It was described as the “Day the Music Died.” Over 50 years ago, on February 3, 1959, three of the country’s top rock & roll stars — Ritchie Valens, J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and Buddy Holly — died in a plane crash. The tragedy reshaped the music world and, although Valens was just 17 years old, he’s had a lasting impact on pop music. Along with his hit song “La Bamba,” Valens also had the Billboard Hot 100 hit “Donna,” which peaked at Number Two after his death.
Most people came to know Valens’ story after the La Bamba biopic was released in 1987. Starring Lou Diamond Phillips as Valens and Esai Morales as his troubled half-brother Bob, it helped bring Los Lobos’ cover of his signature song to Number One. And Valens was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. Now, a musical is in the works that hopes to bring the doomed Fifties teen rocker’s story to an entirely new generation.
Titled Come On, Let’s Go, the Ritchie Valens musical is described as the story of “a Chicano Boy who grew up on the other side of the tracks in California’s San Fernando Valley” and hopes to portray how he went on to make rock & roll history by “singing a Mexican folk song with a Fender guitar.” Los Lobos’ Louie Perez and David Hidalgo (music and lyrics) are joining producer Brad Garfield, Richard Montoya (book), and director Tony Taccone to bring the story to life, with plans to develop the production in Southern California in 2020 and dreams to bring it to Broadway after that.
“‘La Bamba’ was a great commercial success, but Ritchie wasn’t ‘La Bamba’ and ‘La Bamba’ wasn’t Ritchie,” Garfield, producer of the musical, explains. “Ritchie’s music was diverse. It’s an exciting blend of true rock & roll.”
Rolling Stone: A great many younger people have no idea about that biopic or his music. Why do you think a younger generation should get excited about Ritchie Valens in the 21st century?
Brad Garfield: I think this clip will answer that question.
Ritchie lived the American Dream, which wasn’t an easy task for a Chicano in the late 1950s and, as we see in our world today, these difficulties and prejudices that Ritchie faced are still a reality in 2019. Ritchie was a pioneer, and he had an original sound that truly opened the door to Latin rock & roll. His journey is a journey that needs to be told in a documentary-type of way through his music and new music by no other than Louie Perez and David Hildalgo of Los Lobos. They encompass the true meaning and understanding of who Ritchie was.
Ritchie died in 1959 and was forgotten by 1961. Yet he influenced so many rock & roll artists. From The Beach Boys to Led Zeppelin to the Rolling Stones to Carlos Santana — who actually thanked Ritchie Valens for opening the door when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
How this is not the ‘La Bamba’ musical, and what should people expect that will be different from the 1987 movie?
In 1987, when La Bamba came out, the audience thought Lou Diamond Phillips (who was fantastic) was Ritchie Valens, and they believed Ritchie’s brother Bob was the protagonist in Ritchie’s life.
Well that wasn’t true. Society’s acceptance was the protagonist in Ritchie’s life, and we are blessed that we have the three remaining Valenzuelas — Ritchie’s siblings, Connie, Irma, and Mario in our corner — believing in this project. I truly want to leave a true picture of Ritchie in the archives of Theatre and the Arts that will cement Ritchie’s Legacy, so he’s never forgotten again.
What is the idea exactly regarding a “rockumentary” musical? We’ve had other musicals that use rock/pop music and movies that do that, but how will this be different?
New original music by Louie Perez and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos will help carry our story from Pacoima, Los Angeles, as we travel along Laurel Canyon Boulevard to Sunset Boulevard as Ritchie’s short, eight-month dance with fame begins.
It will include published music by Ritchie, but also songs no one has ever heard, such as “Bluebirds Over the Mountain” — which is a beautiful ballad. Ritchie’s fame was basically three songs: “La Bamba,” “Donna,” and “Come On, Let’s Go.” But most people don’t know that in his short career, Ritchie recorded 29 songs — 21 of which he wrote himself. Who does that today at the age of 17, let alone back in 1958? It will also include music that influenced Ritchie and that helped create his Latin rock & roll. From the singing caballeros to Country & Western to early R&B. As our tagline says: “as a young child, Ritchie walked into a bar where he heard these styles of music and came out the back smelling of tequila with a new genre of music in his soul, Latin Rock n’ Roll!”