Today is the birthday of singer and songwriter Richard Steven Valenzuela (1941), born in Pacoima, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. He’s better known as “Ritchie Valens,” and you’ve probably danced along to two of his biggest hits, “La Bamba” and “Donna.” Ritchie Valens’s career only lasted eight months. He died in a plane crash in Iowa in 1959, alongside fellow 1950s rockers Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. He was only 17.
Ritchie Valens grew up listening to traditional Mexican mariachi music and flamenco guitar, but he also soaked up a lot of R & B and jump blues. When he was five, his dad bought him a trumpet and Ritchie taught himself to play the drums. By the time he was a teenager, he was giving impromptu concerts in the bleachers at his high school, earning him the nickname “Little Richard of San Fernando.” A local band called The Silhouettes asked him to join them. He made his public debut on October 19, 1957, and when a record producer came calling, Richard Valenzuela followed. The producer shortened his first name to Ritchie, and his last name to Valens.
Ritchie Valens had a girlfriend named Donna. They’d dated about a year before deciding to see other people. One night, he called her up and sang a song he’d written about missing her. She liked it, but didn’t think much of it until several months later, when she was driving in a car with friends, and the song came on the radio, and she realized her boyfriend was about to become famous. Donna became famous, too: even Elvis Presley had his bodyguard try to arrange a date with her. Pretty soon, Valens dropped out of high school to go on tour. He appeared on The Perry Como Show and American Bandstand.
Ritchie Valens biggest hit was “La Bamba,” a hard-driving, peppy song he sung entirely in Spanish. The song is a traditional Mexican folk song dating back to the 1830s that’s popular at dances, weddings, and festive dinners. In Mexico, it was mostly played on a small guitar and with a harp as an accompaniment. Valens grew up in an English-speaking household and wasn’t fluent in Spanish, so he learned the words phonetically, getting the lyrics from his aunt. The song became a massive hit, with Valens becoming a pioneer for mixing traditionally Latin sounds with rock music.
During his lifetime, Ritchie Valens only recorded two albums and 33 songs.