Synopsis of Pop Music
“Para bailar La Bamba,
Para bailar La Bamba,
Se necesita una poca de gracia…”
Before his 18th birthday, Ritchie Valens had done the following: scored three charting hits, played American Bandstand twice, and almost single-handedly taken traditional Mexican music into mainstream pop music, paving the way for every Hispanic-American rock and roll idol that would follow. Unfortunately, Ritchie Valens never reached his 18th birthday. Along with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens lost his life in a plane crash on “The day the music died”—February 3, 1959—cutting short the career of this pop pioneer long before he’d reached his potential.
A native of Pacoima, California, Richard Stephen Valenzuela had been playing music for several years before Del-Fi signed him to a recording contract and shortened his name to Ritchie Valens. Weaned on traditional Spanish and Mexican folk sounds, Ritchie found a new love in r&b-styled rock and roll, and he would eventually fuse the two in his most enduring hit, “La Bamba.” In his teens, Ritchie gigged around the San Fernando Valley with his band, the Silhouettes, eventually attracting the attention of Del-Fi owner Bob Keene.
For his first single, Ritchie recorded the self-penned “Come On, Let’s Go,” a guitar-strumming rocker. The single hit #42 on the U.S. charts, and Ritchie began a countrywide tour, also appearing on American Bandstand. For his follow-up single, Ritchie delivered a love ballad to high school sweetheart Donna Ludwig, titled “Donna.” Needing a B-side, Keene convinced Valens to perform his own version of a traditional ‘huapango,’ a Mexican wedding song with nonsense lyrics. Ritchie’s version became “La Bamba,” which mixed all-Spanish lyrics like “Yo no soy marinero, soy capitán” (“I’m not a mariner, I’m the captain”) with a catchy, Latin-flavored guitar and electric bass line.
“Donna” eventually hit #2 on the U.S. charts, but it was the #22 B-side that earned Valens his reputation as a Latino rock pioneer. Tragically, by the time the two songs reached their highest chart positions, Valens was already gone. The up-and-coming star had been touring with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper when Holly’s chartered plane crashed en route from Iowa to Minnesota, killing all aboard. A few posthumous singles were released—“That’s My Little Suzie,” “Little Girl”—as were a Pacoima Junior High concert LP and other albums, but Valens’ spot in music history was already assured. His life story was adapted to the screen in the 1987 film La Bamba, which also spawned a #1 version of “La Bamba” by Los Lobos, a fitting tribute to the teen who helped make Latin sounds an enduring part of pop/rock music.
Artist Release History1959 - Ritchie Valens
1960 - Live at Pacoima Junior High School
1985 - History of Ritchie Valens
1986 - The Best of Ritchie Valens
1993 - The Ritchie Valens Story
1995 - Rockin' All Night: The Best of Ritchie Valens
1998 - Come On, Let's Go!
Pop Sub Categoriesrock