The La Bamba Kid

Mexican-American musician singer and songwriter Ritchie Valens was born Ricardo Esteban Valenzuela Reyes on May 13, 1941, in Pacoima which is part of the San Fernando Valley (near Los Angeles), California.  He showed an interest in making music at the age of five, and took up the guitar and the trumpet, eventually adding the drums to his repertoire.  He started writing songs in his early teens and was soon singing and playing in high school.  Richie was adept at improvisation, allowing him to make up his own lyrics to popular songs of the day.  In 1957, at the age of 16, he was invited to join a garage band group called The Silhouettes as guitarist and later also lead singer.  The Silhouettes played at dances and parties for East Valley car clubs (automotive enthusiast community made up of a group of people who share a common interest in motor vehicles) and one night Ritchie Valens played a Panorama City party given by the car club called the Igniters.

Valens met a girl named Donna Ludwig the summer before their sophomore year at this party and it was love at first sight. After her date passed out from drinking too much beer, Valens began singing a popular song written by Robert Carr, Johnny Mitchell and Hy Weiss ‘We Belong Together’ directly to her.  This became their song and they hung out together at San Fernando High School, even though her parents did not want their blond daughter dating a Chicano.  They shared two and a half years of memories together.

When the Silhouettes packed the American Legion hall in Pacoima one night in May 1958, a talent scout took notice.  That summer Bob Keane, the president of Del Fi Records in Studio City, signed Valenzuela to a solo recording contract.  Keane shortened his surname (Valenzuela) to Valens and altered the spelling of his first name to Ritchie with a ‘t’.  On virtually all of his studio recordings, Valens had the benefit of being accompanied by top L.A. session players like Rene Hall on guitar or Danelectro bass, Carol Kaye on guitar, Red Callender on stand-up bass, Ernie Freeman on piano and Earl Palmer on drums.  Ritchie Valens is best known for his hit ‘La Bamba’.

After several songwriting and demonstration recording sessions with Keane in his basement studio, Keane decided that Valens was ready to enter the studio with a full band backing him.  The first songs recorded at Gold Star Studios, at a single studio session one afternoon in July 1958, were ‘Come On, Let’s Go’, an original (credited to Valens/Kuhn, Keane’s real name), and ‘Framed’, a Leiber and Stoller tune.  His first single on Del-Fi, the song, ‘Come On, Let’s Go’, became a minor hit climbing to number 42 on the national charts.  By the end of 1958, Valens had quit high school in order to focus on his career.  Ritchie Valens recorded his biggest hit song ‘Donna’ on December 16, 1958, at the Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles. Bob Keene is listed as having been the leader of the session, which included Earl Palmer on drums; Buddy Clark on bass; and Valens, Rene Hall, Irving Ashby, and Carol Kaye on guitars.  The B side of this record was ‘La Bamba’.  He followed-up this record with ‘Fast Freight’/’Big Baby Blues’ the only songs ever released in Valens’ lifetime.

Although it was not released till after his death, Ritchie’s first album, ‘Ritchie Valens’, had a song titled ‘That’s my Little Suzie’. Ritchie was inspired to write this song, about his mother’s childhood friend Suzie, who was born with a club foot.  Suzie was the sweetest of little girls with big brown eyes and a beautiful smile and when she walked she rocked to the left and rocked to the right.  ‘That’s my Little Suzie’ has lyrics that say, “She rocks to the left and she rocks to the right She rocks all day and she rocks all night.”

When Ritchie’s career took off after his second single ‘Donna’ skyrocketed, Ritchie Valens was very much in demand and he realized that he would have to overcome his fear and dread of flying.  Ritchie developed his fear of flying from an accident that involved two planes crashing above his school, which killed several of his friends.  Valens had a cameo role in the film titled ‘Go, Johnny, Go!’ starring Alan Freed as a talent scout searching for a future rock and roll star.  Ritchie Valens is casually introduced by Chuck Berry and Alan Freed (playing themselves), and he performs his own ‘Ooh My Head’, in the Black and White movie.  Valens was subsequently hailed as one of rock & roll’s teen idols, and riding the success of his latest single, Valens entertained a national audience on American Bandstand that December.  He also appeared on Alan Freed’s Christmas Show around that time.

In early 1959 Ritchie was asked to join Buddy Holly, J.P. ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson, Dion & the Belmonts, and Frankie Sardo in a tour that was billed as ‘the Winter Dance Party’, and it was originally scheduled to hit 24 Midwestern cities over the course of three weeks.  The musicians all shared a single dilapidated bus, whose heater broke several days into the tour, worsening the long drives between each show.  Conditions on this tour were atrocious from the start, as sometimes they were forced to travel over five hundred miles in one night following a performance on reconditioned school buses that kept breaking down.  Coupled with temperatures that reached twenty-five degrees below zero, the musicians’ morale was quickly diminishing.  Carl Bunch the drummer for Buddy Holly and the Crickets had to be hospitalized with severely frostbitten feet and several others, including Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, caught colds.  The show was split into two acts with Ritchie closing the first act.  After Bunch was hospitalized, a member of the Belmonts, who had some drum experience (Carlo Mastrangelo), took over the drumming duties.  When Dion and the Belmonts were performing the drum seat was taken by either Valens or Buddy Holly.

