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Ritchie Valens Biography

Inductee: Ritchie Valens (vocals, guitar; born May 13, 1941, died February 3, 1959)

In the course of his short life, Ritchie Valens left a lasting impact on rock and roll with the classic rocker “La Bamba.” A high-energy reworking of an old Mexican wedding song, its driving simplicity foreshadowed garage-rock, frat-rock and punk-rock. Ironically, “La Bamba” was the B-side of “Donna,” a paean to Valens’ girlfriend that rose to #2 on Billboard’s singles chart. “La Bamba” also charted, peaking at #22. This double-sided smash is one of the greatest rock and roll singles of the Fifties.

Valens was born Richard Steven Valenzuela in the Los Angeles suburb of Pacoima. He grew up surrounded by Mexican music, but he also intently cocked an ear to black R&B vocal groups like the Crows, the Penguins and the Drifters. He also loved Little Richard (and was known as the “Little Richard of the San Fernando Valley”), Bo Diddley and Buddy Holly.

Valens learned how to play guitar and joined a local dance band, the Silhouettes, at sixteen. In May 1958, he auditioned for Del-Fi label owner Bob Keane, who spotted his raw talent. Under Keane’s direction, Valens cut a few sessions at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles. His debut single, “Come On, Let’s Go,” was a spirited rocker that barely missed the Top 40. Valens’ second session produced “Donna” and “La Bamba,” rush-released as a single after a deejay played an acetate of “Donna” on KFWB, Los Angeles’ biggest station. The song was a sweet, simple love song for a girl he knew at San Fernando High. Many years later, rock critic Lester Bangs called it “one of the classic teen loves ballads.” With “Donna” rising in the national charts, Valens made a promotional trip to New York in late December 1958, where he appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and Alan Freed’s Christmas Show.

Though “Donna” made Valens a star, it was “La Bamba” that would become most closely identified with the young Mexican-American rocker. “La Bamba” was a popular huapango – a Mexican fiesta dance song - that he learned from his cousin. Valens put a rock and roll spin on this spirited folk tune, juicing it up with garage-rock riffing and a raw, enthusiastic solo. In essence, he invented Latino rock with this two-minute rock and roll classic.

The budding star was on a fast track when he embarked on the ill-fated Winter Dance Party bus tour of the Midwest in late January 1959. When headliner Buddy Holly chartered a plane to fly from Iowa, to the next date in Fargo, North Dakota, Valens flipped a coin with guitarist Tommy Allsop to see who would get the last seat. Valens won the toss and boarded the small aircraft, which took off in the early hours of February 3, 1959. Minutes later it crashed in a cornfield, claiming the lives of Valens, Holly, J.P. Richardson ("The Big Bopper") and the pilot. Valens, who was only 17 years old, left behind a small but influential body of work.