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Ritchie Valens was really young. No, like really young. And he's had an incredible influence on American music for someone who was never even old enough to vote.
When he burst onto the scene in August 1958, he was only 17. He was still in school, writing songs about his high school sweetheart. When he died just six months later, he was still only 17. During those six months, Valens released three charting singles, "Come On, Let's Go," "La Bamba," and "Donna," which was holding the #2 spot on the charts when the plane he was flying in with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper went down outside Clearlake, Iowa.
It was a short resume—not the sort you might expect to find for one of the most influential persons in the history of rock and roll.
Valens was born Ricardo Valenzuela just outside Los Angles in 1941. His parents were laborers (both worked for a time at a munitions plant outside Los Angeles), and his family always struggled. The Valenzuelas divorced while little Ricardo was young, and after his father died in 1951, things were particularly hard for the boy. There was nothing all that remarkable about Valenzuela as a child, but during junior high he began to take music seriously, eventually joining a band named The Silhouettes. Their performance at a local theater caught the attention of Bob Keane, the owner of a small independent record label. Keane invited Valenzuela to an audition in his basement-studio, which led to a contract with Del-Fi Records. In August 1958, the newly dubbed "Ritchie Valens" released his first single, "Come On, Let's Go."
Over the next several months, Valens led a movie-script life. In September, "Come On, Let's Go" was named the "pick of the week" by Billboard just as he set off on an East Coast tour. He appeared on Dick Clark's American Bandstand in October and then returned to California for a cameo performance alongside Chuck Berry in the film Go Johnny Go! He appeared in concert with the Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley, Frankie Avalon, and Eddie Cochran before joining Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper on the Winter Dance Party tour.
After a performance in Clear Lake, Iowa, the headliners, tired of bus travel, decided to charter a plane to their next concert outside Fargo, North Dakota. Shortly after taking off, the plane crashed, killing the three singers and their pilot.
Less than nine months elapsed between Valens' basement audition and his death (Ritchie didn't even celebrate one birthday as a professional singer), but Valens' impact on rock and roll was huge.
He was the first Mexican artist to score a hit on the pop charts and the first Latino artist to find success among rock and roll's larger audience. And he did it, in part, by capturing the ragged, somewhat innocent style of early rock and roll. Valens' first hit, "Come On, Let's Go," was a rough-edged, hard-driving piece of rock and roll—more like Eddie Cochran and Elvis at their amped-up best. And his highest charting song, "Donna," was a crooning love song, the sort of ballad that groups like the Everly Brothers sang for the heartsick and lovelorn.
Valens' most important and enduring song, however, was "La Bamba." On this track, the B-side of "Donna," he infused a traditional Mexican folk song with a big dose of the new music. Like most of Valens' best songs, a heavy guitar riff identified "La Bamba" as rock and roll. But there was no missing the Latin basis of the song. Valens retained a classic Chicano beat, he edged the guitar solo with some Latin vocal trills, and of course, he sang the lyrics in Spanish. Those looking to complain pointed out that his Spanish was not all that good. He grew up speaking English, and he had to be taught the song phonetically, but the mainstream audience didn't seem to mind. Nor did the Mexican-American community complain now that it had a rock star of its own.
Like a different Valenzuela 20 years later (Fernando, the Dodgers pitcher), Ricardo quickly became the pride and joy of Los Angeles. His meteoric rise was enthusiastically followed, and his death was a blow to the whole community. His brother passionately recalled the first showing of Go Johnny Go! at a Los Angeles drive-in shortly after Valens' death. Following his brief scene, the Mexican crowd began honking their horns, filling the night with a blaring tribute to their favorite rock and roll son.
But even in death, Valens left a huge legacy. Young Latin musicians now had a role model, proof that the new music could be their music, too. And the success of "La Bamba" demonstrated that even the traditional music of their community could be adapted to the popular market.
In a certain sense, though, Valens was too young. He died too soon to be as influential as he might have been. For a decade after his death, Latino musicians continued to de-emphasize their Latino roots. The Premieres, Cannibal and the Headhunters, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, and Question Mark and the Mysterians seemed to draw more from the success of "Donna" than "La Bamba."
They produced fairly generic rock and roll (and sometimes R&B), assuming that they were better off mistaken for African Americans than identified as Mexican Americans. Not until the end of the 1960s, when a broader cultural movement advanced the importance of "Chicano Power," did many of these musicians change their approach to their art.
Carlos Santana was one example of the slow reaction to Valens' legacy. Born in Mexico and trained first on the violin that he played with his father in Tijuana bars, he took up the guitar only after moving with his family to San Francisco in the early 1960s. He was inspired by Ritchie Valens, but he took his musical cue from B.B. King. In fact, his first band was called the Santana Blues Band. But the musicians he assembled during the second half of the decade brought a world of sounds to the band, including jazz, salsa, and Afro-Cuban. By the time of Santana's breakout performance at Woodstock, Carlos Santana had built a truly cosmopolitan music with a heavy Latin feel.
While Santana became the most famous Latino rocker, Little Joe Hernandez may provide the best example of the path between Ritchie Valens and the more full integration of Latino music in rock and roll. Little Joe (José María de Léon Hernández) was born in Texas in 1940. He left school to work in the cotton fields at twelve and joined his cousin's band, the Latinaires, at 13. By the time he was 19, the band was his, and they were recording Tejano music with Buena Suerte Records. But Little Joe wanted to reach a larger audience, so he formed an English only label, Good Luck Records, to release songs like "If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time."
But by the end of the 1960s, Little Joe had been inspired by the Chicano Movement, a movement that aimed to cultivate Chicano identity and advance a series of political, social, and cultural objectives. Little Joe's band dumped their Motown matching tuxedos and changed their name to Little Joe y La Familia. They abandoned their two-pronged approach to the market and developed a sound that was more thoroughly Latino.
Little Joe also embraced some of the political objectives of the Chicano Movement. He marched alongside César Chávez in support of United Farm Workers, and in 1972, he gave the striking agricultural workers an anthem with "Las Nubes."
Ritchie Valens was only 17 when he burst on to the scene and only 17 when he died. He may have been too young to fully appreciate the importance of his rock and roll success. He told his manager, Bob Keane, that his greatest goal was to buy his hard-working mother a house, and shortly before he died, he achieved that goal.
But Valens also accomplished something much greater, something that he may not have even known he was doing. He cracked open rock and roll's door for a growing part of the American populace. He provided a role model for aspiring Latino musicians and taught them that success in the rock and roll mainstream could be achieved by incorporating, not obscuring, their Latino roots. It would be another decade before these young musicians fully embraced this lesson, but it may have been even longer had Valens not been there to first point the way.