He was only 17-years-old when his life was snuffed out in a small plane crash 2500 miles from his family and friends. That, in and of itself, is a tragic enough ending for a young life, but what makes this story even more painful is that the young man who died that day was Ritchie Valens, the first Latino rock ‘n’ roll star.
When Valens died alongside rock ‘n’ roll legends Buddy Holly and Chantilly Lace singer J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson on February 3, 1959, much of the Cold War-era adult world failed to take notice (the story was reported on page 66 of the New York Times). But the death of Valens, who would have turned 70 next week, made a lasting impression on a generation of teenagers and musicians, especially those of Latino heritage.
His most successful song, La Bamba, has the distinction of being the first rock ‘n’ roll song to be sung completely in Spanish (even though Ritchie, born Richard Valenzuela, didn’t speak the language). His pioneering efforts influenced the likes of Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys, and Carlos Santana, and earned him a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
February 3, 1959, came to be known as “The Day the Music Died,” made famous in the lyrics of the 1971 Don McLean hit American Pie. (Over a decade earlier, rocker Eddie Cochran wrote a song called Three Stars about Valens, Holly, and the Big Bopper. Ironically, Cochran would die a short time later in a car crash in England.)
The date also came to be remembered by many rock ‘n’ roll historians as the moment the raucous angst-driven style of early rock ‘n’ roll went into hibernation, only to be revived just over five years later when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Valens, who was from Pacoima, was brought back to San Fernando for his burial.
Back in 2009, on the 50th anniversary of Valens’ death, my lovely wife Kimi and I got up early and detoured from our usual commute to stop at the San Fernando Mission Cemetery to pay our respects.
I knew the approximate location of his grave and anticipated being able to pinpoint the actual spot simply by approaching the throngs of fans encircling a grave mounded by flowers.
But at this early hour, there were no fans, and few flowers. A kindly groundskeeper pointed us to the grave which was adorned by two small bouquets.
A couple of notes were there as well. One read, “‘The day the music died’ is the day I wish had never come – We love you.”
We spent a few minutes alone at the site wondering if it was a source of pride or pain for Ritchie’s mother Concha, who is now at rest beside him, to hear his songs during the nearly 30 years she lived after his death.
(The fans and flowers arrived after our visit. When I stopped back the next day, the grave was mostly covered and a groundskeeper told me that a steady stream of fans had shown up at the gravesite throughout the day.)
Kimi had previously downloaded Valens’ three major hits – La Bamba, Donna, and Come On, Let’s Go – onto her iPod. We listened to these songs through our car’s sound system as we made our way to work. She observed that it would probably astound Valens to know that his music was still around, and that it could now be played from a device smaller than a matchbook.
It could be better stated that February 3, 1959, was the day the music-makers died, but not the music. … That’s because the songs of Buddy Holly, Big Bopper Richardson, and Ritchie Valens will live on forever.