‘[Ritchie Valens] was a quiet, underrated yet enormously influential member of the handful of folk visionaries who almost single-handedly created rock and roll in the Fifties’ (Lester Bangs)
‘I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.’ (St John’s Gospel)
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February 2 1959.
The coin rose into the Iowa night air – spinning, spinning, spinning.
Tommy Allsup and 17 year old Ritchie Valens watched it carefully wondering which way it would land and who would have the good luck to exchange freezing hours on the ancient, ‘Winter Dance Party’ tour bus for a seat on a plane with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper.
Before they knew it they’d be in the warmth of Fargo Airport and arrive at their next gig in Moorehead without having to worry about frostbite.
The coin was caught and Ritchie, the victor, smiled. Then, round about midnight the Beechcroft Bonanza took off with 21 year old pilot Roger Petersen at the controls.
But February 3rd was barely born before Petersen, Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens lay dead on a frozen field just outside of Clear Lake. February 3rd 1959 – the day the music died.
On that icy bus Ritchie must have often dreamed of his California hometown. Sure, Pacioma was dusty, down at heel, downright dirty but, but, it was warm!
Warm sun, warm air, warm water, alive with the comforting warmth of family life.
Ritchie, of Mexican heritage, was born Richard Steven Valenzuela on May 13 1941 (11 days before Bob Dylan in far away Minnesota).
Growing up in the San Fernando Valley he was exposed to and influenced by a wide variety of musical styles including Mariachi, Flamenco, R&B and Jump Blues. He had a special affection for cowboy crooners and always listened out for the guitar sound of each genre.
In his imagination and his guitar licks he was developing a striking sound which would echo and add to the history he had inherited.
Things happened very fast for Ritchie.
He was working, really working, the days allotted to him.
Before his mid teens he was a proficient guitarist and a handy drummer. By October 1957 he was a member of a local band, The Silhouettes, and honing his performance skills at Valley venues.
He was known by some as the, ‘Little Richard of the Valley’ and by the middle of the following year he had come to the attention of wannabe music mogul, Bob Keane.
Impressed by Ritchie’s quietly charismatic personality, his ability to command an audience and his guitar fluency Keane signed him to his new Del-Fi label soon after his 17th birthday in May 1958.
Ritchie made some demos at Keane’s two track home studio before he was ushered into 652 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood, Los Angeles – the home of Gold Star Studios which had superior recording technology including state of the art echo chambers courtesy of owner/founders David Gold and Stan Ross.
Gold Star would become famed in the 1960s for epochal sides produced by the divergent geniuses of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson.
What Gold Star already had when Ritchie arrived in July 1958 was a team of superbly accomplished, committed and flexible musicians who could turbo charge any song they played on.
Ritchie was very fortunate to have nonpareil drummer Earl Palmer, pianist Ernie Freeman and doubling guitar/bassists Carol Kaye and Rene Hall lending their very considerable talents to his material.
The records Ritchie made at Gold Star are a very potent combination of the charming, deeply affecting, visions of a sweet 17 years old who was a hell of a guitar player with the dynamic drive of top class studio professionals.
What glorious, explosive, life enhancing, last a lifetime and more, records they were!
So, let’s drop the needle on Ritchie’s appropriately named debut single, ‘Come On, Let’s Go’ and listen as he and the band take off for the winning line like a nuclear powered dragster!
As soon as, ‘Come On, Let’s Go!’ revs up you know you’re not going to be any kind of wallflower at this dance.
No, you’re going to slip, slide and spin right to the centre of the hardwood floor and you know, come on, that you won’t be on your own for long.
The Darling you’ve been dreaming of is going to be there right opposite you with eyes only for you. And, as the rushing, rippling guitar flows all around the two of you will slip and slide and spin in perfect harmony. Just like in your dreams.
Everyone will say – ‘Don’t they make a great couple’.
But you won’t need to be told. You’ll be in your own cocoon of rhapsody and even if the speakers failed now it wouldn’t matter – because you’re together, together, and the rhythm is pounding through your heart.
