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Main article: The Day the Music Died
After the February 2, 1959, performance in Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly, Richardson and Valens flew out of the Mason City airport in a small plane that Holly had chartered. Valens was on the plane because he had won a coin toss. The plane, a three-passenger Beechcraft Bonanza, departed for Fargo, North Dakota, and crashed shortly after takeoff in a snow storm. The crash killed all three passengers and the pilot. At 17, Valens was the youngest to die on the flight. The event, along with Buddy Holly's death, inspired singer Don McLean's popular 1971 ballad "American Pie," and immortalized February 3 as "The Day the Music Died." Ritchie Valens is interred at San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills, California.
Valens was a pioneer of Chicano rock and Latin rock and was an inspiration to many musicians of Latino heritage. He influenced the likes of Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys and Carlos Santana among countless others at a time when there were very few Latinos in American rock and pop music. He is considered the first Latino to successfully cross over into rock mainstream.
"La Bamba" would prove to be his most influential recording, not only by becoming a pop chart hit sung entirely in Spanish, but also because of its successful blending of traditional Latin American music with rock. He was a pioneer and was an inspiration for many after his death. Valens was the first to capitalize on this formula which would later be adopted by such varied artists as Selena, Caifanes, Café Tacuba, Circo, El Gran Silencio, Aterciopelados, Gustavo Santaolalla and many others in the Latin Alternative scene. Ironically, the Valenzuela family spoke only English at home and Ritchie knew very little Spanish. Ritchie learned the lyrics phonetically in order to record "La Bamba" in Spanish.
"Come On, Let's Go" has been covered by Los Lobos, the Ramones and "the Paley Brothers" (the Ramones on guitar, bass and drums and The Paley Brothers on vocals), Tommy Steele, the Huntingtons, Girl in a Coma and the McCoys and in Australia by Johnny Rebb and his Rebels on Leedon/Canetoad Records.
"Donna" has been covered by artists as diverse as MxPx, Cliff Richard, the Youngbloods, Clem Snide, Cappadonna, and the Misfits among many others.
Robert Quine has cited Valens' guitar playing as an early influence on his style.
Ritchie also inspired Chan Romero, Carlos Santana, Chris Montez, Keith O'Conner Murphy, Los Lobos and Los Lonely Boys.
Donna Ludwig (married name Donna Fox), Valens's girlfriend, is today still recognized as "Ritchie's Donna." Her personalized license plate reads RIPRV.
Ritchie's nephew, Ernie Valens, has toured worldwide playing his uncle's songs, including a new version of the "Winter Dance Party" tour with Buddy Holly impersonator John Mueller. This tour has taken place at many of the original 1959 venues in the Midwest.
Valens is interred in the San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills, California. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6733 Hollywood Blvd. in Hollywood, California. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 and his pioneering contribution to the genre has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Valens' mother Connie, who died in 1987, is buried alongside him.
Valens has been the subject of several biopic films. He was depicted in the 1987 film La Bamba, about his life. Primarily set in 1957-1959, it depicted Valens from age 16 to 17. It introduced Lou Diamond Phillips as Valens and co-starred Esai Morales as his older half-brother, Bob Morales. Los Lobos performed most of the music in the film.
Valens was portrayed by Gilbert Melgar in the final scene of The Buddy Holly Story and also in the film The Day the Music Died (2010). Valens was portrayed by Joseph Thornhill in the 2011 film Lives and Deaths of the Poets.
The novelization of the film Grease (1978) by Ron De Christiforo is set around the time of Ritchie Valens' death. In one of the earlier chapters, the gang sit around in the character of Sonny's basement, upset at the death of some of their favorite stars in the plane crash.
The songs "Come on Let's Go" and "Donna" can be heard through the radio in the action-adventure video game Mafia II (2007).