When rock'n'roll was young, so was Ritchie Valens. He was born in 1941. When rock'n'roll was rampant, so was Ritchie Valens; his double-sided smash hit "Donna/La Bamba" dominated the charts in December 1958, as did rock'n'roll. But before the first flush of rock'n'roll was over, Ritchie Valens was dead.
Ritchie Valens is not the most famous name in rock'n'roll, but Valens
did have as many or even more hits than some acknowledged "stars". And
he is important for at least three reasons. The first reason is known to
most rock fans - Valens was one of the "three stars" killed in the Buddy
Holly plane crash of February 1959.
The third, and most important reason is that in his remarkably short career (he was incredibly, still only seventeen years old when he died) he made some really excellent rock'n'roll records. And not only excellent, but individually-styled. Think of 'La Bamba' and 'Donna', and you come up with Ritchie Valens. What you may not know and will be surprised to find on this album, is that Ritchie's legacy is a full eighteen track album of solidly enjoyable rocking music.
Richard Valenzuela was born of Mexican-Indian stock in Los Angeles on 13 May, 1941. Little is known of his early life because, understandably since he only lived to be seventeen, very few penetrating interviews were carried out with him.
It is known that Ritchie, as he became known, took a liking to guitar music at an early age and old school pals can recall his being a passable player in his early teens. At this time, around 1956, he had organised his own group at the Pacoima High School in L.A. The group was known as the Silhouettes, and although the identity of the earliest Silhouettes remains as shadowy as their name it is known that they played all the new rhythm and blues and rock'n'roll songs as well as more traditional Mexican songs. The seeds of the sound had been sown.
Early in 1958, Ritchie's activities in playing at school hops and local gigs came to the notice of Bob Keene, one of Los Angeles' premier record men. Keene is remembered today for his Class and Challenge labels, which brought Bobby Day and Big AI Downing to the world's jukeboxes and for his work with Sam Cooke on the Keen label. Later, he went on to produce the Bobby Fuller Four of "I Fought The Law" fame. Before he came across Valens, he had worked as a producer and talent scout for Specialty and other west coast labels.
It was, then, the eye of an experienced and talented record man which saw in the very young Ritchie Valens the two things which stars are made of. One, talent, and two, a marketable quality, which in Ritchie's case was youth.
Keene took Valens into a recording studio for the first time in March
1958. They both knew what they wanted to achieve, and soon "Come
On, Let's Go" appeared on Keene's label Del-Fi. It was numbered 4106,
and it was a Latin influenced rocker. In September 1958 it
entered the American Billboard chart and in October it peaked at
number 42 on the chart. It was a solid beginning.
"Donna" hit the top ten in December 1958, and ultimately reached number two on the chart. It sparked off a bevy of 'cover' versions, it got young Ritchie onto the Perry Como TV show, and it took him off on a tour to Hawaii. It led also to his being booked with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper on a tour of the south-west called 'The Winter Dance Party'. The 'Party' commenced after Christmas, and before he took off on that, Ritchie managed to fit in a short appearance in a movie. He sang "La Bamba" for Hal Roach in "Go Johnny Go", a rock film which starred Alan Freed, Chuck Berry and a multitude of up and comers like the equally young Latin, Jimmy Clanton. "La Bamba" had by now, January 1959, replaced "Donna" on the chart. It reached number 22.
The Valens name was now hot enough for Del-Fi to issue the first of the four albums which ultimately appeared. Valens did not record enough material for there to be no overlap on the albums, and one of them, the rare "Live At Pacoima High School", was hastily thrown together from interesting but not best quality tapes.
Ritchie Valens was not old enough to have assimilated too many bad influences in his music. So, what you hear on his records is the style developed by himself and Bob Keene. He may have gone on to become a superstar or a forgotten hero but whatever would have happened he would have made his contribution to rock'n'roll.
What did happen, was that Ritchie Valens played a 'Winter Dance Party' show at the Surf Ballroom, Clear Lake, Iowa on 2 February, 1958. Some members of the show like Dion and the Belmonts, the Crickets and Frankie Sardo, made their way to the next gig at Fargo, North Dakota by road. Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, the "three stars" immortalised in a song by San Bernardino DJ, Tommy Dee, decided to hire a light aeroplane from the Dwyer Flying Service near Clear Lake.
Around 1 a.m. on the cold, snowy morning of 3 February, 1959, the
Beachcraft Bonanza plane took off in a storm. It never made it to
Fargo. It was found later that morning in a lonely farm about fifteen
miles from Mason City.