Ritchie Valens died very young, yet his legacy remained a cornerstone of the history of rock and roll. Valens was a natural singer and performer, in touch with his audience and unaffected by fame. The songs and records that he left behind were classic rock and roll. As singer/songwriter Don McLean immortalized those times in the epic song "American Pie," he symbolized Valens's passing as "the day the music died."
Ritchie Valens was born Richard Steve Valenzuela on May 13, 1941, in Los Angeles, California, the son of Joseph Steve Valenzuela and Concepcin (Connie) Reyes Valenzuela of San Fernando, California. Both of the Valenzuelas worked at a local munitions factory to support their family that consisted of young Valens and his older half-brother, Robert Morales--his mother's son from a former marriage. The family lived "from hand to mouth," with no money to spare. Joseph Valenzuela is remembered as a gruff and stern man who carried life-long scars from a mining accident.
Despite a rough exterior, Valens's father was nonetheless attentive and supportive of his only son. When Valens's parents divorced, his father took young Valens to Pacoima and raised him. Despite the upheaval in the family's living arrangements, however, he maintained a close relationship with both his mother and his maternal relatives.
At Haddon Elementary School in Pacoima, Valens was a child who blended in with his average looks, average intelligence, and quiet disposition. His special talent and enthusiasm for playing the guitar did not become evident until he reached junior high school. Nonetheless, his father and other family members noted Valens interest in music when he was still a small child. It is rumored that on more than one occasion he built makeshift guitars from scavenged items such as cigar boxes, tin cans, and the like. Joseph Valenzuela eventually presented his son with a real guitar and encouraged the boy to play, especially at parties and get-togethers, although Valens himself was completely reticent at first. In time, Valens grew increasingly comfortable with performing; he always enjoyed the music, and he spent hours practicing whenever he had the chance. At first Valens envisioned himself as a "singing cowboy" and emulated the style of those heroes. It was not until later that Valens developed a personal style in his music.
While Valens was still at Haddon Elementary School, his father's health deteriorated. He passed away in 1951, most likely from diabetes or a stroke. Young Valens was only 11 years old at that time. It is believed that he lived with an uncle in Santa Monica shortly afterward and that he lived with an uncle in Norfolk, California for a time and attended Norfolk Elementary. Eventually Valens, along with his mother, his brother and two younger half-sisters, Connie and Irma, eventually settled into his late father's residence in Pacoima. Valens, who always spoke English with his father, picked up Spanish from his mother's family. Valens also learned new guitar chords and musical styles from other family members who also played the guitar, including one uncle in particular, John Lozano.
Pacoima Junior High School
In September of 1954, the 13-year-old Valens enrolled at Pacoima Junior High School. By then he was very involved in his music. He enjoyed playing his guitar so much that he brought it to school with him regularly. Valens and his guitar were permanent fixtures on the Pacoima Junior High School grounds during recess periods, when he played and sang to the amusement of his schoolmates. Soon Valens was entertaining at school programs. His musical style evolved dramatically during those intermediate years. He encouraged his friends to sing along and contribute to the music, helping him develop his "of the people" style. He also learned to establish a rapport with his audience, and he acquired a penchant for improvising melodies and words. His record producers would note later that when Valens played a song it was different every time. His songs were like games, where everyone listening could take a turn, making up verses and singing. Valens's sensitivity to his audience would be among his greatest assets during his brief career in which he established his own personal style of rhythm and blues.
In junior high, like in elementary school, Valens was an average student and nondescript academically. Industrial arts class, however, was his favorite class. He was skillful and artistic with his hands, and he was known to have an excellent sense of form. Valens especially liked to bring his guitars to school, to work on them in the woodshop--restoring, repairing, and refinishing the old instruments that he collected, with painstaking attention.
Valens, but for his music and his beloved guitars, went relatively unnoticed in junior high school--although some Hispanic students called him "falso" because of his pale skin tones that belied his Mexican heritage. Overall, Valens was neither interested in matters of ethnicity and race, nor was he involved romantically with any particular girl; he blended with all who came to hear his music.
A few months before Valens finished junior high, early in 1957, a terrible and unusual tragedy befell Pacoima Junior High School. Two planes collided directly over the school. Three students were killed along with the entire crew of both planes. Ninety others were injured. Valens, who was attending his grandfather's funeral during the incident, was emotionally overwhelmed, and reportedly developed a fear of airplanes ... perhaps rightfully so because a shocking plane crash would ultimately claim young Valens's own life just two years and three days later. Valens's biographer, Beverly Mendheim, quoted a conversation related by Valens's uncle, Eliodoro Reyes. In talking with Valens sometime after the crash, Reyes admonished his young nephew never to board an airplane, and Valens replied deliberately, "I'll never get on one of those."
As Valens's days at Pacoima Junior High School drew to a close, his career picked up speed and surged forward. Valens was in the habit of performing frequently for dance parties, car clubs, and at the American Legion Hall. Some of the parties were benefit programs sponsored by Valens's mother to help make ends meet. Valens by then had a new brother, Mario, still an infant. Other dances were sponsored and promoted by the Silhouettes, a band formed by William Jones and Gilbert Roach. Originally a quintet, the Silhouettes featured a piano, drums, vibes, saxophone, and Valens on guitar. In time, the band grew to include trumpets, additional saxophones, and a clarinet. The Silhouettes' repertoire consisted almost exclusively of rock-and-roll sounds, but the group also performed music with a Latin flavor for weddings around town.
