Ritchie Valens, J.P. (The Big Bopper) Richardson and Buddy Holly

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Valens, a 17 year old recording sensation hailed as "the next Elvis Presley," was thrown forty feet. Valens, from Pacoima, California, was rapidly becoming one of the hottest singing talents in the country. His first record, of a song he had written called "Come On, Let's Go," was released last summer and made him famous.

Richard Valenzuela, a Southern California boy. Ruben of Ruben and the Jets was patterned after Ritchie, and much of the material on the Cruising album is a fair representation of Valens' music. Today, it might all seem rather laughable, but for Ritchie and his fans, as Zappa would be the first to admit, it was no joke, it was just the way it was. "We made this album because we really like this kind of music: just a bunch of old men with rock & roll clothes on sitting around the studio, mumbling about the good old days."

Valens was a hero to the Mexican-American community in Los Angeles, and they cheered him on with the same kind of support they gave when one of their boys faced a black welterweight in the annual Golden Gloves Tournament. It meant a lot to break into a field that had always been in the hands of larger, more established minorities – blacks, Italians, Okies – Ritchie was the first Chicano singer, a hero, just a kid, but a hero.

Valens sang fragile melodies with the enthusiasm and commitment of Little Richard, and the tension that resulted from a fusion of these two elements in a single song captivated his audience and made him a star. Imagine Little Richard singing "Whispering Bells" or perhaps something like Mary Hopkin's "Goodbye" the way he sang "Lucille" and you have Ritchie Valens. He could turn it around: "Donna" is as touching a ballad as "I Threw It All Away."

Valens took an old Mexican festival song, "La Bamba," gave it a rock and roll beat, and scored with one of the most exciting records of the era. The split second flashes of the intro, the guitar break that happens before Ritchie has finished with the words – they were all in so much of a hurry the notes pile up on top of each other until the song itself explodes. And Valens traveled twenty feet farther than either Buddy Holly or the Big Bopper. What is left?

The only LP by Ritchie Valens that is still in print is a weird budget album (88c) on Guest Star Records (GS-1469), available in supermarkets and drugstores, "a product of the Synthetic Plastics Co." "Fine records need not be expensive" is their slogan. Again, more graverobbers. The company has taken Ritchie's audition tapes (vocal and fine acoustic guitar playing), studio jams that were recorded for vocals that were never sung, and some unreleased masters, added the hit version of "Donna," and come up with "an album." Surprisingly, it works as a record: starting with the early tapes, a kid trying to get his first contract, the sense of melody is there and there is no doubt about the talent. As with the Holly albums, we go through a period of uncertainty, the tracks randomly titled ("Rock Little Donna" is really about a girl named Susie), Ritchie finding himself, beginning to work with a band. Then the triumph, his perfect "Donna," a few pleasant songs, two jams, and it's over. This is Juke Box Heaven, courtesy of Guest Star Records. This is what is left. When Valens died "La Bamba" was right up there in the Top Ten; a week later it was slipping down off the charts, and Bobby Vinton was there, holding Ritchie's coat.

The wreckage and the bodies were not discovered until long after dawn. The other members of the troupe, including singer Frankie Sardo, the "Crickets," and "Dion and the Belmonts," made the trip by bus. Although grief-stricken, their performance tonight in Moorhead, Minn., took place as scheduled. 

This story is from the June 28th, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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Song Stories

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A country-folk song of epic proportions, "San Francisco Mabel Joy" tells the tale of a poor Georgia farmboy who wound up in prison after a move to the Bay Area found love turning into tragedy. First released by Mickey Newbury in 1969, it might be more familiar through covers by Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Kenny Rogers. "It was a five-minute song written in a two-minute world," Newbury said. "I was told it would never be cut by any artist ... I was told you could not use the term 'redneck' in a song and get it recorded."

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