Ritchie Valens, garage band success was 17

valens-grave.jpg

This was the day in 1959 that rockers Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper died in an Iowa plane crash, commemorated in rock lore as The Day the Music Died. In parts of Los Angeles, the far bigger news was that Ritchie Valens died too. He was only 17 and had come out of Valley garages and dance halls to make records for just eight months. But he had a couple of hits already, had performed on national TV and at the Apollo, and had played himself in a movie. Rock writer Lester Bangs called Valens, posthumously, one of "that handful of folk visionaries who almost single-handedly created rock and roll in the Fifties." [Valens' in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.]

valens-at-pacoima-cover.jpgMy favorite Valens CD is the live recording (taped by a student) of a performance at his former school, Pacoima Junior High, on December 10, 1958, less than two months before the crash. "It would be hard to find a recorded rock concert in which the performer displays more honest, humble warmth than Valens does here," Bangs wrote. I'm glad somebody put a piece of it up on YouTube:


Ritchie Valens was, of course, a very big deal to kids in Pacoima and San Fernando and in the Mexican-American neighborhoods across the city. "He was not only the first rock music star of Mexican ancestry, but also the first Chicano from Pacoima, period, to achieve any status in white America," I wrote in The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb. Valens' death, though, took local media by surprise. They didn't know he was local and a powerful cultural symbol. Here's an excerpt from my sub-chapter on Valens:

Pacoima's social isolation did not allow many heroes to emerge and make their mark, but the accomplishments of Richard Valenzuela came to matter deeply to many Chicanos. His father died when he was 10, leaving his mother, Concepción, to raise three boys and two girls. Richard adored music from an early age—he fashioned toy guitars out of cigar boxes and broomsticks, and his heroes were Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, the singing movie cowboys who lived just a few miles away in the white Valley. As a teenager, Valenzuela became a solid guitar picker and was invited to join the Silhouettes, a garage rock and roll band that reflected Pacoima's ethnic mix. The band had black members, a Japanese American and Chicanos like Richard, who styled his hair in a classic low-rider waterfall. Rock and roll was becoming, in the late 1950s, the music of choice for teenagers, and the Silhouettes got gigs playing dances around the northeast end of the Valley and at parties for car clubs like the Lobos, who were Chicano, and the Lost Angels, who were white. Valenzuela's rocking guitar chords and exuberant vocals helped draw big crowds, and the 16-year-old picked up a word of mouth reputation as the Little Richard of the Valley.

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—without the Silhouettes, and with a stage name that sounded less Latino. Ritchie Valens was an immediate sensation: "Come On, Let's Go," his first single, soared on the national pop charts.

Ritchie began composing his next hit record during a telephone call with Donna Ludwig, a girl he had met at a Panorama City party given by the Igniters, another white car club. They hung out together at San Fernando High School, even though her parents did not want their blond daughter dating a Chicano. The love ballad "Donna" became a classic of ’50s rock, as did the flip side, "La Bamba,'' Ritchie's fast, electrified version of a Mexican folk song that acknowledged his Chicano heritage. At age 17, Ritchie Valens of Pacoima performed on Dick Clark's “American Bandstand” television show, stayed at the Plaza Hotel in New York and played alongside rock legends Bo Diddley and Buddy Holly and on the stage of the famed Apollo Theater. He bought his stage outfits from Nudie's, the same Lankershim Boulevard clothier-to-the-stars who dressed Elvis Presley and Roy Rogers.

For a kid who spoke almost no Spanish, his fame unloosed an immense pride in the barrios. When Ritchie returned home in December 1958 he was hailed by some in the music press as the next Elvis. He played himself, alongside Jackie Wilson and Chuck Berry, in "Go Johnny Go," a film by New York rock deejay Alan Freed. While he was home, Ritchie performed free concerts at his former schools, San Fernando High and Pacoima Junior High. Not yet 18 years old, he had forsaken his final year of high school and prepared to go back on tour.

Ritchie had feared flying since the midair crash [over Pacoima Jr. High when he was a student] , and the night before his departure he and his mother prayed at Guardian Angel church for a safe trip. They also threw a farewell party at the house his success had bought for the family at 13428 Remington Street. Donna Ludwig, who had moved to Granada Hills, was forbidden by her father to attend. Ritchie called her on the phone twice, and they cooed about missing each other. "Will you wait for me?" Ritchie asked.

The Winter Dance Party tour was a miserable experience. Bus rides through the freezing Midwest night were torturous; buses broke down and heaters malfunctioned. After performing at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, headliner Buddy Holly ditched the icy bus and chartered a small plane to the next stop in Fargo, North Dakota. One seat went to Holly's Texas buddy, J. P. (The Big Bopper) Richardson. In a coin flip, Ritchie called heads and won the final seat from Tommy Allsup, a member of Holly's band, the Crickets. The inexperienced pilot of the Beechcraft Bonanza took off in a snowstorm about 1 a.m., and within minutes the plane plunged into a cornfield and broke up. Everyone on board died, the bodies not discovered in the snow until almost midday on February 3, 1959. A letter from Ritchie's mother was found in his coat pocket: "Be good and I miss you more every day.''

The news trickled out slowly, even in the Valley. This was before CNN and all news radio, and before most newspapers began treating rock stars as celebrities. Anyway, Pacoima was another world. A brief wire notice in the afternoon Valley Times of February 3 reported "Rock 'N' Roll Trio Killed in Plane Crash.'' It was on the front page, below stories about the widening of Moorpark Street and a Reseda man who was planning a boat trip across the Atlantic. Ritchie Valens’ age was given as 21—with no mention that he was a local boy.

Meanwhile, radio DJs announced the news as a major tragedy. Donna Ludwig, who had transferred to James Monroe High in Sepulveda, heard about it from a girlfriend with a transistor radio. "Donna''—her song—was the number three record in America, but school officials would not let the distraught senior leave campus.

While the Valenzuela family grieved, fans began appearing on Remington Street to mourn their loss. The Valley Times caught on the next afternoon that Ritchie was a local phenomenon, but relegated the follow up story to page two. When the Valley News and Green Sheet came out the following morning, finally there was a picture of Ritchie on the front page, and the headline became "Valley Singer, 3 Others Die.'' The Los Angeles Times, also late to the story, ran an interview that morning with Donna Ludwig. It wasn't often that a Chicano received this much attention, and anonymous callers to the Valenzuela home said they were glad he was dead.

After the body was returned home by train, a thousand mourners squeezed into St. Ferdinand's church in San Fernando for a Requiem High Mass on Saturday, February 7. As church bells pealed over the old city, nearly a hundred youths stood quietly outside "in a mist that was not quite rain,'' the Times reported. Now Richard Valenzuela again, Pacoima's first hero was buried at San Fernando Mission cemetery while "several hundred of the boys and girls who were his fans stood with bowed heads.'' Members of the Silhouettes served as pallbearers. "After the funeral I came home and cried like a baby for a very long time," the band's vibes player, Gil Rocha, told Valens biographer Beverly Mendheim.

On what would have been Richard Valenzuela's eighteenth birthday, his mother accepted the gold record for "Donna'' at a poignant memorial dance in the San Fernando legion hall. The first time "Go Johnny Go" showed in the Valley, the homeboys packed the drive-ins. When Ritchie's face flashed on the big screen in the last ten minutes of the film, car horns sounded a long and emotional salute.

So yeah, there's a reason that 52 years later, there's still a park and a mural and a parade named for Ritchie Valens in Pacoima.


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