By the time the Winter Dance Party rolled into Clear Lake, Iowa, where they played the Surf Ballroom on February 2, Buddy Holly had grown tired of the chilly conditions and decided to book a plane in order to fly to the show’s next stop.  Holly had chartered a plane to get to the next stop where they were going to perform which would allow him to gain a few hours so he could have his clothes laundered and he would be happy to be sleeping in a warm bed in a hotel in two hours.  When the Big Bopper discovered the plan to fly to the next show, he asked Waylon Jennings for his seat on the plane.  The Bopper was sick with the flu and wanted to see a doctor.  For Jennings, who enjoyed the camaraderie of the other performers, it was no great sacrifice to give up his seat.  Ritchie Valens kept asking Holly’s guitarist Tommy Allsup for his seat.  Finally, Allsup produced a half-dollar and told Ritchie to call it.  Valens called heads and watched intently as Allsup flipped the coin into the air.  Ritchie smiled when he saw that he had made the correct call as the coin came tumbling down.  Valens claimed this was the first time he had ever won at anything.

Buddy chartered a plane from Dwyer Flying service in Mason City, Iowa. The pilot Richard Peterson was inexperienced, and did not know how to fly the BeechCraft Bonanza.  The plane took off during a light snowstorm, but it only traveled about five miles before crashing into a cornfield.  All four passengers Richardson, Holly, Valens and the pilot were killed.  It was found later that morning in a cornfield some six miles north of the Mason City airport.  Only 17 years old when he died, Valens left behind a few recordings. His life story was memorialized on the big screen in the 1987 hit La Bamba, which introduced a new generation of music fans to the pioneering Latino performer.  Lou Diamond Phillips played Valens, and the band Los Lobos recorded the soundtrack.  Ritchie Valens’ recording career only lasted eight months.  Valens was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

In 1957, Ritchie began composing his next hit record during a telephone call with Donna.  Donna is a mournful tale of heartbreak and loss whose inward focus would reinforce his great voice.  Although Ritchie had told her on the phone he’d written a song for her, Donna had no idea he was going to record it.  Donna Fox (then Donna Ludwig) was 15 years old and driving in her Ford convertible with her girlfriends when she was surprised by hearing her song on the radio.  She and six of her friends were cruising the main drag in downtown San Fernando, in the white convertible her daddy had bought her, top down, radio blaring.  Suddenly a new song came on the airwaves which almost made her run off the road, it was her boyfriend singing her name that started to enchant her.

The excited screams of her friends drowned out the rest of the tune, but she had already recognized it.  It was the same song Valens had sung to her over the telephone a year before, after they had decided to date other people.  When she was on the phone with Ritchie, Donna cried hearing it, because she was 15 years old and to have a boy sing a song he’d written about her, even late at night when no one else could hear, seemed enough like a dream come true.  Everybody in the car started screaming which prevented Donna from actually hearing the song the first time.  She kept on telling her friends to be quiet.  Her girlfriends went justifiably crazy and they got even more excited when the DJ played it again.

They dated secretly, staying out of the public eye, since Donna’s father, a car dealer, would not let her associate with Mexican-Americans.  She and Valens liked to walk, arms linked, in the rain.  They always met between classes in the hallways at school.  Donna said that she was attracted to him because he was a nice boy.  He bought his mother a house on Remington Street.  He didn’t swear, he didn’t get drunk and whenever she laid her head on his shoulder, he always smelled so clean, like soap and water.  Donna said that he was also a very good kisser, but she swears that is as far as it went.  Donna figured that Ritchie died a virgin.

Oh, Donna, oh, Donna
Oh, Donna, oh, Donna

I had a girl
Donna was her name
Since she left me
I’ve never been the same
‘Cause I love my girl
Donna, where can you be?
Where can you be?

Now that you’re gone
I’m left all alone
All by myself
To wander and roam
‘Cause I love my girl
Donna, where can you be?
Where can you be?

Well, darlin’, now that you’re gone
I don’t know what I’ll do
All time and all my love for you

I had a girl
Donna was her name
Since she left me
I’ve never been the same
‘Cause I love my girl
Donna, where can you be?
Where can you be?

Oh, Donna, oh, Donna
Oh, Donna, oh, Donna

Oh

Written for Daily Addictions prompt – Reinforce, for FOWC with Fandango – Public and for Sheryl’s A New Daily Post Word Prompt – Enchant.

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