You don’t have to think about how the dance goes .. The two of you are the Dance. And, you wish it would never, ever end. And, in some part of your being that Dance never will end.
And, anytime you need to recreate that feeling all you have to do is whisper your mantra to yourself, ‘Come on, Let’s Go!’
The success of Come On, a summer Billboard top 50 hit and eventual half a million selling single, made the decision to leave high school and become a full time professional musician a no brainer.
Before his untimely death Ritchie would appear twice on Dick Clark’s Bandstand, take part in Alan Freed’s NYC Christmas Jubilee extravaganza and feature in the Rock ‘n’ Roll movie, ‘Go! Johnny Go!’ as well as playing local gigs, join the ill fated Winter Dance Party tour and record two albums worth of songs at Gold Star.
He was working with a true spirit and a generous heart the days allotted to him.
This spirit and generosity is captured for all eternity in the two sides of his second single, recorded in October 1958, the lovely paen to teenage amour, ‘Donna’ and the electrifying, you’re never the same after you’ve heard it for the first time, can’t wait to hear it again and again, ‘La Bamba’.
Now when discussing La Bamba I could put on my oversize musicologist’s hat and wax in a scholarly fashion about Vera Cruz and folkloric traditions. But as soon as you hear the throaty roar of the opening guitar riff none of us is going to be bothered with that!
No. We’re going to be delirious with delight as Ritchie and the Band rattle through the song leaving all the doors and windows of our imagination blown wide open.
Guitar buffs will find a lifetime’s inspiration in the ensemble passages and the venomous rattlesnake solo (just ask Jimmy Page and Robert Quine).
Obviously the vast majority of people listening to the song will have next to no idea about the meaning of the lyric. Yet, all of us who are fluent in the Esperanto of Rock ‘n’ Roll will understand immediately that it’s a celebration of life.
I love the way Ritchie can’t help but burst into laughter at the sheer blast of being in the studio laying down what they must all have recognised was a classic.
Our understanding of La Bamba is surely most truly expressed in abandoned dancing that blissfully banishes all the idle traffic littering our everyday mind.
La Bamba means nothing more and nothing less than love and life and freedom.
Cue it up again. It’s mighty medicine for anything that’s ailing you!
Ritchie Valens and Donna Ludwig were born on opposite sides of the racial, cultural and financial tracks. No way they could be a couple (especially if Mr Ludwig had any say in the matter) but time has told us time after time that love laughs at impossibility. Love can navigate through seemingly impenetrable barriers.
And, anyone listening to the artless charm of, ‘Donna’ can’t help but be moved at its primary colour evocation of what it means to be young and in love.
Its swooning tempo and lyrical guitar remind us (if we need reminding) of those days in our youth when our hearts beat faster just at the mention of our beloved’s name.
Perhaps you sang that name to yourself under your breath (for in some sense it was a secret you were hugging to yourself) as you walked home after the dance or as you sat on the bus on your way to school. People must have wondered what you were smiling at so radiantly.
Of course it’s not something you can ever really explain – you have to live it to know the sweetness of that feeling. What you could do for anyone who really wanted to know was play them, ‘Donna’ and say – well I guess it feels just like this!
Ritchie Valens lived for only Seventeen years. The Night came for him – as it will come for us all.
Yet the days he had were enough for him to record two rock ‘n’ roll classics and ensure himself legendary status among fellow musicians and fans of the music he loved.
Soy capitan Ritchie. Soy Capitan.
Indicative of my love of Ritchie Valens’ music is my ownership of two CD sets summing up his short career. Both, ‘The Ritchie Valens Story’ on Rhino and, ‘Come On, Let’s Go!’ on Del Fi will provide deep draughts of joy.
The movie, ‘La Bamba’ featuring Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie is a thoroughly enjoyable Hollywood product with musical heft provided by the always excellent Los Lobos.
There is a memorial monument to Ritchie, Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper north of Clear Lake which is among the pilgrimage sites I plan to visit in the USA.