Early in 1958, a promoter named Doug Macchia taped a session of Valens and the Silhouettes performing at a dance party. Soon after, Valens was approached by Bob (Keene) Keane, a record producer and owner of the new Del-Fi label. Keane, who saw Macchia's tape, was interested in the yet unknown Valens. He arranged for Valens to audition in May, about the time of Valens's seventeenth birthday. By the end of that summer, Keane released "Come On, Let's Go," an original composition by Valens and his first commercial recording. The entire chronology of Valens's rapid rise to stardom spanned five hectic months following the release of his first hit single, after which Valens's career ended abruptly on February 3, 1959 in Clear Lake, Iowa.
Billboard cited Valens's first release, "Come On, Let's Go," as "pick of the week" for September 1, 1958. During that same month, Valens embarked on an 11-city tour of the East Coast. He appeared on Dick Clark's American Bandstand on October 6, at which point "Come On, Let's Go" reached number 42 on the charts. Valens, his east coast tour completed, returned to Southern California where he spent the rest of October into November, performing in various locations, including Disneyland, El Monte, and Long Beach. While in California, Valens went to Hollywood to film "Go Johnny Go" with Alan "Mr. Rock 'n' Roll" Freed and Chuck Berry. Valens appeared briefly in the film and sang "Ooh, My Head."
Keane, encouraged by the success of "Come On, Let's Go," released Valens's double-sided single, "Donna/La Bamba," which was cited in the Billboard Spotlight on November 17, 1958. During the Christmas holiday that year, Valens performed again with Alan Freed in a Christmas Jubilee along with Chuck Berry, the Everlys, Bo Diddly, Frankie Avalon, Eddie Cochran, and others. Meanwhile, his new single "Donna/La Bamba," appeared on the charts by the end of the year. Valens performed continually during the end of 1958; During that time Valens purchased a new house for himself and his family in Pacoima. "Donna" soared to second place on the Billboard chart by January of 1959.
On January 11, Valens made a television appearance on a rock-and-roll variety show, The Music Shop. Valens then signed a long-term contract to perform in a series of tours sponsored by General Artist Corporation (GAC). The first GAC tour was scheduled throughout the Midwest during the winter months of 1959 along with Buddy Holly and the Crickets, J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson, and a number of backup artists such as bassist Waylon Jennings and guitarist Tommy Allsup. Valens made two last stops in West Covina and in Long Beach, before departing California for Chicago for the scheduled departure of the first GAC tour. The hectic tour was plagued by problems with the chartered buses. The performers were so cold during much of the trip that one drummer was hospitalized with frostbite. From Chicago the tour bus left for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, then on to Kenosha, and Eau Clair in Wisconsin. Next the performers traveled to Montevido and St. Paul in Minnesota, then on to Davenport and Fort Dodge in Iowa, and back to Duluth, Minnesota. By the evening of February 2, the tour was performing in Clear Lake, Iowa, after stopping in Appleton and Green Bay, Wisconsin.
It was the stop in Clear Lake that ultimately led to disaster when Buddy Holly, weary and exhausted from the slow, cold bus rides decided to charter a plane to the next tour stop in Moorhead, Minnesota. Holly arranged for a small Beechcraft Bonanza to take himself, Allsup, and Jennings to Fargo, North Dakota--from there the three planned to take ground transportation to Moorhead. By 1 a.m., when the plane was ready to leave Clear Lake, Jennings had conceded his seat on the plane to singer J.P. Richardson, a very large man who was extremely distraught and uncomfortable on the long bus rides. Allsup wanted very much to take the plane, but at Valens's persistence, Allsup gambled his seat on the plane over a coin toss. Valens was never characterized as impetuous, yet despite his avowed fear of flying, he was gratified to win the toss. The night was cold and foggy, and the pilot was not instrument certified. The plane crashed over a cornfield outside of Mason City, Iowa. The three passengers, and the pilot were killed on impact. Valens was only 17. His career as a rock-and-roll star was over less than one year after it started. A memorial service was held at his gravesite on May 13, 1959--the day would have been his eighteenth birthday. The headstone on Valens's grave was inscribed, "Come On, Let's Go." Valens and his music were later remembered in the 1987 Hollywood film La Bamba. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
Born Richard Steve Valenzuela, May 13, 1941, in Los Angeles County, CA; died February 3, 1959 in historic plane crash in Mason City, IA; son of Joseph Steve and Concepcin Valenzuela.
Performed with the Silhouettes in Pacoima, CA during the late 1950s; signed with Del-Fi Records in 1958; signed to tour with General Artist Corporation (GAC) c. 1959.
- "Come On, Let's Go"/"Framed," Del-Fi, September 13, 1958.
- "Come On, Let's Go"/"Dooby Dooby Wah," Pye-Int., 1958.
- "Donna"/La Bamba," Del-Fi, November 17, 1958.
- Ritchie Valens, (includes "Come On, Let's Go," "Donna," "Ooh, My Head," and "La Bamba"), Del-Fi, February 24, 1959.
- Ritchie Valens In Concert at Pacoima Junior High, Del-Fi, December 31, 1960.
- Ritchie Valens' Greatest Hits, Del-Fi, April 20, 1963.
- The History of Ritchie Valens, Rhino, July 1981.
Goldrosen, John and John Beecher, Remembering Buddy, Penguin Books, New York, 1987.
Jennings, Waylon, Waylon: an Autobiography, Warner Books, 1996.
Mendheim, Beverly, Ritchie Valens: The First Latino Rocker, Bilingual Press, Tempe, AZ, 1987.
Shaw, Arnold, The Rockin' 50s, Da Capo Press, 1974.
Entertainment Weekly, February 3, 1995.
"Ritchie Valens," Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, http://www.rockhall.com/inductees/ritchie-valens (February 28, 2013).
"Rockhouse Music Mail Express," http://www.musicmailexpress.com/mme.cgi/index May 23, 1998.
Simon, Tom, "Ritchie Valens Page," http://www.crl.com/~tsimon/valens.htm November 3, 1996.