Ritchie Valens in a press photo
Born and raised in Pacoima, Richard Steven Valenzuela went to San Fernando High and quickly became known as the "The Little Richard of San Fernando."
He wrote a song for his high school sweetheart, "Donna," the teenage girl who would sneak out her bedroom window to meet Ritchie for sodas at Bob’s Big Boy Burbank.
Donna and Ritchie
Richard expressed interest in making his own music at the age of five and was playing for his friends as early as junior high school. In a freak accident, two airplanes would collide over his junior high killing some of his friends and classmates.
Ritchie and manager Bob Keane
Swayed by the comparison to Little Richard, Bob Keane of Del-Fi Records went to see Valenzuela play a Saturday morning matinée at a movie theater in San Fernando. Keane signed him and changed his name to Ritchie (too many Richards) Valens (to widen his appeal beyond any obvious ethnic group).
Ritchie Valens' first record
His first song, later covered by the New York punk band The Ramones, was “Come on Let’s Go” (1958). His next record, the double A-side: “La Bamba / “Donna” (1958), would sell over a million copies.
Ritchie grew up hearing traditional Mexican mariachi music, as well as flamenco guitar, R&B, and jump blues, but only English was spoken in his house, not Spanish. He learned the words to the Mexican folk song “La Bamba,” applying his rock rhythm and style. The song was not only a huge hit, but also groundbreaking, proving that a rock & roll hit song needn’t be sung in English.
Donna Ludwig and Ritchie Valens first met the summer before their sophomore year at an Igniters (car club) party. Donna’s date had passed out from drinking too much beer. Ritchie swooped in, taking advantage of the opportunity to sing her “We Belong Together.” It became their song. Elvis would later take Donna out on a date in order to learn everything he could about Ritchie Valens.
Valens would perform twice on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. He bought his first suits from Nudie’s in North Hollywood for the performances. Nudie Cohn would make heavily embroidered and studded suits for Hank Williams, Roy Rogers, Elvis, and later, even more flamboyant ones for Elton John, Jimmy Page, and Gram Parsons. Bob Keane remembers Dick Clark saying he believed Ritchie was the most talented young artist he’d ever had on his show.
Ritchie in Go, Johnny, Go!
In the only live footage of Ritchie playing, he would appear in a diner scene with Chuck Berry in Alan Freed’s Go, Johnny, Go! (1959) singing “Ooh! My Head.”
Poster for the Winter Dance Party
Dubbed “The Winter Dance Party,” he joined an ill-fated Midwest tour with Buddy Holly, Dion and the Belmonts, and The Big Bopper. Valens “won” a coin toss with Holly’s guitarist, Tommy Allsup, to board the three-passenger Beechcraft with Holly and The Big Bopper, which departed for Fargo, North Dakota at 12:55am and crashed a few minutes after takeoff for reasons still unknown.
The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly
The tragedy inspired Don McLean’s “American Pie” (1971), immortalizing Feb 3rd as “The Day the Music Died.” The hugely popular biopic about Ritchie, La Bamba (1987), starring Lou Diamond Phillips, was a Golden Globe nominee for Best Motion Picture. And in 2017, the Library of Congress added it to the U.S. Film Registry. The Internet Movie Cars Database (IMCDb.org) documents a staggering amount of classic cars appearing in the film.
A mural by Hector Ponce
“Soy Capitan” is a cola named after Ritchie Valens. A stretch of the 5 Freeway running through Pacoima is called the Ritchie Valens Memorial Highway (between the 118 and the 170). He was honored on a 29¢ stamp (1993) as now he’s getting a post office renamed after him. There is the Ritchie Valens Recreation Center and several local San Fernando murals depicting Ritchie and/or “The Day the Music Died.” Two of them are within close proximity of each other at 13663 Van Nuys Blvd and 13433 Van Nuys Blvd.
He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
Ritchie Valens’ star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is at 6733 Hollywood Blvd.
Ritchie Valens in his manager's '58 Ford Thunderbird