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Ritchie Valens: 1941-1959: Performer

Fatal Crash Became A Legend

With three hit songs in less than six months, Valens appeared on the Alan Freed Christmas Jubilee of Stars in December of 1958. Freed also asked Valens to make a singing appearance of "Ooh, My Head" in his rock-and-roll movie Go Johnny Go. Valens then signed up for the Winter Dance Party tour of the Midwest with Buddy Holly and the Crickets, the Big Bopper, and Dion and the Belmonts for January and February of 1959. The Winter Dance Party series would be Valens's first national tour. Symbolizing his success, the teenager put a $1,000 down payment on a house for his family in Pacioma.

Before leaving on the Winter Dance Party tour, Valens entered the Gold Star studio for a final recording date in early January of 1959. With his first album, Ritchie Valens, slated for release in February of 1959, Valens joined the concert tour as it kicked off in Milwaukee on January 23rd. After playing a series of dates around the upper Midwest, the musicians played to about 1,200 fans at the Surf Ballroom at Clear Lake, Iowa, on the night of February 2nd. Hoping to catch up on some rest, headliner Buddy Holly decided to charter a plane to get to the tour's next gig in Minnesota, while the rest of the group traveled by bus. Valens and Richardson joined him for the flight, which was piloted by twenty-one-year-old Roger Peterson. Disoriented by poor visibility in the darkness, Peterson crashed the plane almost immediately after takeoff; there were no survivors of the February 3rd accident.

The sudden loss of three popular performers stunned music fans. The death of Valens, who was just seventeen years old, contributed to the poignancy of the tragic event; the young performer still had the double-sided hit "Donna/La Bamba" riding high on the charts. In the year after his death two more albums, Ritchie and Ritchie Valens in Concert at Pacioma Junior High, were released. Compilations of Valens's work have remained in print continuously.

In 1972 Don McLean's song commemorating the event,"American Pie," hit number one as it recalled "the day the music died." Valens's own music lived on, as it was performed by groups ranging from the Ramones to Led Zeppelin. Revived by Los Lobos in 1987, a remake of "La Bamba" eventually returned to the pop charts as a number one single. The song was included on the soundtrack to the film of the same name, which introduced Ritchie Valens to a new generation of music fans as the first Latino rock-and-roll star. In 2001 Valens was inducted by singer Ricky Martin into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum for his contribution to popular music.

Selected discography

"Come On, Let's Go" (single), Del-Fi Records, 1958.

"Donna/La Bamba" (single), Del-Fi Records, 1958.

"Fast Freight/Big Baby Blues" (single), Del-Fi Records, 1958.

Ritchie Valens, (album), Del-Fi Records, 1959.

"That's My Little Suzie" (single), Del-Fi Records, 1959.

"Little Girl/We Belong Together&rduo; (single), Del-Fi Records, 1959.

Ritchie, (album), Del-Fi Records, 1959.

Ritchie Valens in Concert at Pacioma Junior High, (album), Del-Fi Records, 1960.

Ritchie Valens's Greatest Hits, (album), Del-Fi Records, 1963.

The Best of Ritchie Valens, (album), Rhino Records, 1981.



The Billboard Book of Top Forty Hits, 6th Edition, Billboard Publications, 1996, p. 626.

Lehmer, Larry, The Day the Music Died: The Last Tour of Buddy Holly, the 'Big Bopper' and Ritchie Valens, Schirmer Books, 1997.

Mendheim, Beverly, Ritchie Valens: The First Latino Rocker, Bilingual Press, 1987.

World Music: The Rough Guide Volume 2, Rough Guides, 2000, pp. 466-467.


2001 Inductees: Ritchie Valens, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Web Site, 2001, http://www.rockhall.com/hof/inductee.asp?id=1145.

—Timothy Borden

Additional topics

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