When considering the impact of certain early rock 'n' roll stars, it is always amazing to note just how great their impact was in so short a time period. For example, Little Richard and Buddy Holly each became legends with bodies of work which were made in a mere eighteen months. The reputation of Jerry lee Lewis rests on three astounding singles, plus his wild, dynamic appearances on mainstream TV, most notoriously, on The Steve Allen Show, where he was first seem by millions, kicking his piano bench out from under himself, only to have it come flying back onscreen, courtesy of Mr. Allen and his wacky sense of humor.
Even "The Killer," however, is outdone by Ritchie Valens, when it comes to everlasting fame and earned in the shortest amount of time. Ritchie's place in rock 'n' roll history is based on only two 45's, one a two-sided hit. The first, "Come On, Let's Go," is one I recall first hearing on Alan Freed's TV Dance Party, a local New York equivalent of Dick Clark's American Bandstand. It was a record which really grabbed my teenaged ears. I had never heard anything quite like it. It had a much "thicker" sound than anything by Elvis, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent or even Eddie Cochran. For thickness, the only thing that came close was Bo Diddley.
Still, with a first release that reached #42, Ritchie might easily have gone the way of dozens of other "one hit wonders," had he and producer Bob Keane not come up with his remarkable double sided follow-up. Going against conventional wisdom, which says that you must always follow a hit with a similar sound, Keane instead chose a doo-wop ballad Valens had written for his girlfriend, Donna Ludwig.
The dreamy "Donna" was the first to reach the charts, eventually hitting #2 pop and #11 R&B. The gossamer love song, despite its lightness, still had the thickness and depth of Ritchie's previous hit. Slow dancing to it, you and your baby could get lost in virtual layers of romance. Soon, disc jockeys and fans alike began to flip "Donna" over to discover the magic on the other side. From its famous opening to the equally famous fade out. "La Bamba" is a timeless classic. It matters not that most Americans have no idea what the lyric of this old Mexican folk tune has to say. We are transported by the lilt of Ritchie's voice, we're lifted higher by the unforgettable guitar solo and we lose our breath as time stands still when the rhythm stops before Ritchie's last verse. "La Bamba" is a recording for all time.
It was only many years later that the curious discovered that Ritchie's musicians included legendary L.A. session stalwarts like guitarist Rene Hall and drummer Earl Palmer, and that it was recorded at Gold Star, the studio which would later produce Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. The versatility of these studio players is evidenced by the fact that they played on not only rock 'n' roll dates by the likes of Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Larry Williams and Don & Dewey, but Frank Sinatra sessions and countless movie soundtracks.
A month after "La Bamba" hit the charts, 17 year old Ritchie Valens was dead, killed in the infamous plane crash which also took the lives of Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. It is foolish to speculate whether or not Ritchie might have gone on to further greatness, but like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, we never had to see him grow old, wearing a lame tuxedo at oldie shows. We get to remember him as we discovered him, the way he looks in the movie Go, Johnny Go!, singing "Ooh! My Head," after a viewing of which he is said to have remarked, "I'm not much good, but I hope my mother likes me."
We all like you, Ritchie. You made some music that will live forever.- Billy Vera, 1998
A PERSONAL NOTE FROM BOB KEANE
Every time someone approaches me about Ritchie Valens, three questions are always asked: "Did he really call you 'Bobbo'?" "Did you really give him that new Thunderbird car?"; and "What kind of person was he to work with?" Yes, he did nickname me Bobbo, and I had promised him that car when his first single, "Donna," reached the #1 position in the country, which, had he lived, was certainly bound to happen. Working with Ritchie was a great experience for me. We had almost a father-son relationship. He trusted my musical guidance, as well as many things I was able to advise him about in his personal life.
On many occasions we were together for extended lengths of time while traveling, and he was always a perfect gentleman. While recording in the studio, he would do his best to follow my suggestions, even though he had many ideas of his own which he would express without being argumentative or contrary. Little did we know that through these records, 39 years later he would be a worldwide icon, loved and respected by millions all over the world.
Ritchie was a phenomenon in many ways, considering his background and training, both in music and life. Unlike many entertainment stars, he will always be remembered for his gracious demeanor and sense of humor, mostly about himself.Bob Keane, Owner & President, DEL-FI Records
The Real Story of RITCHIE VALENS
begins one Friday evening in May 1958, when twenty-two year old printer and former San Fernando High student Doug Macchia came by the Studio City offices of DEL-FI Records owner & president Bob Keane. He was delivering a box of Keane's business cards, but he also knew Keane was looking for talent for his newly formed label, and hoped that Bob would take a liking to the young singer who had impressed him. The singer was named Richard Valenzuela, and was already known as the "Little Richard of San Fernando."
