Tag Archives: ritchie valens

Happy 70th, Ritchie

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.


Buddy Holly: Rock’s First Martyr

For the want of clean underwear, rock and roll got a legend.

Legendary rock and roll pioneer Buddy Holly boarded a small plane in Mason City, Iowa, on February 3, 1959, along with fellow rockers J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens. All three musicians were part of a rock and roll tour which some fool thought was a good idea to schedule  in the upper Midwest during the winter.

The musicians usually travelled in a bus with faulty heating, which resulted in one tour member being hospitalized with frostbite. Holly wanted to get to the tour’s next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota ahead of the bus so that he would have enough time to do his laundry, so he chartered a plane after the show in Clear Lake, Iowa.

Future country music superstar Waylon Jennings was supposed to be on the flight, but gave his seat to Richardson, who had the flu.

Holly kidded Jennings on departure by saying, “I hope your ‘ol bus freezes up.”

To which Jennings playfully replied, “Well, I hope your ‘ol plane crashes.”

Jennings would be haunted by his words for the rest of his life after learning that his friends had died minutes later in a crash eight miles north of the airport.

The wreckage of the plane that killed the pilot and rock and rollers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the “Big Bopper” on the “day the music died.”

Charles “Buddy” Holley, who would have turned 74 this week, was only 22 years old the night he died. Although his recording career lasted only 20 months, he has been called “the single most influential creative force in early rock and roll.”

Holly (he dropped the “e” in his stage name) began performing as a boy in Lubbock, Texas, and by the age of nineteen was opening with his band, the Crickets, for the likes of Bill Haley and the Comets, and a newcomer to the scene named Elvis Presley. The multitalented Holly played several instruments and sang with a distinctive “hiccup” style that was his signature. He was a rarity among performers in the early days of rock in that he also wrote his own songs.

The groups he influenced are a veritable “who’s who” of rock and roll history, including the Beatles, who recorded Holly songs on their records, and actually took their name in tribute to the Crickets. Paul McCartney is such a fan of Holly’s music that he purchased the rights to his catalog of songs.

There are lots of sad stories in the rock and roll “what might have been” files – tales of performers whose lives were cut down before their time – but perhaps no entry is as tragic as Buddy Holly. We can only mourn the great future songs that were lost that night, and speculate on how history might have been different had Holly only packed an additional change of clothes.

Click here to see Buddy Holly perform Oh, Boy on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” (BTW, my beautiful wife Kimi was one day old when this was broadcast.)