, where he had a small recording studio in his basement. An early stereo recorder (a two-track Ampex 601-2 portable) and a pair of Neumann U-47 condenser microphones comprised his recording equipment.

After this first audition, Keane signed Ritchie to Del-Fi on May 27, 1958. At this point the musician 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, Keane recommended shortening his surname to Valens from Valenzuela in order to widen his appeal beyond any obvious ethnic group.

Valens demoed several songs in Keane's studio that he later recorded at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood. The demos primarily consisted of Ritchie singing and playing guitar, but some of them also featured drums. These original demos can be heard on the Del-Fi album, Ritchie Valens — The Lost Tapes. Two of the tracks laid down in Keane's studio were taken to Gold Star Studios 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. Musicians included Rene Hall, Carol Kaye, and Earl Palmer. The first songs recorded at Gold Star Studios, 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 Leiber and Stoller tune. Pressed and released within days of the recording session, the record was a success. Valens' next record, a double A-side, the final record to be released in his lifetime, had the song "Donna" (written about a real girlfriend) coupled with "La Bamba."

In the autumn of 1958, Valens quit high school to concentrate on his career. Keane booked appearances at venues across the United States and performances on television programs. Valens had a fear of flying due to a freak accident at his Pacoima Junior High School when, on January 31, 1957, two airplanes collided over the playground, killing or injuring several of his friends.[8] Valens had been at his grandfather's funeral that day, but was upset about the loss of his friends.

He eventually overcame his fear enough to travel by airplane for his career. He went to Philadelphia to appear on Dick Clark's American Bandstand television show on October 6, where he sang "Come On, Let's Go." In November Valens flew to Hawaii, where he performed alongside Buddy Holly and Paul Anka. Valens was added to the bill of legendary disc jockey 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. On December 27 he returned to Philadelphia andAmerican Bandstand, this time performing "Donna."

After returning 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 6120 guitar, the same modelEddie Cochran owned. In between the live appearances, Ritchie returned to Gold Star Studios 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, Dion and the Belmonts, J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardsonand Frankie Sardo. All performers were augmented by Holly's new backup band including Tommy Allsup on guitar, Waylon Jennings on bass and Carl Bunch on drums.

Conditions for the performers on the tour buses were abysmal and 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 the flu. The show was split into two acts with Valens closing the first act. After Bunch was hospitalized, Carlo Mastrangelo of the Belmonts took over the drumming duties. When Dion and the Belmonts were performing, the drum seat was taken by either Valens or Buddy Holly. A surviving color photograph shows Ritchie at the drum kit.


Main article: The Day the Music Died

After the February 2, 1959 performance in Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly, Richardson and Valens flew out of the Mason City airport in a small plane that Holly had chartered. Valens was on the plane because he won a coin toss with Tommy Allsup, with the latter taking a bus instead.[9] The plane, a three-passenger Beechcraft Bonanza, departed for Fargo, North Dakota and crashed shortly after takeoff in a snowstorm. The crash killed all three passengers and pilot Roger Peterson. At seventeen, Valens was the youngest to die on the flight.

The event, along with Buddy Holly's death, later inspired singer Don McLean to write his 1971 hit "American Pie," immortalizing February 3 as "The Day the Music Died." Valens' remains were buried at San Fernando Mission Cemetery, Mission Hills, California.


Valens was a pioneer of Chicano rock and Latin rock, and inspired many musicians of Latino heritage. He influenced the likes of Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys and Carlos Santana as he had become nationally successful at a time when there were very few Latinos in American rock and pop music. He is considered the first Latino to successfully cross over into mainstream rock.

"La Bamba" proved to be his most influential recording, not only by becoming a pop chart hit sung entirely in Spanish, but also because of its successful blending of traditional Latin American music with rock. Valens was the first to capitalize on this formula, which was later adopted by such varied artists as Selena, Caifanes, Café Tacuba, Circo, El Gran Silencio, Aterciopelados, Gustavo Santaolalla and many others in the Latin Alternative scene. Ironically, the Valenzuela family spoke only English at home and Ritchie knew very little Spanish. Ritchie learned the lyrics phonetically in order to record "La Bamba" in Spanish.

"Come On, Let's Go" has been covered by Los Lobos, the Ramones and "the Paley Brothers" (the Ramones on guitar, bass and drums and The Paley Brothers on vocals), Tommy Steele, the Huntingtons, Girl in a Coma and the McCoys and in Australia by Johnny Rebb and his Rebels on Leedon/Canetoad Records. "Donna" has been covered by artists as diverse as MxPx, Cliff Richard, the Youngbloods, Clem Snide,Cappadonna, and the Misfits.

Robert Quine has cited Valens' guitar playing as an early influence on his style. Valens also inspired Jimi Hendrix, Chan Romero, Carlos Santana, Chris Montez, Keith O'Conner Murphy, Los Lobos and Los Lonely Boys.

