Ritchie Valens [1941-1959]
Ritchie Valens, born Richard Steven Valenzuela outside of Los Angeles, California, in 1941, was the first Chicano rock musician to gain national popularity in the U.S. and one of the first "rock stars" as we know them. His brief professional career was famously cut short, killed at age 17 in the plane crash that also claimed musicians Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper on Feb. 3, 1959, now known as "The Day the Music Died."
Playing guitar from a young age, Valens was an amateur performer by the time he auditioned for producer Bob Keane, of Del-Fi records, in 1958. Despite the singer's young age (Valens was still in high school), Keane recognized his talent and potential and signed him to begin recording in L.A. immediately. Valens cut four records in 1958, including his breakout hits Donna and La Bamba.
La Bamba itself epitomizes the fusion genre of Chicano rock that Valens innovated. A modern interpretation of the son jarocho, a popular musical style from Veracruz, Mexico - an area with both African and Afro-Cuban musical influences - the juxtaposition of a distinctively Latin song with straight doo-wop and rock ‘n’ roll perfectly symbolized bicultural Latinos in Southern California. Like many Mexican-American youth of his generation, Valens did not speak Spanish and learned the lyrics of La Bamba phonetically. It reached Number 22 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart while the record's A-Side track, Donna, shot to Number 2.
With this sudden national fame, Valens traveled to New York City in late 1958, appearing on national television. Early the next year he was included on a tour of the midwest with one of the most famous rock n' roll singers of that time -- his idol, Buddy Holly. It was during this tour that Valens' budding career abruptly ended with the plane crash in Iowa.
Although Valens' recording career was incredibly short - just two albums of material - his stamp on rock history is indelible. As the inventor of the Chicano rock genre, Valens has been cited as a major influence by a wide range of artists from 1980s L.A. Chicano rock band Los Lobos to The Beatles.
Although his natural talents as a guitarist, singer and performer were never fully realized, his legacy as a rock pioneer remains to this day. His tragic life story has been retold in numerous books and the 1987 film La Bamba. He was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.