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Ritchie Valens

Eternally associated as one of three rock’n’roll stars that died on the chartered plane crash on February 3, 1959, that killed BUDDY HOLLY, The BIG BOPPER and the pilot Roger Peterson, RITCHIE VALENS was still only 17 years-old when the tragic accident occurred over Clear Lake, Iowa. Tipped for super-stardom as second billing to legend Buddy, despite existent 45 `Fast Freight’ failing to chart, Latino rock pioneer Ritchie had already one song that made its mark, the near-chart-topping `La Bamba’ (twinned with Top 30 entry `Donna’). If he hadn’t “won” a last-moment toss of a coin that led to HOLLY’s back-up guitarist Tommy Allsup giving up his seat, who knows what RITCHIE VALENS might’ve become. Many had predicted he would be a future legend, but to die so young was, to say the least, catastrophic.
Born Richard Steven Valenzuela, May 13, 1941, Pacoima, (San Fernando Valley) Los Angeles, California, his perception of rock’n’roll was a little different to his peers, in the sense he’d been raised under the sounds of Mexican mariachi music and flamenco guitars. Having taken up guitar, trumpet and drums while still only a schoolboy, he snapped up a position in local combo The Silhouettes and, by autumn 1957, he was fronting the band on stage.
His transformation from group singer to promising solo star came about the following spring when producer Bob Keane took him under his wing at his Hollywood-based Del-Fi label. From Ritchie Valenzuela to RITCHIE VALENS, the transition worked as debut co-penned platter, `Come On, Let’s Go’ (b/w a version of Leiber & Stoller’s `Framed’), raced into the Top 50. As previously mentioned, the self-penned `Donna’ (concerning his high school sweetheart Donna Ludwig) and an adapted version of Mexican folk song, `La Bamba’, hit pay-dirt for the young singing star and guitarist.
Subsequently booked as part of a star-studded bill “the Winter Dance Party”, the switch from chilly tour bus (with a broken heater) to the convenience of a short plane journey was HOLLY’s, and well… one knows the rest of “the day that music died” – poignant words/lyrics from DON McLEAN’s 1971 classic `American Pie’. In the wake of Ritchie’s death, `Donna’ re-claimed a Top 3 position, while, in March ’59, a posthumous RITCHIE VALENS (1959) {*7} album was caught just shy of the Top 20. One imagines it was still riding reasonably high in the charts when he (and song `Ooh My Head’) featured in the summer ’59, Alan Freed film, Go, Johnny, Go!
While Ritchie’s legacy was to encompass the four corners of the world, there was no better tribute than, when, in 1987, Hollywood ushered in his bio-pic, `La Bamba’, complemented by a sincere soundtrack led out by fans LOS LOBOS and a No.1 re-vamp of the title track.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS // rev-up MCS Aug2016

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