Ritchie Valens was just 17 years old when he changed the course of pop music in the late 1950s. As the first Mexican-American hitmaker in the U.S., he laid the groundwork for Chicano rock and beyond, with an enduring legacy that continues to inspire generation after generation — from legends like Carlos Santana and Los Lobos to Gen Z musicians like Cuco and DannyLux. And while Valens died 62 years ago, his music continues to have an everlasting impact today, on what would have been his 80th birthday.
“Ritchie was a rock & roll pioneer, and that is without qualification,” says Lou Diamond Phillips, who famously starred as Valens in the 1987 biopic La Bamba, named after Valens’ signature hit. “His music touched an entire generation. Not only did [his story] speak to a community, it really represents the American dream for Latinos.”
Connie Valens Anderson, Ritchie’s younger sister, echoes this point. “My brother was a pioneer of rock & roll, despite all the odds being against him,” she says. “He wasn’t the right color, he wasn’t the right size, he wasn’t the right age — but that didn’t matter. He had the right heart, he had the drive, he had the passion. And he paved the way for all people of color and all ethnicities.”
One doesn’t need to look far to witness Valens’ formidable influence well into the 21st century. Just recently, Chicano upstart DannyLux released a terrific Spanish rendition of Valens’ 1959 hit “We Belong Together.” “Ritchie Valens had a great influence on me and my music,” says the 17-year-old singer, who grew up in Palm Springs, California. “I began listening to him [when] I was just learning to play the guitar. My dad would always play me his music. We would watch the movie La Bamba, and I really liked his story, the way he stood out. I often get inspiration from his songs.”
Before he made history as the first international Latin rock star, Richard Steven Valenzuela was born on May 13th, 1941, in Pacoima, California to a family of munition plant and farm workers. Growing up bicultural in a post-war era, the Mexican-American prodigy immersed himself in an array of music that resonated on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, from rhythm & blues to traditional Mexican music. Although his family had been living in the U.S. for a few generations — his mother and grandmother were both born in Arizona — they never forgot their Latin roots.
“My mother owned a Mexican restaurant. She was a fabulous cook and embraced mariachi music,” Connie remembers. “She liked Miguel Aceves Mejía and Pedro Infante, and would take us to see Mexican movies.” In films made during the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, it was custom to see the lead protagonist also be a spectacular musician: “There were these guys with their big ol’ hats riding on horses with their guitars. They had beautiful voices.”
Connie also recalls having family gatherings around bonfires where her uncles would bring out their “beers, guitars, and harmonica” and teach young Ritchie a few chords while on someone’s lap. “That’s where Ritchie picked up his knack for the guitar,” says Connie. “He later became known as the Little Richard of the San Fernando Valley.”
Despite being left-handed, the young musician mastered the right-hand guitar. At 16 years old, Ritchie Valenzuela (who still went by his birth name) joined a band called the Silhouettes as their guitarist and songwriter for a short stint. Their rendition of “Malagueña,” originally a Spanish flamenco song from the 19th century, was an early testament of his forward-thinking approach, giving rural, traditional songs a rock & roll spin while showcasing his impressive fretwork. Shortly after they began performing in the local L.A. circuit, the band was spotted by Bob Keane, head of Del-Fi records, who was impressed — but only by Ritchie. The label signed him to a solo contract and rebranded him as Ritchie Valens. (Keane reportedly felt that the name Valenzuela wouldn’t sell at the time, as it wasn’t seen as being radio-friendly or American enough.)
Valens’ debut single, the swing-rock party-starter “Come On, Let’s Go!,” instantly cracked the Billboard charts at Number 42. But it was his second single, “Donna,” a timeless tender ballad about the longings of teen love, that became his breakthrough, peaking at Number Two. On the B-side was an even bigger hit — “La Bamba,” an unlikely Latin rock hybrid that became the first Spanish-language track to crack the Top 40. Originally a son jarocho song from the 1930s and a traditional Mexican wedding song, in Valens’ hands it became an immortal rock hit.
“His version of ‘La Bamba’ has a purity to it,” says David Hidalgo, co-founder of the Grammy-winning Chicano rock outfit Los Lobos, who scored a major hit in 1987 with their cover of the song, recorded for the biopic of the same name. “It’s simple enough for anybody around the world to feel it.”
“There is absolutely no denying that primal joy of ‘La Bamba,’” adds Phillips. “It affects everybody, no matter your cultural background. White people didn’t have to understand what it meant, just that it made them happy. His music transcends borders and language.”
In a career that lasted just eight months, the teenage wunderkind managed to release five hits that entered the Hot 100, recording about two dozen songs in total. At the height of early rock & roll, Valens’ music thrillingly showcased an array of styles, from the fiery, punky conviction of “Ooh, My Head” to the dreamy experimentalism of “In a Turkish Town,” while always unveiling a gigantic heart, and vocals that could easily weaken knees.
“There is a cut on his first album, ‘In a Turkish Town,’ where Ritchie was already beginning to wrap his head around world music,” Phillips says. “Not until years later would you see the Beatles have an Eastern influence, bringing in other cultures. Ritchie was thinking about this in 1958. He was not only looking into his own heritage, but looking outside to bring in other influences into rock & roll. Would he have continued that, he would have been a forerunner to what the Beatles ended up doing later in the Sixties.”
