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I think, therefore I harm

The Day the Music Died – The Story of Ritchie Valens

While for many people having a long life is the meaning of having a successful life, Ritchie Valens proved a long life was not a prerequisite to success. A pioneer of rock n roll, his career lasted only 8 months, but mostly everybody today know him by name, or at least know his most famous song La Bamba.

Early Life

Ritchie ValensKnown publicly as Ritchie Valens, Richard Steven Valenzuela was born on May 13th, 1941, in Pacoima, in the San Fernando Valley. The San Fernando Valley, known locally as just “The Valley”, is a region of Los Angeles, United States, still represented today by a majority of Hispanic/Latino. Though his parents were both of Mexican descent, only English was spoken at home and Ritchie knew very little Spanish.

Having been raised in traditional Mexican mariachi music, along with more American R&B and jump blues, by the age of 5 his parents relate that he was already interested in music. His father encouraged him to take up guitar. Ritchie found an old guitar and a neighbor taught him the basics. Though Ritchie was left-handed, he was so eager to learn that he mastered the right-handed version of guitar. He later learned the drums by himself.

On January 31, 1957, while Ritchie was 15, a mid-air collision occurred between two unrelated aircraft which both happened to perform a test flight that day. The collision occurred just over Ritchie’s school, Pacoima Junior High School. Debris which felt in the playground killed three boys, in excess of the five crew members aboard both aircraft. Though Ritchie was not at school that day, as he was attending his grand-mother funerals, he was left traumatized by the tragedy and developed a fear of flying.

In October 1957, 16-year-old Ritchie joined a local band called The Silhouettes as guitarist. As the singer of the band left soon after, he assumed that position as well. The band, which had nothing to do with another better known R&B band of the same name which started by about the same time, had been invited to some local events. Ritchie also played solo by the same time at parties and small local events. The band was dismantled in May of the next year. The only existing recording issued from the group was Malaguena, though it was recorded much later and only released on a retrospective album many years later.

You’ve heard that song, but you didn’t know it was Ritchie’s:


In May 1958, intrigued by his surname of Little Richard of the Valley, Bob Keane, the owner of a small record label Del-Fi Records, went to see Ritchie as he performed in a small theater of the Valley. He was impressed by the performance and invited Ritchie for an audition, which culminated into a contract signed on May 27, 1958. He had turned 17 just two weeks before. It is at that point that Keane suggested that the young performer use the name Ritchie Valens, as he thought this name would be more appealing.

Ritchie immediately began recording demos at Keane’s studio, but soon was ready to hit a real studio. Come On, Let’s Go and Framed were recorded in a single afternoon of July and became successful. A second record soon after included probably the two better known songs by Ritchie Valens, Donna and La Bamba.

Donna Ludwig

Donna Ludwig, Ritchie’s girlfriend

Donna was written as a dedication to his girlfriend Donna Ludwig. La Bamba was a traditional Mexican song, which he adapted to rock n roll and played much faster. He kept the Spanish lyrics, but since he didn’t speak Spanish he learned the lyrics phonetically. More songs were recorded that summer but were not released.

It is said that Ritchie wasn’t a studio artist and that he didn’t perform as well on recording as he did in live performances. Ritchie was said to be very energetic on stage, but felt odd in the enclosure of a studio.

In fall of 1958, Ritchie quit school to concentrate on his career. Keane had booked him for different performances across the country, including tv appearances, which required him to take the airplane. With the recent memory of the Pacoima accident, Ritchie initially asked for land transportation. Keane convinced him to fly, and Ritchie’s fear for flight soon worn out.

In January 1959, Ritchie joined The Winter Dance Party tour, joining Buddy Holly and his band and a few other rising musicians. The tour buses were not heated and the conditions of transportation in the cold winter were horrible. The band’s drummer was hospitalized and Ritchie caught a cold.


Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly

On Febuary 2nd, 1959, the tour made an unplanned stop at Clear Lake, Iowa. As the weather was particularly cold that day, Buddy Holly charted a flight to the next destination for after the show. Buddy Holly had planned to bring his bassist, Waylon Jennings, and guitarist, Tommy Allsup, to fill the two other seats on the aircraft. However, Richardson, another musician on the tour, asked Jennings for his seat. Allsup offered his seat to Ritchie, who was originally not interested to take the flight. But not desiring to return on the bus, the two of them decided on the flip of a coin, and Ritchie won the place on the flight.

It was snowing and weather was forecast to deteriorate, but it would seem that Peterson, a 21-year-old pilot, was unaware of the call for deteriorating conditions. The aircraft toke off at about 1am, the morning of February 3rd, 1959.

The aircraft was reported missing later that morning when it did not arrive as expected. The wreckage was soon found not far from the departing airport, along with the body of the four occupants, who all died instantly in the crash. It was later determined that the accident was a consequence of bad weather and pilot inexperience.

What Remains

Valenzuela Tombstone

Ritchie’s Tombstone, where his mother was also buried

Over the years following his death, many songs recorded by Ritchie were released. Many years later, Keane released the demos he had recorded at his studio on an album titled Ritchie Valens – The Lost Tapes.

After his death, Ritchie became an inspiration for many Hispanic.

Ritchie has a star on Hollywood Boulevard.

In 1987, Lou Diamond Phillips played Ritchie Valens in the motion picture La Bamba.

In 1971, Don McLean, in his song American Pie, dubbed January 3rd, 1959, the day the music died.


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This entry was posted on February 2, 2013 by in History, Music and tagged , , , , .
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