Richard Steven Valenzuela, May 13, 1941, Los Angeles, CA (Pacoima); died February 3, 1959 (Clear Lake, IA)
Rockabilly, Rock and Roll, Tex-Mex
Contributions to music:
- The first Latin-American to make significant inroads into the rock and roll scene
- Among the first rock and rollers to blend traditional Latin music with the new beat
- Instrumental in introducing the Danelectro bass into rock
- Perfected an image that was tough yet vulnerable in his songs
- His ebullient vocals garnered him the nickname "The Little Richard of San Fernando"
- Combined the tremelo urgency of Bo Diddley with Buddy Holly's romanticism Subject of one of rock's first live albums
Richie 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, and this would prove to be a profound influence on him. Unfortunately, his parents were separated, and his father died when he was ten. By seventh grade the young Valens was playing the guitar and imitating the latest rock performers for his classmates. By high school, he was performing with local garage rockers The Silhouettes as their main singer and guitarist.
Neophyte entertainment manager Bob Keane was tipped off to Valens by a printer's assistant, and the 17-year-old Richie was soon recording demos of songs in Keane's basement. Eventually they 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" b/w "La Bamba." Valens, a shy kid, was suddenly touring and learning the ropes.
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 The Big Bopper, in a plane crash near Clear Lake, IA. (You can read the full details of the crash at this site's Buddy Holly FAQ. Although his untimely demise makes him necessarily one of rock's more tragic figures, it is his musical legacy which survives him, specifically, his groundbreaking mix of musical styles and his honesty.
- Manager Bob Keane convinced Richie to shorten his last name and add a distinctive "t" to his first
- Keane was also the first to suggest Valens make a rock song out of the traditonal "La Bamba"
- Valens wrote "Donna" for fellow San Fernando High classmate Donna Ludwig, and even played an early version of it over the phone
- The movie La Bamba is ostensibly about Valens' life, even though many parts are inaccurate
- Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2001)
- GRAMMY Hall of Fame (2000)
- Rockabilly Hall of Fame (1999)
- Hollywood Walk of Fame (6733 Hollywood Blvd.)
Songs, Albums, and Charts:
Top 10 hits:
- "Donna" (1959)
Covered by: Los Lobos, Led Zeppelin, The Ramones, The McCoys, Cliff Richard, Bobby Vee, Freddy Fender, David Johansen, Gary Glitter, The Youngbloods, Bobby Fuller, Jose Feliciano, Mongo Santamaria, Harry Belafonte, Chubby Checker
Appears in the movies: "Go, Johnny, Go!" (1959)