Despite a recording career that only lasted eight months, Ritchie Valens left a lasting mark on rock and roll history.
Ritchie Valens was born Richard Steven Valenzuela on May 13, 1941 in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. He grew up listening to traditional Mexican mariachi music as well rock and roll and R & B and he became interested in making music at a very young age. He started playing the guitar and trumpet at age 9 and later taught himself to play the drums. Although he was left handed he learned to play the guitar with his right hand. By the time he was in junior high school he was bringing his guitar to school so that he could entertain his friends. When he was 16 he was invited to join a local band called The Silhouettes as a guitarist and eventually took over lead vocals when the band lost its singer. Ritchie became locally known for his performance style and musical ability.
In May of 1958 Bob Keane, the owner of the small label Del-Fi Records, went to watch Ritchie perform at the suggestion of a fellow high school student. After that he invited Ritchie to audition and made a recording in his home studio. Keane signed him to Del-Fi on May 27, 1958 and convinced him to use the name Ritchie Valens, which he believed would give him a broader appeal. Ritchie soon recorded “Come on Let’s Go,” “Donna,” about his real-life girlfriend, and “La Bamba,” which all became his biggest hits. Ritchie dropped out of high school in the fall of that year to concentrate on his recording career.
Keane booked performances for Ritchie all over the country and he was forced to overcome his fear of flying that had been brought on by an accident that involved two planes crashing above his school, which killed several of his friends. He performed on American Bandstand on October 6, performed with Buddy Holly and Paul Anka in Hawaii in November, and then went on to New York City to perform at the popular Alan Freed’s Christmas Jubilee. On December 27 he appeared again on American Bandstand and performed his hit “Donna.”
Next Ritchie was booked to perform in the Winter Dance Party tour along with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. On February 3, 1959 he died in the same plane crash that took the lives of the other legends, which has since been dubbed “The Day the Music Died.” Despite his very short career, Ritchie Valens was a pioneer of Chicano and Latin rock. At a time when there were very few Latinos in popular music Ritchie became in inspiration to many future performers such as Carlos Santana, Los Lobos, and Los Lonely Boys. His popular songs have gone on to be covered by many other musicians.