As luck would have it, Ritchie was performing at a kid's matinee in a movie theater the very next Saturday morning, so Keane drove up to see for himself. "I'll never forget the first time I saw Ritchie," Keane - now 76, remembers. "He had a small, somewhat beat-up guitar amp worth about fifty bucks. He stood up there on stage, with complete command of his audience. He was this bull-like kid with an opera tenor's torso. I knew he had a lot of potential. It should go without saying that what I heard impressed me, but I had no idea what to do with the raw talent I saw up there on the stage."
Because there weren't any teen rock 'n' rollers of Latin-American descent at the time, Valens looked and sounded like no other seventeen year old he had ever seen. At the time, the perimeters of rock 'n' roll were still undefined and many soon-to-be lucrative markets in rock 'n' roll seemed like uncharted territory to Bob (who must've felt like a one-man Lewis & Clark). Keane couldn't wait to record Ritchie and see what would happen next. What happened was completely beyond his wildest dreams. "I was a schooled musician, see," he continues, "and what I was really looking for was songs. Ritchie had just a few little incomplete song ideas - he kept repeating them over and over - but he had a lot of energy. I was anxious to hear what else he might be able to do, but I knew it was going to take a lot of work."
"Donna" has seen its fair share of cover versions over the years by a wide variety of artists, including one in 1959 by Marty Wilde, a big draw in the UK. Teen idols have often performed it, including Donny Osmond and DEL-FI's own Johnny Crawford. It influenced a number of other songs, including "Donna, the Prima Donna," a 1963 hit for Dion, and one of the songs in the musical Hair, about Donna the Virgin. A wide variety of performers have recorded "La Bamba" over the years as well, including rock 'n' roll versions by Ronnie Hawkins, Neil Diamond, and even Holly's band, The Crickets. A Tex-Mex version of it was a hit for Freddy Fender. It was even revitalized by the folk scene and recorded by the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte, among others.
Trini Lopez hit it big with the song in 1966 when he gave it a lighter pop-rock feel compared to Ritchie's version. Probably the rarest version of "La Bamba" is a 1961 recording by then-unknowns Mick Jagger and Keith Richards - who were seventeen years old at the time - recorded during a jam session in the living room of a friend. That friend later sold the tape at a Christie's auction in the mid-Eighties for $81,000.
Hundreds of musicians have mentioned Valens influence on their own music, and nearly every generation since has found a new way to pay tribute to the teen idol from Pacoima. John Lennon remarked more than once to members of the press that you could hear "La Bamba's" influence on their early recordings like their version of the Bert Bern's song "Twist and Shout," turning it back into a guitar-dominated song, and emphasizing the similarities between the two. (The Isley Brothers combined both "La Bamba" and "Twist and Shout" in 1962 and hit the Top Ten, charting at #7).
Rock Guitarist Jimmy Page once told fellow British musician/author Ian Whitcomb during an interview: "Valens was my first guitar hero and I played that bridge to 'La Bamba' a thousand times." Led Zeppelin later cribbed Ritchie's "Ooh! My Head" for their own "Boogie With Stu." The band retitled the song, listing themselves as composers. Kemo Music, the publishing company owned by Keane and Herb Montel, discovered Zeppelin's 'oversight' a year later and brought suit for infringing on the copyright to Ritchie's song. On July 28, 1978, Led Zeppelin and their record company, Swan Song Records, settled amicably out of court for a reported $130,000 plus future royalties with the stipulation that the settlement's incriminating terms be kept confidential. Though not a part in the suit, Valens' mother is said to have received half the money.
Valens has been featured prominently in literally hundreds of magazine and fanzine articles and many of his biggest fans have been music writer's who've always managed to keep his name alive. In Rolling Stone magazine, back in 1969, rock historian and author Greil Marcus wrote: "Valens sang fragile melodies with the enthusiasm and commitment of Little Richard, and the tension that resulted from the fusion of these two elements in a single song captivated his audience and made him a star."
One of Valens' biggest fans was the late great rock scribe Lester Bangs, later an editor of the popular Creem magazine. In the July 1970 issue of Rolling Stone, Bangs called Ritchie "a quiet, underrated yet enormously influential member of that handful of folk visionaries who almost single-handedly created rock and roll in the Fifties." He also wrote that "Donna" is one of the classic teen love ballads, one of the few which reaches through layers of maudlin sentiment to give you the true and unmistakable sensation of what it may have been like to be a teenager in that strange decade.
