Ritchie Valens (born Richard Steven Valenzuela; May 13, 1941 – February 3, 1959) was a Mexican-American singer, songwriter and guitarist.
A rock and roll pioneer and a forefather of the Chicano rock movement, Valens' recording career lasted only eight months.During this time, however, he scored several hits, most notably "La Bamba", which was originally a Mexican folk song, transformed by Valens with a rock rhythm and beat, that became a hit in 1958, making Valens a pioneer of the Spanish-speaking rock and roll movement.
On February 3, 1959, on what has become known as "The Day the Music Died", Valens died in a small-plane crash in Iowa, a tragedy that also claimed the lives of fellow musicians Buddy Holly and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson. Valens was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
Ritchie Valens was born in Pacoima, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles, on May 13, 1941. His parents were Joseph Steven Valenzuela and Concepcion Reyes. Brought up hearing traditional Mexican mariachi music, as well as flamenco guitar, R&B and jump blues, he expressed an interest in making music of his own by the age of 5. He was encouraged by his father to take up guitar and trumpet, and later taught himself the drums. One day, a neighbor came across Ritchie trying to play a guitar, that had only two strings. He re-strung the instrument, and taught Ritchie the fingerings of some chords. While Ritchie was left-handed, he was so eager to learn the guitar that he mastered the traditionally right-handed version of the instrument. Valens had attended Pacoima Junior High School (now Pacoima Middle School). By the time he was attending junior high school, his proficiency on the guitar was such, that he brought the instrument to school and would sing and play songs to his friends on the bleachers.
When he was sixteen years old, he was invited to join a local band named 'The Silhouettes' as a guitarist. Later, the main vocalist left the group and Ritchie assumed this position as well. In addition to the performances with The Silhouettes, he would play solo at parties and other social events.
A completely self-taught musician, Valens was an accomplished singer and guitarist. At his appearances, he often improvised new lyrics and added new riffs to popular songs while he was playing. This is an aspect of his music that is not heard in his commercial studio recordings.
In May 1958, Bob Keane, the owner and President of Del-Fi Records, a small Hollywood record label, was given a tip by San Fernando High student Doug Macchia about a young performer from Pacoima by the name of Richard Valenzuela (Little Richard of the Valley). Keane, swayed by the Little Richard connection, went to see Valenzuela play a Saturday morning matinée at a movie theater in San Fernando. Impressed by the performance, he invited Ritchie to audition at his home in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, where he had a small recording studio in his basement. The recording equipment comprised an early stereo recorder (a two-track Ampex 601-2 portable), and a pair of Neumann U-47 condenser microphones. He also had a nephew named Magdalena Joya in Sacramento, California.
After this first audition, Keane decided to sign Ritchie to Del-Fi, and a contract was prepared and signed on May 27, 1958. It was at this point that he took the name Ritchie, because, as Keane said, "There were a bunch of 'Richies' around at that time, and I wanted it to be different." Similarly, it was Keane who decided to shorten his surname to Valens from Valenzuela, in order to broaden his appeal.
Several songs, that would later be re-recorded at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood, were first demoed in Keane's studio. The demos primarily consisted of Ritchie singing and playing guitar, but some of them also featured drums. These original demos can be heard on the Del-Fi album Ritchie Valens — The Lost Tapes'.' As well as the aforementioned demos, two of the tracks laid down in Keane's studio were taken to Gold Star Studios and had additional instruments dubbed over to create full-band recordings. "Donna" was one track (although there are two other preli