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Ritchie Valens: 1941-1959: Performer

Valens's Big Break

There are several versions of the story of Valens's discovery. One version has Valens and his mother renting the Legion Hall for a Silhouettes date in order to raise enough money to pay off the family's mortgage; by chance, a friend of a record company executive saw the show and suggested that his friend audition Valens. Another version has his mother skipping a mortgage payment to rent the hall and have the concert taped as a demo recording to get the interest of a record company. After Bob Keane heard the tape, he went to a talent show where Valens was competing to check out the talented teenager in person. In any event, Valens's performance at the Legion Hall in May of 1958 indeed resulted in an offer to record some tracks for Bob Keane's Del-Fi label at Gold Star Studios in June of 1958. The resulting single, a Valens composition called "Come On, Let's Go," was released the same month and hit number 42 in September on Billboard's Hot 100. On Keane's suggestion, the singer adopted "Valens" as his professional name over his given surname, Valenzuela. While it was not quite a bona fide top forty hit, "Come On, Let's Go" sold over 225,000 copies and led to Valens's first appearance on American Bandstand on October 6, 1958. By that time Valens was in demand for concert appearances across the country and had dropped out of San Fernando Valley High School.

Valens's next release was a double-sided single, "Donna" and "La Bamba." A ballad that Valens wrote for his high-school girlfriend, Donna Ludwig, "Donna" was an immediate hit; it earned a gold record award and spent two weeks at number two on the Hot 100 in January of 1959. The song remains an early rock classic as a teenager-in-love ballad. The single's flip side, "La Bamba," also became a classic of a different sort. Based on a traditional tune popular at Mexican weddings, the lyrics of "La Bamba" were adapted from the huapango, which used nonsense lyrics in boastful exchanges among singers. In Valens's rock-and-roll version, the lyrics featured a drunken sailor insisting that he could dance la bamba better than anyone else. While the song was not as popular as "Donna," it hit the top 30 on the pop charts in February of 1959.

One of the few foreign-language pop hits on the American charts, "La Bamba" was an unusual hit for its era. It was also an unusual choice for Valens to record, as he spoke only rudimentary Spanish and had to learn the lyrics to the song from his mother's relatives. Although he was aware of his Mexican heritage, Valens spoke only a couple of words of Spanish while he was growing up with his father, who was a native of California. Later on, he picked up a few more phrases, but he was never conversant in the language.

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Brief BiographiesBiographies: Theodosius I to David Watmough Biography - David Watmough comments:Ritchie Valens: 1941-1959: Performer Biography - Early Interest In Music, Valens's Big Break, Fatal Crash Became A Legend