In a tragically short lifetime, Richard Steven Valenzuela, better known as Ritchie Valens, became the first Latino rock star in the U.S. and a forefather of the Chicano rock movement.
Born in Los Angeles and raised in the San Fernando Valley, Valens expressed an interest in music at an early age and his family encouraged him to take up guitar. At age 16, he joined a local band, the Silhouettes, in addition to playing solo at parties and other events.
He met music producer Bob Keane in 1958 and recorded his first demo in Bob’s basement. After the success of his single “Come On, Let’s Go,” Valens took a break from his senior year at San Fernando High School to travel the country playing music.
On October 6, 1958, his mother’s birthday, Valens made his first appearance on “American Bandstand” with Dick Clark. During his performance, Valens broke a guitar string. Afterward, Clark said he sounded great even with the broken string. He made his second appearance on the show two months later, singing a new hit, “Donna.”
“Donna,” written for Valens’ girlfriend and released on January 3, 1959, reached Number 2 on the Billboard charts. But it was “La Bamba” on the flip side that made history. Taking a traditional Mexican standard and making it rock and roll, he created the first Spanish-language song to enter the Billboard Hot 100.
In December 1958, Valens performed at his junior high school in Pacoima, in one of his last live concerts. It was taped using a small portable tape recorder. Bob Keane released four songs from the concert on a new record in 1960, along with unfinished demos Valens had recorded in Keane’s studio.
In January 1959, Valens filmed his movie debut, appearing as himself in “Go, Johnny, Go!”. His rendition of “Ooh, My Head” is the only footage ever made of him performing. After filming was over, Valens worked to finish tracks for his upcoming album before heading out on a “Winter Dance Party” tour of the Midwest.
After a performance in Clear Lake, Iowa, Valens (left) and fellow musicians J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson (center) and Buddy Holly chartered a plane to the next stop on their tour. All three were killed when the plane crashed shortly after takeoff on February 3, 1959, “The Day the Music Died.” Valens was just 17 years old.
Although his life and career were cut short, Valens’ influence persisted. Finding success at a time when Latinos weren’t heard in mainstream rock and pop music in the U.S., he paved the way for musicians such as Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys, and Carlos Santana.
Valens has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, nominated for a Grammy award, and was the first Latino rock star to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was survived by his mother, Concepcion Reyes Valenzuela, and siblings Roberto, Mario, Connie, and Irma.