The world of music has seen several tragedies over the years with talents dying away way before their time. In fact, so many starlets have passed away prematurely that the ‘27 Club’ (comprising of people who died at the age of twenty-seven) is a part of our current cultural diction and lingo. But focusing on the tragedies distracts the audience from focusing on the lives and the impact they had, however short they were. If anything, it goes to prove that even the shortest career can have a lasting impact. No one embodies this better than the teenage sensation Ritchie Valens.
Richard Stevens Valenzuela was born on 13th May, 1941, in Paicoma, California. Keen on music from a very early age, young Ritchie learnt on a right-handed guitar even though he was left handed. A self-taught guitarist, he grew up listening to Mexican traditional mariachi music. At sixteen, Ritchie joined The Silhouettes as a guitarist and eventually went on to be their lead singer. As a young singer/guitarist, Ritchie made quite the impact on the local scene. It was enough to catch the attention of Bob Keane, the president of Del-Fi Records. Foreseeing a bright future for the talented teenager, Keane signed him to a contract and suggested the stage name ‘Ritchie Valens’. In 1958, Ritchie’s first single ‘Come on, Let’s Go’ was recorded and released by Del-FI Records. The song became a hit and paved the way for his second single, ‘Donna’ which had the track ‘La Bamba’ on the B-track. Written about his high school girlfriend, Donna Ludwig, the song reached number two on the pop charts with the record selling more than a million copies. ‘La Bamba’ was not as much of a success. Valens took the traditional Mexican song and fused it with rock and roll. This was a revolutionary idea and the song has been often cited as the beginning of the Chicano (Mexican American) rock movement. Surprisingly, Richie Valens could not speak Spanish even though he is of Mexican descent.
Owing to his success, Ritchie quit high school to focus on his music. In early 1959, he travelled with the Winter Dance Party tour, performing with stalwarts such as Buddy Holly, Frankie Sardo, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Dion and the Belmonts. After their performance in Clear Lake, Iowa, the tour was supposed to perform in Moorhead, Minnesota. Buddy Holly had chartered a private three-passenger plane. As “The Big Bopper” was sick, Holly’s bassist gave up his seat. Ritchie had a fear of flying during his childhood but gradually overcame it. He won his seat from Holly’s backup guitarist Tommy Allsup with a coin toss. The plane took off from Fargo, North Dakota and crashed minutes after takeoff. All passengers including the pilot were dead upon impact. The tragedy sent shockwave down the entire music industry as well as music lovers from all over the world. In his song, ‘American Pie’, singer Don McLean christened it as ‘the day the music died’. His first album, Ritchie Valens, was posthumously released in March, 1959.
A short-lived life and an even shorter career, Valens’ name never faded into the pages of history books as musicians continue to draw inspiration from his songs as well as his character. A pioneer of the Chicano and Latin rock, he paved the way for the likes of Carlos Santana and the Los Lobos by being the first from the latino community to be nationally successful in mainstream rock and roll. Having an active career of just a handful of months, Valens was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.