Ritchie Valens: The First Latino Rock Star

The Tragically Short Career of the "La Bamba" Singer

Ritchie Valens (born May 13, 1941, in Los Angeles, California) was a famous Latino teen idol and pioneer of the Chicano rock movement of the 1950s and 60s before his untimely death alongside Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson in a plane crash on February 3, 1959 — a day that would later be remembered as "The Day the Music Died." 

Before his death, though, Ritchie experienced eight months of stardom, starting with the release of " La Bamba" in 1958. 

Early Years

Ritchie Steven Valenzuela was born into a family that loved blues and R&B as much as it did the traditional Latin songs that made up its culture. Born the second of five children, Valens and his siblings grew up to a variety of music including mariachi, flamenco and R&B, but they suffered early in life from tragedy — first when their parents divorced, then when Ritchie's father died when Valens was 10 years old.

Despite and perhaps largely because of this adversity, the young Valens had already taken up playing guitar and imitating the latest rock performers for his classmates by seventh grade. By high school, he'd garnered the nickname "The Little Richard of San Fernando" for his solo performances and was the vocalist and guitarist for local garage rockers The Silhouettes by age 17.

La La Bamba!

Neophyte entertainment manager Bob Keane was tipped off to Valens by a printer's assistant, and shortly after Keane sat in on a local performance of the teen, the 17-year-old Ritchie was soon recording demos of songs in Keane's basement. Eventually, the duo's sessions graduated to Gold Star studios on Santa Monica Boulevard, where Valens recorded his first hit, "Come On, Let's Go." It was a huge regional hit and made some noise nationally, prompting the release of a second single, " Donna" with a backing of "La Bamba."

"La Bamba" propelled Valens to instant fame, selling over a million records. In 1958, Valens quit high school to go on tour, famously stopping in on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" and Alan Freed's Christmas Jubilee in New York City. He came back to perform one more time on "American Bandstand" to perform "Donna" before embarking on the Winter Dance Party Tour with Buddy Holly, Tommy Allsup, Waylon Jennings and several other famous artists of the time.

Death and Legacy

During the infamous Winter Dance Party Tour of 1959, just one year after the success of "Come On, Let's Go," Ritchie Valens was killed, along with Buddy Holly and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, in a plane crash near Clear Lake, IA on a day that later became known as "The Day the Music Died."  Although his untimely demise makes him necessarily one of rock and roll music's more tragic figures, it is his musical legacy which survives him, specifically, his groundbreaking mix of musical styles and his honesty.

Ritchie Valens was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, the GRAMMY Hall of Fame in 2000 and given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame since his death. His impact, especially on Latin culture in rock music, went onto influence such acts as Carlos Santana, Robert Quine and even The Ramones.