It’s hard to think of American rock’n’roller Ritchie Valens without remembering the tragic early death that befell him. He was taken at just 17 in the 1959 plane crash that also took Buddy Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. But one of the happy moments in Ritchie’s all-too-brief career came on December 29, 1958, when he entered the Billboard Hot 100 with the classic “La Bamba.”
Valens, from Pacoima, California of Mexican heritage, was already on that countdown (at No.18 and climbing) with the other side of that memorable single release on the Del-Fi label, the dreamy ballad “Donna.” Indeed, Valens had only made his chart debut in the September with another of his uptempo landmarks, “Come On, Let’s Go,” which peaked at a surprisingly lowly No.42.
“Donna,” written by Havens about his high school sweetheart Donna Ludwig, went on to spend two weeks at No.2 during a 23-week stay on the American countdown. That final chart of the year was the first on which “La Bamba” was listed in its own right on the double A-side, debuting at No.81.
A Mexican folk song
But while the Mexican folk song, so memorably adapted by the teenager, only managed a No.22 peak in its own right, it has become arguably the more widely remembered side. It later entered both the Grammy and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame, and securing Havens’ reputation among the artists who popularised the Chicano strand of rock’n’roll.
There were minor chart versions of “La Bamba” by the Tokens in 1962 and Trini Lopez in 1966. But of course much of its latter-day reputation was thanks to the 1987 cover by Los Lobos, as the title song from the film that told Valens’ life story, starring Lou Diamond Phillips. The group’s remake topped the bestsellers in the US and the UK, as well as in many other European countries and in Australia.
What you heard was what he was
As Martin Hawkins wrote in the History of Rock partwork in 1982: “Ritchie Valens was hardly old enough to have assimilated too many influences in his music – what you hear is what he was. Whether, had he lived, he would have gone on to be a superstar or a discarded hero, the fact is that he had already made his mark by February 1959.”
And, to further emphasize the relevance of “La Bamba,” it appeared again on an album that topped the UK compilation chart in November 2017: the Diamond Edition of Universal’s long-running Dreamboats and Petticoats rock’n’roll series.
Listen to the 50s playlist.