Referring to his Ritchie Valens In Concert At Pacoima Jr. High album, Bangs wrote: "It would be hard to find a recorded rock concert in which the performer displays more honest, humble warmth than Valens does here . . . It has always seemed to me that [Ritchie] is also the type of star that Bob Dylan would have liked to be, had his audience let him."
Ten years later, in the revised edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock 'n' Roll, Bangs was still singing Ritchie's praises: In a chapter called Proto-Punk: The Garage Bands, Bangs wrote: "Just consider Valens' three-chord mariachi square-up [on 'La Bamba'] in the light of 'Louie, Louie' by The Kingsmen, then 'You Really Got Me' by The Kinks, and then 'No Fun' by The Stooges, then 'Blitzkrieg Bop' by The Ramones, and finally note that 'Blitzkrieg BoP' by The Ramones sounds a lot like 'La Bamba.' Twenty years of rock and roll history in three chords played more primitively each time they are recycled."
Ritchie Valens . . . a "proto Punk?" You bet. It's not impossible to trace the influence his music had on the next graduating class of Rock 'n' Rollers, down through the years. Punk rockers even re-claimed other songs Valens made famous in the late Fifties by covering several of them. The Ramones later performed Ritchie's "Come On, Let's Go" on the soundtrack to the motion picture, Rock And Roll High School. Around the same time, a band called The Plugz (or Los Plugz as they were billed when they opened for English punk rockers The Sex Pistols at L.A.'s Olympic Auditorium in 1980) released their debut album, Electrify Me, featuring a frantic, sped-up version of Ritchie's "La Bamba" directly linking Ritchie's music to aggressive L.A. punk rock, and bringing the song full circle. The Olympic Auditorium concert is also memorable for having been one of the very first high-profile (albeit acoustic) live performances by a Chicano band from East L.A. - Los Lobos.
In 1987, new interest in Ritchie Valens was sparked by the release of the Columbia Pictures bio-pic on his life and music, La Bamba, and by the release of the film's soundtrack. Los Lobos' version of the title song - virtually a note-for-note copy of Ritchie's - went to #1 on the pop music charts in 1987, its highest position ever. A new generation began hearing Ritchie's music, some of them for the first time, in multiplex theaters across the country, and La Bamba once again made Valens an international figure, creating a firestorm of interest in Ritchie that continues to this day.
Occasionally the mention of Ritchie's two biggest hits, "Donna" and "La Bamba,": surfaces unexpectedly in motion pictures, as it did in Barry Levinson's film Diner - set in 1959 - when two characters discuss which song was the actual intended A-side of the original single.
Over the years, Ritchie Valens has been posthumously awarded hundreds of times, and his family has received these graciously, always stating that they know Ritchie is watching the proceedings from above, and they're happy that his music lives on: they never forget to say his music was the most important thing in the world to him. (Mrs. Valens passed away in 1987). He was the first Latino rock 'n' roll artist to be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in June of 1993, a U.S. postage stamp was issued honoring Ritchie Valens, also the only Latino rocker to have received such an honor at the time.
Ritchie's only known biography, Ritchie Valens: The First Latino Rocker by Beverly Mendheim, was first published in 1987 by Bilingual Press. A second printing of the book was published in April 1996. More awards on Valens' behalf keep coming. As recently as October of 1997, he was inducted into Hollywood's RockWalk during a special ceremony attended by hundreds of fans, family and members of the press. Hollywood's RockWalk is the only sidewalk gallery dedicated to honoring those musicians who have made a significant contribution to the evolution of rock 'n' roll as a universal artform. Bob Keane accepted a commemorative plaque on Valens behalf, and spoke at length to the loudly cheering crowd.
Valens was honored for his significant contribution to popular music, and a donation from the Guitar Center RockWalk was made on behalf of the inductee to the Ritchie Valens Recreation Center at 10736 Laurel Canyon Boulevard in Pacoima, which stands as a testament to keeping his name alive. According to Senior Director Chuck Chavoor, the youth center provides a number of programs, including guitar lessons for kids who want to follow in the footsteps of their hero.
Still, there's one question on everyone's mind these days: "Why hasn't Ritchie Valens been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio?" It just seems bizarre that it would even be a question of whether to accept Ritchie into the Hall of Fame - he should already be a member. Rock artists aren't eligible until 25 years after their musical debut, which would have been 1983 in Valen's case. Ritchie should have been in the very first group of people inducted, no question about it. Literally hundreds of thousands of his fans agree, including many of his peers who have already been inducted. He certainly deserves the honor, for his music as much as his influence on those artists who have already been inducted - including Carlos Santana, the first Latino to be inducted in 1997 - or will be in the coming years.
Memo to the Nominating Committee: "Com On, Let's Go!"
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