Not to be confused with .Signature
Richard Steven Valenzuela (May 13, 1941 – February 3, 1959), known professionally as Ritchie Valens, was a Mexican American singer, songwriter, and guitarist. A pioneer and a forefather of the movement, Valens' recording career lasted eight months, as it abruptly ended when he died in a plane crash.
During this time, he had several hits, most notably "", which he had adapted from a Mexican folk song. Valens transformed the song into one with a rock rhythm and beat, and it became a hit in 1958, making Valens a pioneer of the Spanish-speaking rock and roll movement.
On February 3, 1959, on what has become known as "", Valens died in a plane crash in , an accident that also claimed the lives of fellow musicians and J. P. "" Richardson, as well as pilot Roger Peterson. Valens was posthumously inducted into the in 2001.
Valens was born Richard Steven Valenzuela in , a neighborhood in the region of Los Angeles. His parents, Joseph Valenzuela (1896–1952) and Concepcion Reyes (1915–1987), were from . He was the second of five siblings with older brother Bob Morales, younger sisters Connie and Irma, and younger brother Mario Ramirez. Ritchie Valenzuela was brought up hearing traditional Mexican music, as well as guitar,, and . Valenzuela expressed an interest in making music of his own by the age of five, and he was encouraged by his father to take up guitar and trumpet, and later taught himself the drums. Though Valenzuela was left-handed, he was so eager to learn the guitar that he mastered the traditionally right-handed version of the instrument. By the time Valenzuela was attending junior high school, he brought the guitar to school and would sing and play songs to his friends on the bleachers. When he was 16 years old, he was invited to join a local band, the Silhouettes (not the group famous for its hit song ), as a guitarist, and when the main vocalist left the group, Valenzuela assumed the position. On October 19, 1957, he made his performing debut with the Silhouettes. Valenzuela attended Pacoima Junior High School (now ) and .
A self-taught musician, Valenzuela was an accomplished singer and guitarist. At his appearances, he often improvised new lyrics and added new riffs to popular songs while he was playing.
, the owner and president of small record label in , was given a tip in May 1958 by student Doug Macchia about a young performer from Pacoima by the name of Richard Valenzuela. Kids knew the performer as "the of ". Swayed by the Little Richard comparison, Keane went to see Valenzuela play a Saturday morning matinée at a movie theater in San Fernando. Impressed by the performance, he invited the youth to audition at his home in the area of Los Angeles, where he had a small recording studio in his basement. His recording equipment comprised an early stereo recorder (a two-track 601-2 portable) and a pair of U-47 condenser microphones.
After this first audition, Keane signed Ritchie to Del-Fi on May 27, 1958. At this point, the musician took the name "Ritchie" because, as Keane said, "There were a bunch of 'Richards' around at that time, and I wanted it to be different." Similarly, Keane recommended shortening his surname to "Valens" from Valenzuela to widen his appeal beyond any obvious ethnic group.
Valens demonstrated several songs in Keane's studio that he later recorded at in Hollywood. The demos primarily consisted of Valens singing and playing guitar, but some of them also featured drums. These originals can be heard on the Del-Fi album, Ritchie Valens – The Lost Tapes. Two of the tracks laid down in Keane's studio were taken to Gold Star Studios and had additional instruments dubbed over to create full-band recordings. "" was one track (although two other preliminary versions of the song were made, both available on The Lost Tapes), and the other was an instrumental entitled "Ritchie's Blues".
After several songwriting and demonstration recording sessions with Keane in his basement studio, Keane decided that Valens was ready to enter the studio with a full band backing him. The musicians included , , and . The first songs recorded at Gold Star Studios, at a single studio session one afternoon in July 1958, were , an original (credited to Valens/Kuhn, Keane's real name), and "Framed", a tune. Pressed and released within days of the recording session, the record was a success. Valens's next record, a double A-side, the final record to be released in his lifetime, had the song "Donna" (written about a real girlfriend) coupled with "". It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a by the .
By the autumn of 1958, the demands of Valens' career forced him to drop out of high school. Keane booked appearances at venues across the United States and performances on television programs. Valens had a due to a when, on January 31, 1957, two airplanes collided over the playground, killing or injuring several of his friends.Valens had been at his grandfather Frank Reyes' funeral that day, but was upset about the loss of his friends.
He eventually overcame his fear enough to travel by airplane for his career. He went to to appear on 's television show on October 6, where he sang "Come On, Let's Go". In November, Valens flew to , where he performed alongside and . Valens was added to the bill of legendary disc jockey 's Christmas Jubilee in New York City, singing with some of those who had greatly influenced his music, including , , the , , , , and . On December 27, he returned to Philadelphia and American Bandstand, this time performing "Donna".
