It’s always been a little interesting to me how a long-gone musician’s legacy can develop with the passage of time. Ritchie Valens is mostly remembered now as one of the doomed passengers on Buddy Holly‘s ill-fated plane trip, and also for his hit song, “La Bamba.” But his biggest hit by far was the slow ballad, “Donna,” a piece you seldom hear now, even on oldies stations.
Richard Steven Valenzuela was just 17 when he went down in the plane with Buddy and the Big Bopper (J.P. RIchardson), who also perished in the crash. But even though his recording career lasted less than a year, Ritchie is also remembered because of his status as a pioneer in the Chicano rock movement.
He was born in Pacoima, California, a second-generation Mexican-American who was encouraged by his parents to pursue his interest in music. By the time he was in his teens, he was a talented multi-instrumentalist who especially excelled on the guitar. While still in high school he was signed to a recording contract, and began to cut wax under the name Ritchie Valens.
Although the lethargic “Donna” sold the most records and Ritchie also had solid sellers with “Come On, Let’s Go” and a couple of others, it was his fiery rendition of a traditional Mexican song – sung entirely in Spanish – that eventually became his trademark.
The song also furnished the title for a 1987 movie of Ritchie’s life, with Lou Diamond Phillips – who was 25 at the time – playing the young singer. The modern Latino band Los Lobos furnished much of the music for the soundtrack of La Bamba, and were featured on a popular music video (below) that helped fuel a resurgence for the song. It is still remembered as the first Hispanic rock and roll hit and is certainly a fitting legacy for Ritchie Valens.