Just A Mexican Kid From the Valley
Ricardo Esteban Valenzuela Reyes – better known as Ritchie Valens – was one of my earliest musical heroes, something I am reminded of every February 3, the anniversary of the plane crash that took his life, along with Buddy Holly and “The Big Bopper.” Buddy gets most of the glory in the history books, and I suppose he should. His hits were bigger, his career (slightly) longer, his music more complex and innovative, his impact on pop culture undeniably greater. And I love Buddy Holly. I recorded “That’ll Be the Day” off the radio when I was 12 and just learning guitar, and played it over and over and over until I taught myself the opening lick, which I still can’t play as well. But Buddy was one of those distant rock gods, like Chuck Berry or The Stones. It was almost like he wasn’t real. Ritchie, on the other hand, well…I felt like I knew him.
Ritchie Valens grew up in Pacoima, in the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles. (Prophetically, in 1957, a plane crashed into the school yard of Pacoima Junior High School, killing seven people.) Pacoima was rural, as was most of Los Angeles, but by the mid century, when Valens was a teenager, it was the ‘burbs. I could relate. My suburb also had rural origins, and although we were only 25 miles east of downtown LA, it seemed like the sticks. While my childhood was certainly more comfortable than Ritchie’s, it was still nowheresville.
I could also relate to Ritchie’s cultural upbringing. Ritchie came from an ethnic family with a rich musical heritage that he wanted to incorporate into the white rock and roll and black R&B that he so loved. I also came from ethnic families, with rich musical cultures. Unlike Ritchie, my cultures’ music had already been incorporated into the musical mainstream by artists like Van Morrison on one side, and the myriad of Italian-American singers who dominated the 1950’s and 1960’s pop music landscape on the other. Ritchie was an innovator for Mexican-Americans, and although I wasn’t Mexican, I got it, and his very existence meant something profoundly personal and powerful to me.
Of course, my experiences are all after the fact. I wasn’t around in the 1950’s, so I came to all this music either though my dad’s record collection or KRTH “oldies” radio. Now, in the 1980’s, “oldies” radio wasn’t what it is today. KRTH’s playlist, which was ample and not near as repetitive as radio today, basically spanned 1954 to 1964-65. They occasionally played the Beatles’ and Beach Boys’ early sides, but mostly KRTH in my childhood was doo wop, as well as Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Elvis and, for whatever reason – perhaps because we were in LA – a heavy dose of Ritchie Valens.
Discovering him decades removed from his life, due to my age, the timing of the biopic was optimal for full impact. I haven’t seen it in years, and I honestly don’t know if it is accurate, or any good for that matter, but I watched it often as a kid. That was where I learned Ritchie’s story, and all the elements that drew me to him. His music had already made a major impact on me by the time I saw the movie on television, but when I discovered where he came from, and how much I felt in common with him, it just brought everything home.
What strikes me today listening to Ritchie’s records is just how damn good he was. His guitar playing is exceptional; it dominates every recording. His parts are not that technically difficult or proficient, but they are wonderfully constructed. Easy to duplicate, but far tastier than anything I would ever come up with. They are clean, simple and perfect. True, many of the guitar parts on his hit records were played by session ace Rene Hall, but Ritchie’s guitar can be heard in some capacity on every record. By Rene Hall’s own account, Ritchie plays the inventive solo on “La Bamba” and it is in the rarities – such as the phenomenal instrumental “Fast Freight,” or various home demos – where Ritchie’s gutar playing shines.
And his voice never betrays his age. Ritchie Valens was only 17 when he died in the plane crash 53 years ago today. He was just a high school kid from the Valley, but he sang with so much soul and grit that I still forget his age when listening to his records. In a way, he was cursed with a darkness, an omen, a foreshadowing of flames in the schoolyard. That must age a man, or even a boy.
It was Ritchie’s brown-eyed cover records where I first heard songs, whose original versions would later become some of my favorite R&B records: “We Belong Together” (Robert & Johnny), “Framed” (The Robbins), “Ooh! My Head” (Little Richard). Ritchie’s own exceptional compositions, “Donna” and “Come On Let’s Go” were, and remain, favorites. And of course, his magnificent rearrangement of the Mexican folk song “La Bamba” is still one of the more stunning specimens of the first generation rock era. I did the same thing with “La Bamba” as I did with “That’ll Be the Day” – played it over and over and over, until I learned the opening lick (which I still can’t play as well).
The excitement to a pre-teen boy, somewhere in the ‘burbs, plugging in his first electric guitar and playing the lick to “La Bamba” along with the record, pretty much embodies the charge that keeps me doing anything in life worth doing. Even today, as an occasional adult, there is every right and reason to be jaded and muted and yet, as I type, the tubes on my Fender Super Reverb amp (built just a few miles from where I grew up) are warming up, and as soon as I finish this paragraph, I plan to plug in, with the reverb dial set to 8, and knock out that perfectly constructed solo to “La Bamba” and feel that spark I felt when I was 12, and have been chasing ever since.