After returning to Los Angeles, Valens filmed an appearance in Alan Freed's movie In the film, he appears in a diner miming his song "Ooh! My Head", using a 6120 guitar, the same model owned. Between the live appearances, Valens returned to Gold Star Studios several times, recording the tracks that would comprise his two albums.
In early 1959, Valens was traveling the on a multiple-act rock-and-roll tour dubbed "The Winter Dance Party". Accompanying him were Buddy Holly, , and . All performers were augmented by Holly's new backup band, including on guitar, on bass, and on drums.
Conditions for the performers on the tour buses were abysmal and bitterly cold. Midwest weather took its toll on the party. Carl Bunch had to be hospitalized with severely feet, and several others, including Valens and the Big Bopper, caught the flu. The show was split into two acts, with Valens closing the first act. After Bunch was hospitalized, of the Belmonts took over the drumming duties. When Dion and the Belmonts were performing, the drum seat was taken by either Valens or Buddy Holly. A surviving color photograph shows Valens at the drum kit. Black and white photos found in 2014 taken by Mary Gerber on February 2, 1959, which are on display at the Surf Ballroom show Buddy Holly playing drums for Dion as Dion's drummer had frostbitten feet.
Main article:Grave of Ritchie Valens and his mother Concepcion at San Fernando Mission Cemetery
After the February 2, 1959, performance in (which ended around midnight), Holly, Richardson, and Valens flew out of the airport in a small plane that Holly had chartered. Valens was on the plane because he won a coin toss with Holly's backup guitarist Tommy Allsup. Holly's bassist, Waylon Jennings, voluntarily gave up his seat on the plane to J.P. Richardson, who was ill with the flu. Just after 1:00 am on February 3, 1959, the three-passenger departed for , and crashed a few minutes after takeoff for reasons still unknown. The crash killed all three passengers and pilot Roger Peterson instantly upon impact. As with Holly and Richardson, Valens suffered massive and unsurvivable head injuries along with to the chest. At just 17 years old, Valens was the youngest to die in the crash.
The tragedy inspired singer to write his 1971 hit "", immortalizing February 3 as "The Day the Music Died". Valens's remains were buried at , .Photo of the airplane crash in Iowa
Valens was a pioneer of and and inspired many musicians of Mexican heritage. He influenced the likes of , , and , as he had become nationally successful at a time when very few Latinos were in American rock and pop music. He is considered the first Latino to successfully cross over into mainstream rock.
"La Bamba" proved to be his most influential recording, not only by becoming a pop chart hit sung entirely in Spanish, but also because of its successful blending of traditional Latin American music with rock. Valens was the first to capitalize on this formula, which was later adopted by such varied artists as , , , , , , , and many others in the scene. Ironically, the Valenzuela family spoke only English at home, and he knew very little Spanish. Valens to record "La Bamba" in Spanish.
"Come On, Let's Go" has been covered by Los Lobos, the and the (the Ramones on guitar, bass and drums and the Paley Brothers on vocals), , the , , and the . In Australia, Johnny Rebb and his Rebels on Leedon/Canetoad Records covered the song. "Donna" has been covered by artists as diverse as , , the , , , and .
has cited Valens' guitar playing as an early influence on his style. Valens also inspired , , , , and , among others.
Valens' mother, Connie, who died in 1987, is buried alongside him.
In 1988, Ken Paquette, a fan of the 1950s era, erected a stainless-steel monument depicting a steel guitar and a set of three records bearing the names of each of the three performers killed in the accident. It is located on private farmland, about one-quarter mile west of the intersection of 315th Street and Gull Avenue, about 8 miles (13 km) north of Clear Lake. He also created a similar stainless-steel monument to the three musicians that was installed near the Riverside Ballroom in . That memorial was unveiled on July 17, 2003.
A park in Pacoima was renamed in Ritchie Valens' honor in the 1990s. Originally named Paxton Park, a city council member representing Pacoima proposed the renaming to honor Valens so residents will "remember his humble background and emulate his accomplishments."
In 1985, artist Manuel Velasquez (assisted by 25 students) created a 12 foot by 20 foot mural which was painted on the side of a classroom building at the former Pacoima Junior High (now Pacoima Middle School) depicting Ritchie Valens' image, records labeled with some of his greatest hits, as well as the newspaper article about the plane crash that took his life.
Musician Tommy Allsup started a club, "Tommy's Heads Up Saloon", in in 1979. The club was named for the fateful coin toss between Valens and him .
"" from 's album was inspired by Valens' song "Ooh, My Head". It did not credit Valens or , instead crediting Valens' mother. Eventually, a lawsuit was filed by Keane, and half of the reward went to Valens' mother, although she was not part of the suit.
A section of the 5 Freeway in the northeast San Fernando Valley will be named after Valens. The Ritchie Valens Memorial Highway will be located between the 170 and 118 freeways.