Ritchie Valens (born Richard Steven Valenzuela; on 13 May 1941 in Pacoima, California, USA – February 3, 1959) was a Mexican American singer, songwriter and guitarist.
A Rock and Roll pioneer and a forefather of the Chicano rock movement, Valens' recording career lasted only eight months. During this time, however, he scored several hits, most notably "La Bamba", which was originally a Mexican folk song that Valens transformed with a rock rhythm and beat that became a hit in 1958, making Valens a pioneer of the Spanish-speaking rock and roll movement.
Valens died in a plane crash outside Clear Lake, Iowa while on the Winter Dance Party tour. Also killed in the crash were the pilot of the plane and rock and roll stars Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. The song American Pie, by Don McLean is a tribute to the three musicians who died, and a reflection of the changes in music since their deaths. In the song he calls the day of their death "the day the music died," a phrase that came from newspaper headlines that announced the tragedy on February 3, 1959
Brought up hearing traditional Mexican mariachi music, as well as flamenco guitar, R&B and jump blues, by the age of 5 he expressed an interest in making music of his own. He was encouraged by his father to take up guitar and trumpet, and it is also known that he later taught himself the drums. One day, a neighbour came across Ritchie trying to play a guitar that had only two strings. He re-strung the instrument, and taught Ritchie the fingerings of some chords. While Ritchie was left-handed, he was so eager to learn the guitar that he mastered the traditionally right-handed version of the instrument. By the time he was attending Pacoima Jr. High School, his proficiency on the guitar was such that he brought the instrument to school and would sing and play songs to his friends on the bleachers.
When he was sixteen years old, he was invited to join a local band named The Silhouettes as guitarist. Later on, the main vocalist left the group and Ritchie assumed this position as well. In addition to the performances with The Silhouettes, he would play solo at parties and other social gatherings.
A completely self-taught musician, Valenzuela was an accomplished singer and guitarist. At his appearances he often improvised new lyrics and added new riffs to popular songs while he was playing. This is an aspect of his music that is, sadly, not heard in his commercial studio recordings. Due to his high-energy performances, Valenzuela earned the nickname "The Little Richard of the Valley".
In 2002, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. "La Bamba" was named one of The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame's Top 500 Songs Of All Time. In 2004, "La Bamba" was named #345 on Rolling Stone's Top 500 Songs Of All Time.