Tragically, Ritchie’s potential was cut short when he perished in a plane crash while on tour with fellow stars Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson (a.k.a. The Big Bopper), on February 3th, 1959. The date of their death is still considered one of the greatest losses in popular music history, memorialized as the Day the Music Died.
By the Seventies, oldies music was exploding in popularity throughout Southern California, with a large fan base among the Chicano community, thanks to cassettes and bootleg tapes sold in swap meets and radio stations that aired rhythm & soul, vintage rock, and doo-wop hits. “His music was always around when we were kids,” recalls Hidalgo. “‘Come On, Let’s Go,’ but especially ‘La Bamba’ and ‘Donna.’ It was part of the music we listened to, what was on pop radio in L.A., like KRLA [870 AM] or KHJ [930 AM]. It was always in the mix of the oldies stations.”
Los Lobos began performing in 1973, starting out with Mexican folkloric music like boleros, rancheras, and son jarocho, and hopping into all kinds of rock, while always honoring the music of their native L.A. “We got to where Ritchie’s music came into the picture. Once we learned about his story — that he died so young and he did all that in eight months — we really started to appreciate him and play his music,” says Hidalgo.
To this day, Los Lobos continue to appreciate the art of great Angeleno musicians, as exemplified in their next album, Native Sons, their L.A.-themed all-covers record, due out July 30th, with covers of the Beach Boys, Thee Midniters, Buffalo Springfield, and more. “We tried to touch every corner in music from L.A. that have inspired or influenced us,” he says.
Early in their career, Los Lobos covered Valens’ “Come On, Let’s Go,” and word began to spread to the point of reaching the Valens family. “When Ritchie’s family heard it, they really liked it,” Hidalgo says. “When we played in their area up in Santa Cruz, they came to the show and we got to meet the family — [Ritchie’s siblings] Irma, Connie, Bob, Mario, and their mom too, Connie [senior]. That became the beginning of our friendship, and it grew deeper.” Soon they got the gig of recording the music for the film La Bamba.
Directed by Luis Valdez, widely regarded as the father of Chicano film and theater, La Bamba met with huge success. “I don’t think any of us imagined that it was going to become this international sensation…Its staying power over the decades has been a bit astounding,” says Phillips, whose performance as Valens was his breakout role. Three years later after the film’s release, Valens got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 2017, the biopic was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Just last month, La Bamba was re-released as part of TCM’s Big Screen Classics series.
“Before the film, people knew Ritchie Valens, ‘La Bamba,’ and ‘Donna,’ but they didn’t know the backstory. I think that was revelatory for audiences, and it made him more endearing and more lovable,” Philips says.
“The fabric of Ritchie’s life, and how he fit into American culture, especially in the late ‘50s, was highly important. This was the son of farm workers, a new American,” he continues. “There’s the family element, the Cain and Abel story of he and [his brother] Bob [Morales], the Romeo and Juliet aspect of his love for Donna, and the racial overtones there. All of these notes were very important to hit [in the film], as opposed to just doing an overview of eight months of the stratospheric rise of a rock star. This is what set Ritchie apart from any of the other rock stars of the era, and why he was so incredibly unique and needed to be celebrated. That’s why [his story] still resonates today when we talk about diversity and inclusivity.”
In a similar spirit, Hidalgo says, “It’s an all-American story about a young kid from a family of farm workers. They didn’t have a lot, but they had each other. He was just a kid with a dream, and even though it was a short time, the tragedy is that he had so much more to give. But what he did give in the time he had was amazing. He gives you that — that any kid with a dream can do it, if they apply themselves. That’s his legacy.”
Throughout the decades, Valens’ music has been a gift that keeps on giving, and his presence continues to make an impression in all corners of culture. In 2019, plans were announced for a Broadway show dedicated to Valens, starring music by Los Lobos. The project is still ongoing: “Some of the music [we’re writing for the show] will be true and faithful to Ritchie’s, and some of it will be inspired by his music,” Hidalgo says now.
This year, Valens will be inducted into the California Hall of Fame, alongside Buzz Aldrin, Jackie Robinson, Dolores Huerta, Steven Spielberg, Serena Williams, and Robert Redford (he’s been in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame since 2001). And a commemorative NFT of the late rock legend was recently announced in honor of his 80th birthday, which will be sold to the highest bidder.
“Was Ritchie ahead of his time? Absolutely,” Connie Valens Anderson says. “But so were a lot of other musicians. So why did he last and others not so much? Because of his innocence? Because of his youth? Because he was pure, because he wasn’t tainted. Because he didn’t know how good he was. Because he cared for his family more than he cared for anything.”
She goes on, reflecting: “A lot of times it’s our fate to live the life we lived. And we either chase it, or it leaves you in the dust. He chased it. He chased that dream, and the right doors opened. At barely 17, he wasn’t afraid to walk through them. He didn’t let where he was born, his background, anything slow his momentum.”