Valens' nephew, Ernie Valens, has toured worldwide playing his uncle's songs, including a new version of the "Winter Dance Party" tour with Buddy Holly impersonator John Mueller. This tour has taken place at many of the original 1959 venues in the Midwest.

Valens has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6733 Hollywood Blvd. in Hollywood, California.[citation needed] He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 and his pioneering contribution to the genre has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.[citation needed] Valens' mother Connie, who died in 1987, is buried alongside him.[10]

Representation in other media[edit][]

  • Valens has been the subject of several biopic films, including the 1987 film La Bamba. Primarily set in 1957-1959, it depicted Valens from age 16 to 17. It introduced Lou Diamond Phillips as Valens and co-starred Esai Morales as his older half-brother, Bob Morales. Los Lobos performed most of the music in the film.
  • Valens was portrayed by Gilbert Melgar in the final scene of The Buddy Holly Story.
  • He was also featured in the film The Day the Music Died (2010).
  • Valens was portrayed by Joseph Thornhill in the 2011 film Lives and Deaths of the Poets.
  • The novelization by Ron De Christiforo of the film Grease (1978) is set around the time of Valens' death. In one of the earlier chapters, the gang sit around in the character of Sonny's basement, upset at the death of some of their favorite stars in the plane crash.


Monument at Crash Site, September 16, 2003.

In 1988, Ken Paquette, a Wisconsin fan of the 1950s era, erected a stainless-steel monument depicting a steel guitar and a set of three records bearing the names of each of the three performers killed in the accident. It is located on private farmland, about one quarter mile west of the intersection of 315th Street and Gull Avenue, approximately eight miles north of Clear Lake. He also created a similar stainless steel monument to the three musicians that was installed near the Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay, Wisconsin. That memorial was unveiled on July 17, 2003.[11]

A park in Pacoima was renamed in Ritchie Valens' honor.[12]

"Boogie With Stu" from Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti album was inspired by Valens' song "Oooh, My Head." It did not credit Ritchie Valens or Bob Keane. Eventually, a lawsuit was filed by Bob Keane and half of the award went to Valens' mother, although she was not part of the suit.[13]


Original albums[edit][]

  • Ritchie Valens (March 1959) -- Del-Fi DFLP-1201 (US #23)
  • Ritchie (December 1959) -- Del-Fi DFLP-1206
  • In Concert at Pacoima Jr. High (1961) -- Del-Fi DFLP-1214
Side 1 features the concert with opening narrative by Bob Keane, side 2 features five unfinished tracks as described by Keane. "Come On, Let's Go" on side 1 is a demo version with the concert noise dubbed in.

Compilation albums[edit][]

  • Ritchie Valens Memorial Album (December 1962) -- Del-Fi DLFP-1225
    • Originally released with black cover, reissued in February 1963 with different cover (in white) and retitled His Greatest Hits
  • Ritchie Valens...His Greatest Hits Volume 2 (1964) -- Del-Fi DFLP-1247
  • History of Ritchie Valens (1981) --Rhino RNBC-2798
    • Box set replicating the three original albums plus booklet
  • The Best of Ritchie Valens (1987) -- Rhino 70178 (US #100)
  • La Bamba '87 (1987) -- Del-Fi DF-1287
    • 12" EP featuring four different mixes of La Bamba
  • The Ritchie Valens Story (1993) -- Rhino/Del-Fi 71414
    • Featuring hits, outtakes, rare photos, and a 20 minute narrative of Ritchie by manager Bob Keane
  • Rockin' All Night - The Very Best of Ritchie Valens (1995) -- Del-Fi DFCD-9001
  • Come On, Let's Go! (1998) -- Del-Fi DFBX-2359
    • Deluxe 3-CD, 62-track set featuring all tracks from the three original albums plus rare demos and outtakes. 62-page booklet features biography and rare photos. Package also comes with poster, picture cards, and Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame campaign cards


  • "Come On, Let's Go" (US #42)/"Framed" — Del-Fi 4106 (1958)
  • "Donna" (US #2)/"La Bamba" (US #22) -- Del-Fi 4110 (1958)
  • "Fast Freight"/"Big Baby Blues" — Del-Fi 4111 (1959)
Original pressings shown as "Arvee Allens", later pressings shown as "Ritchie Valens"
  • "That's My Little Suzie" (US #55)/"In A Turkish Town" — Del-Fi 4114 (1959)
  • "Little Girl" (US #92)/"We Belong Together" — Del-Fi 4117 (1959)
  • "Stay Beside Me"/"Big Baby Blues" — Del-Fi 4128 (1959)
  • "The Paddiwack Song"/"Cry, Cry, Cry" — Del-Fi 4133 (1960)
The above three singles were issued on gold Valens Memorial Series labels. Del-Fi 4117 was also issued with picture sleeve.
  • "La Bamba '87"/"La Bamba" (original version) -- Del-Fi 1287 (1987)
  • "Come On, Let's Go"/"La Bamba" — Del-Fi 51341 (1998)