From his earliest childhood, Ritchie Valens associated music with happy times. Whenever his family gathered, they played music. At the age of six, Ritchie learned to strum a guitar, sitting on the knee of a family friend. Although Ritchie only spoke English, his uncle taught him to sing "La Bamba," a Spanish folk song, in Spanish. Years later, teenagers all over America would dance to Ritchie's' rock 'n' roll version of "La Bamba."
Ritchie Valens, who was born on May 13, 1941, grew up in the San Fernando Valley. When he was 11 years old, his father died suddenly. His widowed mother, Connie Valenzuela, struggled to provide for her young son and his two younger sisters.
To help her pay the bills, Bob Morales, Connie's son from an earlier marriage, moved in with the family. Unfortunately, Bob had a drinking problem. Although Connie appreciated the additional money he brought in from his job as a garbage collector, she found his drinking difficult to accept and quarreled frequently with him.
The tension Bob's presence created in their household made Ritchie uneasy. To escape from the fighting, he turned to his music.
When he was 17 years old, Ritchie met Bob Keene, a local record promoter. Keene agreed to listen to some of Richie's original songs. "That's My Little Suzie," which he based on a crippled girl he knew from his barrio, particularly impressed Keene.
He also liked Ritchie's rock 'n' roll version of "La Bamba" and decided to manage his career. Within six months Los Angeles disc jockeys were spinning Ritchie's tunes. His first hit, "Come on, Let's Go," was released in September 1958. Ritchie got the title from an expression he and his mother used whenever they wanted to go somewhere. In fact, Connie had just used the expression minutes before she heard Ritchie's music on the radio for the first time. "I told his brother Bob, 'Come on, let's go to Saugus (a nearby community).'" While they were driving, "Come on, Let's Go" came over the radio in Connie's 1950 Oldsmobile
. She pulled over to the side of the road and just sat there looking at Bob amazed.
Donna Ludwig, Ritchie's high school girlfriend, was the inspiration for his biggest hit, "Donna," which was released in November 1958. Shortly after writing the tune, Ritchie called Donna and said, "I wrote a song for you." The first time Donna heard the song was when Ritchie played it for her over the phone. He also promised to record it, but Donna doubted he would because she thought he only released "upbeat stuff."
But a short time later, when Donna and some of her girlfriends were riding down the main drag in San Fernando in her convertible, they heard the song on the radio. She recognized "Donna" from the time Ritchie played it for her over the phone. Her girlfriends started screaming, and like Ritchie's mother, Donna pulled her convertible over to the side of the road. She and the girls sat in the car and cried because the song was so pretty.
Clear Lake, Iowa
To promote his single "Donna," with "La Bamba" as its flip side, Ritchie went on a nationwide tour as part of a rock 'n' roll show that also featured Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. On February 3, 1959, en route to Fargo, North Dakota, their plane crashed in a cornfield in Clear Lake, Iowa. "It took them eight days to send Ritchie's body back from Iowa," his mother recalled. "They didn't send him to me by plane. Instead, they sent him on a train to San Fernando." The same morning Ritchie's body arrived at the mortuary, Keene showed up with a copy of Ritchie's first album. "It had been released in those eight days since his death," explained Connie. "I originally wasn't going to play the album because it was too painful. But I finally put on a brave front and said to myself, 'I'm going to play this before I bury him,' and I did."