Retro Dee is a regular contributor to The Grooveyard’s website, writing about music, fashion and other trends of the 1950s. Check out her blog, Retro Dee’s Guide to the Best Era Ever here, and her column here every Wednesday.
One of the very first 1950’s Rock n Roll stars that I ever heard of was Ritchie Valens. Perhaps that’s why to this day I have a special place for him in my heart. I was very young when I first saw La Bamba either on TV or VHS… don’t quite remember. Although, what I do remember is how clearly that movie touched me; not just the tragic ending, and not even the energetic, triumphant scenes of how Ritchie rose to stardom… but the music itself.
Today I realize now more than ever Ritchie’s talent. At first, I was just hearing the song lyrics and basic melody, but now I recognize his guitar playing to be on par with the very best of his era– and to top it off, he was just a teenager.
Born in Pacoima, CA on May 13, 1941, Richard Steven Valenzuela was the second of 5 children born to Joseph and Concepcion Valenzuela (née Reyes). By the age of 5, Ritchie was already expressing an interest in making music. His father encouraged him to learn guitar and trumpet. Later, Ritchie taught himself to play the drums. Ritchie was naturally left-handed, but mastered the right-handed guitar. When local residents heard him play, he was invited to join a group in his area. Ritchie then became known as “The Little Richard of San Fernando”.
In May of 1958, Bob Keane (owner of Del-Fi records) traveled to San Fernando, CA and saw Ritchie play in a matinee performance. Keane was extremely impressed by Ritchie’s talent and signed him on May 27, 1958.
By autumn 1958, Ritchie dropped out of school to pursue his rapidly growing career. He recorded over 30 songs, but his most well-known chart-toppers were: “Donna”, “Come On Let’s Go”, “We Belong Together” and, of course, his famous adaptation of the traditional Mexican dance song “La Bamba”.
What I find tragically coincidental is Ritchie’s fear of airplanes. I always wondered, after seeing the movie about this life, if that fear was real, or something Hollywood added for drama. While studying up on Rock n Roll legends, I discovered that Ritchie’s fear of flying was 100% true. On January 31, 1957, two small planes collided outside of Ritchie’s Junior High School, killing a couple of his good friends. Ever since that day, Ritchie himself was afraid of planes.
But Ritchie’s career was booming, and flying was a necessity. He pushed his fears aside and flew to Philadelphia, PA. where he performed “Come On Let’s Go” on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand in the fall of 1958. A few weeks later, he flew to Hawaii where he performed along side Buddy Holly and Paul Anka. In late December 1958, Ritchie flew back to Philadelphia and performed “Donna” on American Bandstand.
It appeared that Ritchie had overcome his fear of flying… but ironically, his former fears ended up being justified.
On February 3, 1959, at the age of just 17 years, Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash during a tour in the north Midwest. The incident will forever be known as “The Day the Music Died”. The plane crash also claimed the lives of Rock n Roll legend Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper.
The moment that determined Ritchie’s fate was precise. Tommy Allsup was also vying for a seat on the plane which Buddy Holly chartered. Ritchie and Tommy decided to simply flip a coin to determine who would get the seat on the tiny Beechcraft Bonanza. Ritchie called heads. And heads it was.
Ritchie’s short life has touched many millions of people over the last six decades. He will never be forgotten for his amazing talent. He was one of the first musicians to master Rock n Roll and one of the first Mexican-Americans to become a mainstream recording artist. His hit songs have become some of the most beloved music from the Fabulous Fifties era.
Happy Birthday, Ritchie.
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