Seventeen years old. Let that sink in a minute.
My son is 17. I cannot more imagine him dropping out of school to become a recording star at this age, than me becoming Secretary of State. Yet, Richard Stephen Valenzueala did exactly that — dropped out of school at 16, as a matter of fact, and rode the whirlwind of fame in a stellar eight month career.
In May 1958, Ritchie landed a recording contract with the Del-Fi recording label out of Hollywood, CA. In July, Valens recorded his first record, Come On, Let’ s Go, which became his first hit. He was one for one.
Come On, Let’s Go
Shortly after, he recorded his second, and most prolific hit, Donna:
As is widely known, Donna was written by Valens for his girlfriend, Donna Ludwig. In the late 1950s, inter-racial couples were not readily accepted nor encouraged. Even though Valens was now a hero in the Latino community, he likely had a tougher time in society, as a whole. His relationship with Donna was full of angst and longing, that resonated across racial lines and brought Ritchie into the mainstream when it went to #2 on the Billboard charts.
The flipside of Donna was a Mexican folk song that Valens’ mother convinced him to record. La Bamba would become a mega-hit, but not until 1987, when Lou Diamond Phillips starred as Valens in the movie, La Bamba.
Despite his Chicano roots, Valens had to learn the Spanish words to La Bamba phonetically, as he had only spoken only English since birth. La Bamba is listed as the #345 on Rolling Stone‘s Top 500 Songs of All Time. It is the only spanish language song in the Top 500.
The dual A-side recording of Donna/LaBamba would pay for a new house for Valens’ mother, but would be the last release of his life. Several recordings were released after his untimely death, including Cry, Cry, Cry and my favorite, We Belong Together:
A talented, self taught guitar player, Ritchie was well-liked and had a notable energy on-stage. He went on tour in Hawaii with Buddy Holly and Paul Anka and when Holly was looking for acts to join him for the ’59 Winter Dance Party, he immediately invited Ritchie Valens. Valens agreed, and despite being a minor, went off on his own to follow his dream.
After extended freezing tempatures, grueling routes from point to point, and the isolation of being a teenager in a man’s world, Valens was homesick and miserable. Traveling in the unfamiliar snow and cold of the Midwest was more than he had bargained for. When he heard that Buddy Holly had chartered a plane to transport his band from Clear Lake, IA to Fargo, ND, Ritchie begged Cricket’s guitarist, Tommy Allsup to give up his seat to Valens. Here is Allsup’s account: