Richard Valenzuela was a high school student living in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley in May 1958 when he auditioned for Bob Keane, a producer and record label owner who’d already struck it big with Sam Cooke. Keane, who was looking for artists for his new label Del-Fi, had been tipped off to Valenzuela, the “Little Richard of the Valley”, and caught one of his live shows at a movie theater in San Fernando. Keane signed the teen to Del-Fi, and Ritchie Valens was born. By July, Valens was recording songs at Hollywood’s famed Gold Star Studio, working with the best session band money could buy. Backing Valens were the likes of Earl Palmer (drummer for Little Richard AND Fats Domino - now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), Carol Kaye (who’d later make herself a legend playing bass on classic songs like the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”, the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer”, and the Grass Roots’ “Midnight Confessions”), and Renee Hall (a frequent bandmate of Palmer’s whose six-string Danelectro bass would give “La Bamba” its distinctively thick bottom end). Recorded first were the hard-hitting Valens original “Come On, Let’s Go” and the Leiber & Stoller number “Framed” (a 1954 hit for The Robins). Issued within days of its recording, the “Come On, Let’s Go” single was a big hit, reaching #42 on the charts, and by the fall Valens had quit high school to concentrate on his career. In the latter months of 1958, he would appear twice on American Bandstand, shoot a scene for Alan Freed’s film Go Johnny Go! (doing the sizzling Little Richard rip-off “Ooh! My Head!”), and record the rest of his debut album. He’d also reach staggering heights of success with his second 45, “Donna” b/w “La Bamba”. Both sides would chart – “Donna” going all the way to #2, and “La Bamba” peaking at #22.
Much is known about the death of Ritchie Valens on February 3, 1959 – the day the music died. What’s not as universally acknowledged, some 51 years later, is how bad-ass Valens’s music still sounds! If Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and Little Richard were the top tier of ‘50s rock n’ roll, Valens is right there at the head of the second tier, and his influence on what was to come in rock is without question. With its aggressive instrumentation, hard-driving beat, and gloriously raucous guitar solo, Valens's rock n' roll interpretation of the Mexican folk tune “La Bamba” may have been the first “garage rock” single. John Lennon admitted that “La Bamba” was a massive influence on the Beatles’ guitar-heavy version of “Twist and Shout”. Jimmy Page once offered, "Valens was my first guitar hero and I played that bridge to 'La Bamba' a thousand times." And no less than an authority than Lester Bangs traced the existence of punk rock all the way back to Valens:
"Just consider Valens's three-chord mariachi square-up [on 'La Bamba'] in the light of 'Louie, Louie' by The Kingsmen, then 'You Really Got Me' by The Kinks, and then 'No Fun' by The Stooges, then 'Blitzkrieg Bop' by The Ramones, and finally note that 'Blitzkrieg Bop' by The Ramones sounds a lot like 'La Bamba.' Twenty years of rock and roll history in three chords played more primitively each time they are recycled."
Ritchie Valens is, of course, highlighted by “La Bamba” and the beautiful slow-dancer “Donna”, written about Valens’s real-life girlfriend (Bangs called it “one of the classic teen love ballads, one of the few which reaches through layers of maudlin sentiment to give you the true and unmistakable sensation of what it may have been like to be a teenager in that strange decade”). Hard to believe both songs were on the same single! “Ooh! My Head!” may be a copy of Little Richard’s “Ooh! My Soul!”, but regardless it was one of the hottest rock n’ roll tracks of the ‘50s, replete with throaty, soulful vocals and blistering guitar work. The smoking opening cut “That’s My Little Suzie” (a posthumous fourth chart hit for Valens) is less flagrantly Little Richard inspired, while “In a Turkish Town” is a surprisingly tender turn towards the crooner rock that was just coming into vogue at the time. Even some of the filler is choice stuff – you could not go wrong with covers of Robert and Johnny’s 1958 doo-wop hit “We Belong Together” or the Larry Williams classic “Bony Moronie”, especially given Valens’s impassioned treatment of the material.
Del-Fi would go on to release a second Valens LP, Ritchie, compiling the scraps of what remained from the young man’s recorded output. The album’s best tracks have made their way onto the host of Valens compilations that have seen the light of day over the decades, and truly one cannot go wrong with any Ritchie Valens collection. What’s wondrous is that Valens’s music was so uplifting, so spirited and exciting, that it obliterates the sadness of his life story. Listening to Ritchie Valens, you don’t dwell on the sadness of his early death or the tragedy of what music lost when he was killed. Instead, you’re filled with joy and hope by this incredible music - these raw, high energy tunes that can make a bad day good and a good day even better. If you can make it through “La Bamba” without wanting to get up and dance, you may need to check yourself for a pulse.