Name: Ritchie Valens (birth name: Richard Stephen Valenzuela) Ritchie was nicknamed "TheLittle Richard of the San Fernando Valley".
Birthdate: May 13, 1941
Family: Parents: Joseph Steve and Concepcion (Connie) Reyes Valenzuela, brothers Robert (Bobby) and Mario, sisters, Connie and Irma. (Ritchie's siblings are alive and living in California, his father died in 1951 and his mother in 1987)
Hometown: Pacoima, California
Ritchie gave his friend, drummer, Carl Bunch, this picture while on the Winter Dance Party tour in 1959.
Early music endeavors: Learned to play the trumpet, harmonica and drums as a child. By his early teens, Ritchie was playing guitar and carrying it everywhere..even to school!
Graduated high school: Ritchie entered Pacoima Jr. High in 1954 as a 7th grader and graduated there in 1957. Although he attended San Fernando High until 1958 as a junior, he soon left school to tour and promote his records. Not having a tutor on the road, sadly, Ritchie died before completing his high school education. He was 17.
Early musical influences: Fats Domino,Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Larry Williams, The Everly Bros. and Elvis. Ritchie was very much influenced by the sounds of current "rhythm and blues".
Band name: The Silhouettes. This was the band Ritchie frequently peformed with before signing with Del-Fi and becoming a major star.
Bandmates: (in 1957 as the group was formed) Gil Rocha, (vibraphone) Conrad (Nino) Jones, (drums) Frankie Gallardo, (piano) Walter Takaki, (Sax). More members were added later as Ritchie continued to sing with the group.
Manager: Bob Keene (now Keane) Del-Fi Records
Ritchie's guitars of choice:
Sears Harmony Stratotone: (turoquoise green and white) electric. This is the guitar Ritchie played in his early days with the Silhouettes and was supposedly purchased at a pawn shop. Silhouettes member,Gil Rocha currently has this guitar.
Gibson electric-Ritchie can be seen playing this guitar in pictures from an Oct. 1958 performance at San Fernando Jr. High as well was a Dec. 1958 concert at Pacoima Jr. High.
Fender Stratocaster (sunburst): Ritchie performed with this guitar on the Winter Dance Party tour 1959 and may have used it in many of his last public peformances in late 1958 and early '59.
Ritchie also owned other guitars including a white accoustic which he can be seen playing in picture of a performance he did at friend, Gail Smith's Halloween party, Oct. 1958.
First major recording sessions: Summer 1958 (Exact recording dates not known.) Ritchie auditioned for Bob Keene in May of 1958 and several songs were recorded in Keene's basement studio. Keene had state of the art equipment and used well known session musicians such as Rene Hall, Carole Kay and Earl Palmer.
Ritchie also recorded at the famous Gold Star Studios in Hollywood, CA. (Sadly the historic studio was torn down several years ago and no long exists.)
First Del-Fi Releases: The self-penned, "Come On Let's Go", recorded June 1958 and released later that summer. Come On Let's Go first appeared as Billboard's "Pick of the Week" on Sept.1, 1958 and reached it's top #42 position in Oct. 1958. It was backed with "Framed", a song previously recorded by the Robins (later named the Coasters). Ritchie was known to sing Framed while performing with the Silouettes as well as other current hits of the day such as Larry Williams "Bonie Maronie" or Little Richard's "Jenny, Jenny, Jenny".
On the heels of the success of Come On Let's Go, Bob Kenne released another song of Ritchie's in Oct. 1958. His soon to be double-sided hit was Donna/LaBamba with Donna being the "A" side of the record. Donna, written by Valens for a girl he had some strong feelings for (schoolmate Donna Ludwig) was actually recorded in Bob Keene's basement. Keene had not added too much overdubbing to it before he took it to KFWB, the then "hot" radio station in Los Angeles. He intended the song to be a promo for the D.J to hear but the station manager "flipped over the song" and put it on the air just as it was that day!
The other song, LaBamba was an old Mexican wedding song that Ritchie had been playing for quite some time but not in the traditional sense. He added a rock and roll beat and made it all his own! The song was a hit and Donna and LaBamba appeared in Billboard's "Spotlight" Nov.17, 1958 reaching the top position of #2 in Jan. 1959. The song, this time sung by Los Lobos would hit #1 (in 1987) as the soundtrack for the movie LaBamba.
Albums: Ritchie only had 3 albums released close to the time of his death. The first one was called Ritchie Valens and released the first week of March 1959. The second one, Ritchie, came out in the summer of 1959 and the third one, Ritchie Valens In Concert at Pacoima Jr. High was not released until early 1960.
