One week from today should have been Ritchie Valens 71st birthday. Instead, this past February we silently noted the 53rd anniversary of his death by airplane crash along side the “Big Bopper” and Buddy Holly. He was 17 years old.
Valens was 16 before he decided to join a band. The band was called The Silhouettes and he was known as Richard Valenzuela. When Ritchie turned 17 a fellow student from San Fernando High School reported to the president of Del-Fi Records, Bob Keane, that Richard Valenzuela was a major up-and-coming talent.
Keane checked in on Valens and invited him to formally audition at his house, simultaneously cutting a demo recording of many of the songs for which Ritchie would later become famous. Valens was officially under contract in May of 1958.
By July, Ritchie and Keane had recorded and released two singles, the first featuring Come On, Let’s Go & Framed; The second: Donna & La Bamba. These two singles comprise the entire catalog of Valens’ music released during his lifetime.
After appearing twice on American Bandstand, flying from California to Hawaii to New York and back, and being featured in a film, Go Johnny Go!, Ritchie was asked to tour the mid-west as part of The Winter Dance Party.
Because of the bitter mid-western cold, after the February 2nd concert in Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly decided that, rather than ride in the frigid tour bus with no heater another night, he would charter an overnight flight to the next show. Only days earlier Holly’s drummer, Carl Bunch, had been hospitalized with frost bite after a particularly cold ride on the bus.
Valens, lucky enough to win a coin-toss, was included on the four-seater charter flight along side Holly, Bopper, and the pilot.
The Beechcraft Bonanza crashed shortly after take-off in a snowy farm field just beyond the Mason City Airport runway – killing all on-board.
After his death, the two albums worth of recorded material Ritchie put together in 1958 was released. I’ll do my best to track them down but mostly what is available now are compilation albums. If you happen to have an original copy of Ritchie Valens or Ritchie (both 1959), let me know. I’d love to listen to them.