A look at Ritchie Valens
Miguel Romero as Ritchie Valens
Born May 13th, 1941, Richard Steve Valenzuela, was raised in poverty in Pacoima, Los Angeles, California. His parents separated when he was a child and Valens lived with his father until the latter's death in 1951. Afterwards he lived with his mother and brothers and sisters, but occasionally they stayed with other relatives who introduced him to traditional Mexican music. At nine years of age he got his first guitar. As a twelve year old, Ritchie had already written several songs, most of which were inspired by Mexican music. It was while attending school that Valenzuela was first exposed to R&B music and rock 'n' roll. In 1956 he joined a local garage band who performed at record hops in the San Fernando Valley area. During one of these performances, he was heard by Bob Keane, the president of Del-Fi Records, who offered to become his manager and signed him to a recording contract. Keane took Richard to his 'Gold Star Studios' in Hollywood, to record several songs, also shortening the singer's name from Valenzuela to Valens and adding the "t" to Richie. The first single, the Valens original "Come On, Let's Go", reached number 42 in the USA, in late 1958, selling 750,000 copies. Following its release, Ritchie went on an 11-city U.S. tour.
Ritchie returned to the studio to record a song he wrote for his high school sweetheart, Donna Ludwig. For the flip side of the record, he chose a song called "La Bamba", a traditional huapango song from the Vera Cruz region of eastern Mexico. (A huapango is a Mexican song consisting of nonsense verses, the meaning of the lyrics often known only to the composer.) Valens was reportedly reluctant to record the song, fearing its lyrics would not catch on with American record buyers. In October 1958, the single "Donna"/"La Bamba" was issued. Contrary to popular belief, it was actually the ballad "Donna", that was the bigger hit, reaching number 2 on the national charts. "La Bamba", the b-side, only reached number 22 in the USA, but has proved to be the more remembered song.
In January 1959, Ritchie was booked for the now-infamous "Winter Dance Party" tour. The tour bus developed heating problems and when they arrived at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, they were cold and tired. After their performance on February 2nd, Buddy chartered a small plane for himself and his remaining backup musicians -- Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup -- as transportation to the tour's next gig in Moorhead, Minnesota. When Ritchie heard of Buddy's intended flight, he tried to convince Allsup to give up his seat. Tommy didn't want to but finally agreed to flip a coin to decide who would go, provided he could use The Big Bopper's new sleeping bag if he lost. The Big Bopper agreed. Allsup flipped the coin, and Ritchie called "heads". "Heads" it was. Valens won the seat...and Allsup won the rest of his life.