The Pacoima Jr. High album is a recording of an actual concert Ritchie did on Dec. 10, 1958 at his former Jr. High School. President of his fan club, and friend Gail Smith interviews Ritchie briefly and amazingly enough, Ritchie peforms with just his guitar and a drummer, Don Phillips. This is interesting stuff and is highly recommended for Valens fans. It's one of the earliest recordings of a "primitive" rock and roll concert of the 1950's. Ritchie's personality as well as his music shine out in the Pacoima Jr. High recording. This is one I am glad the fans demanded be heard!
Some of Ritchie's appearances and major tours:
Late Sept./Early Oct.: Ritchie and manager Bob Keane tour the east coast- 11 cities in 10 days! Ritchie appears on Alan Freed's TV show in New York, and American Bandstand in Philadelphia (on Oct.6-Ritchie's mom's birthday) where he sings his new hit, Come On Let's Go. Traveling farther north, Ritchie even accepts a date in Canada and plays to a cold but happy group of youngsters. Very soon afterward, back in California, he will also travel up the WEST coast with Bob Keene for a date in San Francisco. Bob buys a brand new silver-blue Thunderbird while there and promises it to Ritchie at a later date.
Late Oct./Early Nov.: As his double sided hit, Donna/LaBamba is released, Ritchie makes many appearances in the Southern California area. Reoccuring appearnces were at the Pacific Ocean Park, El Monte Legion Stadium, Long Beach Municipal Civic Auditorium, Harmony Park Ballroom, Ted Randel's and Disneyland. He also plays to appreciative audiences closer to home in the San Fernando area without let up. Ritchie is becoming a star...
Oct. 31, 1958 finds Ritchie peforming at schoolmate and friend, Gail Smith's Halloween party. Even though his star is rising, he still has time for his friends..
He also has time for his school. Even though he has to drop out, Ritchie comes back to San Fernando High to do a show for the Saracens, the graduating class of '59. Proceeds go to help buy a new scoreboard for the school..
Keeping him busy, radio station, KFWB gives Ritchie some promotion by sending him out to pizza parties in the "Oh Boy, Pizza Contest". Kids who win get to have Ritchie as special guest at their homes to sing and sign records (as well as eat pizza!). Most are surprised to find Ritchie friendly and down-to-earth, and with no trace of ego that goes along with fame and fortune. It's a part of him that will never change..
Dec. 5-7: Ritchie makes a trip to Hawaii for booking agency GAC (General Artist Corporation) on the "11th Show of Stars". He appears in Honolulu at the Civic Auditorium on Dec. 5 & 6 and at Pearl Harbor & Schofield Army Barracks on the 7th. D.J. Tom Moffat MC's the show that includes the Kalin Twins, Teddy Randazzo and Donnie Owens. Also appearing are Ronnie Diamond, The Drifters, Al Lucas, and the Esquires.
Dec. 10: Ritchie makes an appearance at his old stomping grounds, Pacoima Jr. High School. Friend and president of his fan club in Los Angeles, Gail Smith MC's while the kids cheer. Ritchie sings his hits but also puts together an instrumental right before he goes onstage. Called "From Beyond" it hints at the some of the earliest beginnings of Surf music! The teenager also sings Eddie Cochran's current hit, "Summertime Blues" and gives it a feel all his own. The principal tapes the show and gives it to Gail Smith later on. Unknown to both Ritchie and Smith, this would come to be Ritchie's third album.
Week of Christimas 1958: Ritchie and Bob Keene make another trip to the east coast; this time for an appearance on Alan Freed's Christmas show. The show, called, "Alan Freed's Christmas Jubilee" will run until New Year's weekend of 1959 and plays at the old Loew's State Theater. Ritchie soon finds himself in good company and surrounded with stars: Johnny Ray, the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Frankie Avalon, Jimmy Clanton, Jo-Ann Campbell, Jackie Wilson, Harvey and the Moonglows, Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran, the Flamingoes, "Baby" Washington, the Crests, the Nu-Tornadoes, the Cadillacs, Dion and the Belmonts, Inga (Alan Freed's wife), Ed Townsend, Gino and Gina and the Alan Freed Orchestra entertain the kids every day for several shows a day! But it's not all work and no play-Ritchie meets and gets to know Eddie Cochran and his fiancee' Sharon Sheeley while there as well as the Crests, the Nu-Tornadoes and others. Parties are held in the hotel rooms between shows and Ritchie meets a girl who become very special to him-a pretty young burnette named Diane Olsen. Hailing from the area, she shows Ritchie around and they soon become close. Pictures are taken of the two backstage but they won't be released. To the public anyway, Ritchie's girl still has to be "Donna".
*(A NOTE TO DIANE OLSEN-WHEREVER YOU ARE-GET IN TOUCH! I KNOW YOU ARE STILL OUT THERE SOMEWHERE!)*
Also while in New York, Ritchie makes an appearance on "The Dick Clark Show" on Dec. 27 and may have made another American Bandstand appearance. He sings Donna on the Clark show and the girls scream their approval.
