Last week we celebrated rock’n’roll pioneer Ricky Nelson, and this week I’m remembering another American rock legend gone too soon: Ritchie Valens. Today (5/13) would have been his 81st birthday.
17 year-old Richard Steven Valenzuela came here in November, 1958. In my column in The Vancouver Sun that week I wrote:
“This week in the Vancouver area we will be privileged to hear and see one of today’s top talents in show business. He’s Ritchie Valens, a young ballad singer who hails from the San Fernando Valley in California. His current smash hit in Vancouver and throughout the nation, ‘Come On Let’s Go’, keeps climbing every week. Just this week Ritchie’s new song ‘Donna/La Bamba’ is appearing on the national survey charts.”
16-year-old Howie Vickberg and The Four Quarters opened for Ritchie at the old International Cinema Theatre on Vancouver’s Granville Street that day and the Cloverdale Community Centre that evening. Backing Howie: the O’Bray brothers, Gary, Garth and Blaine, who were with one of Vancouver’s original rock’n’roll bands, the Sensational Stripes, back in 1955. He stayed with the O’Brays and their mother Laura did Ritchie’s laundry and fed him.
When Ritchie opened with “La Bamba”, the crowd got into the mood immediately and danced their socks off. Ritchie followed “Come On Let’s Go” with “Donna”, a ballad he wrote for his California high school sweetheart Donna Ludwig.
My friend Robin Brunet picks up the story in his book Red Robinson: The Last Deejay. My thanks to Harbour Publishing for permission to reprint here.
“Robinson had booked the seventeen-year-old Valens to play five engagements in and around Vancouver in the winter of 1958 and also arranged to have him appear on Ray Briem’s teenage TV show, Seattle Bandstand. ‘He flew into Vancouver via prop plane but couldn’t fly home at the due date because of a snowstorm. The storm eventually cleared and away Ritchie flew — although he was pretty vocal about his hatred for flying. He was a delightful young man, but just a few months later, on February 3, 1959, he was killed along with Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) when their plane crashed in an Iowa cornfield.’”
Ritchie had just played Vancouver, and here, a mere number of weeks later, he had perished. He was a wonderful young man with a great deal of talent. “Ritchie Valens”, his debut album recorded at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles, was released by Del-Fi Records one month after his death.
Ritchie’s life story hit the big screen in the 1987 movie “La Bamba”. Lou Diamond Phillips played Valens, and the band Los Lobos recorded the soundtrack. When the movie came out, the O’Bray brothers took mother Laura to see it and she cried at the end. The memories of this fine young man overcame her.
Ritchie was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. Ritchie Valens was only a star for five months… but he left a lasting legacy.