In 1958, the son of a factory worker from Pacoima, a tough Mexican neighborhood in LA’s San Fernando Valley, rose out of the barrio and into the national spotlight. His name was Ritchie Valens, and he would become the first Mexican-American rock and roll star.
Valens – born Ricardo Valenzuela – was discovered by producer Bob Keane while performing at a local movie theatre. Keane soon signed Valenzuela to Del-Fi Records but not before changing his name to Valens. “I knew that if we put a record out and called him Valenzuela, they wouldn’t even listen to it. They’d just throw it in the trashcan,” producer Keane recalls.
Valens’ breakout hit, “Donna” reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart the following year, becoming Valens' highest-charting single. More surprising was the success of the single’s B-side, a traditional Mexican song infused with the rhythms of rock and roll. Though its lyrics were in Spanish, “the Anglo audience seemed to look past that or didn’t care,” says author Tom Waldman. “La Bamba” climbed to #3 in the Hot 100s Billboard Chart.
Soon recognized as one of the bright lights in rock and roll, Ritchie was invited to tour along with J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, Buddy Holly and other artists, a huge break for a 17-year-old Mexican kid from southern California. The plane carrying headliners Holly, The Big Bopper and Valens crashed in a snowstorm near Clear Lake, Iowa, on February 3rd, 1959. There were no survivors. The tragedy was immortalized in the 1971 Don McLean hit, “The Day the Music Died.”
Valens, 17, had gone from obscurity to having four hit records in a career that lasted barely eight months. It was a feat that has never been duplicated.
For Mexican Americans, Valens’ death was a lost opportunity on the road to recognition of their contribution to American culture. But a handful of Mexican-American bands had national hits in the half-dozen years that followed. And, like Valens, they used names that masked their identity. The Premieres came from the barrios of East LA. Cannibal and the Headhunters, too, lived in the barrio, and picked up R&B harmonies from their African-American neighbors. Question Mark & The Mysterians had a number-one hit with “96 Tears,” sung by Rudy Martínez, the son of migrant field workers in Michigan. Sam the Sham of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, was actually Domingo Samudio, of Dallas, Texas.
As Mexican Americans began to rescue their legends and their roots, the story of Ritchie Valens was brought to life in a 1987 film directed by Luis Valdez, recognized as the father of Chicano theatre and cinema. Starring Lou Diamond Phillips, La Bamba was a critical and commercial success. The title song, performed by East Los Angeles’ Los Lobos, became a #1 Hit in both the US and the UK.
Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images