New Years 1959: Before leaving for California soon after New Years, Ritchie and Bob Keene stay with Carl Blumberg of Allied Distributing. Blumberg's daughters beg Ritchie to sing at their school in Hazel New Jersey and he happily obliges. Sending his bags to the airport, Ritchie does the show and hops on the plane back home. However, he doesn't get any more rest when he arrives...
There's a movie in the works and Ritchie makes an appearance in the rock and roll saga, "Go Johnny Go". The movie stars Jimmy Clanton,Sandy Stewart,Chuck Berry,Alan Freed and showcases several other acts such as Eddie Cochran, the Flamingoes, Jackie Wilson and the Cadillacs. Even though he is not paid for the part and he doesn't have a speaking role, Ritchie performs his song, "Ooh My Head" and possibly "Dooby Dooby Wah". (the latter is thought to have been cut from the film). Ritchie's comment on the movie? "I'm not much good but I hope my mother likes me."
Jan. 1959: Ritchie is busy recording and making demos for Keene at his basement studio and at Gold Star. On the 11th, he appears on "The Music Shop" TV show with the Collins Kids, Bobby Darin, Gary Crosby (son of Bing) and Sam Butera and the Witnesses. The show debuts on NBC and is hosted by Buddy Bregman. Ritchie is the featured guest and sings LaBamba and Donna to the delight of the audience. The show is in color and Bob Keene takes Ritchie to the producer's house to watch. It is to be Ritchie's last TV appearance.
Ritchie makes two more appearances this month. One on the "Teen Canteen Show" on Jan 17th at the West Covina High School and another at the Long Beach Civic Auditorium. (Both shows may have been held on the same date.) Ritchie headlines and appears with Dick Dale,and Sam Cooke and others. His Aunt Ernestine and Uncle Lelo Reyes drive him to the dates in their new 1957 Chevy. Ritchie is staying with them quite alot these days as his mother has a full house and he needs the peace and quiet of the Reyes home to practice his music. Ever grateful to his aunt and uncle, Ritchie tells Ernestine, "Tia, when I make it big, we aren't going to live here in Pacoima anymore..we are moving to Beverly Hills..".
Sometime during the month of Jan, Ritchie is signed to an extended contract with GAC (General Artist Corporation). GAC is the leader in rock an roll tours and wants to plan an "extensive buildup" for Ritchie who is one of the hottest acts in Rock and Roll. The first tour will be the Winter Dance Party beginning Jan. 23. Afterward there will be four weeks of theater appearances in Baltimore, Washington, DC, Philadelphia and New York. Ritchie is also looking forward to an appearance on the Perry Como Show, a European tour and a trip to Austrailia. But it isn't all gravy. Ritchie tells his brother, Robert Morales that "it is all happening too fast." Amazingly enough, Ritchie had accomplished in eight months what few do in their whole career!
Jan. 19/20: Ritchie gets ready to leave on tour for the upcoming Winter Dance Party tour with Buddy Holly, Dion and the Belmonts, Frankie Sardo and the Big Bopper. The night before he is to leave, he goes to church with his mother and good friend Gail Smith and her mother. They pray for Ritchie's safe return. Gail worries about the bad weather and asks Ritchie if he is still afraid to fly. "What would you do if your plane crashed?" she says. Although Ritchie acknowledges his continued dislike for flying, he tries to lighten the mood saying that he would " land on my guitar..". Ritchie tells Gail on the way home that he is looking forward to the tour, to meeting the Big Bopper and also getting his T-Bird from Bob when he gets back.
The future is bright and Ritchie, who has just bought his family a new home (on Remington Street in Pacoima) the month before throws a party for his family and friends. His aunt and uncle, Ernestine and Lelo Reyes help him sign for the $1000 down payment on the house which manager Bob Keen advances. Ritchie invites a very special someone to the party-old flame Donna Ludwig. Even though her father will not let her attend the party,Donna wants to go the and finally sneaks out, only to be caught. Ritchie calls her several times that night saying that he will miss her. Feeling uneasy about her son's departure, Ritchie's mother, Connie asks him to get off the phone and spedn some time with her. "My mother is so silly, he says, she thinks something is going to happen to me." The party lasts all night long and into the morning hours. Later on, Ernestine and Lelo and brother Robert drive Ritchie to the airport for his flight to Chicago. They don't like him flying any more than he wants to but Ritchie has reassured them that he won't fly in small planes. Ernestine insists that he take out insurance for trips such as these and although he doesn want to, Ritchie listens. In Chicago, he will meet up with the rest of the group and rehearse with Buddy Holly's band who is backing up all the acts. The Dance Party is set to take off Jan. 23 and end Feb. 15.
Ritchie Valens died Feb. 3, 1959 in the crash of a small chartered plane near Mason City and Clear Lake Iowa. His music and memory live on.
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