La Bamba: A Song for Everyone

Album art for record “Ritchie Valens” | Unknown Artist | Photograph | 1959 | Courtesy of Del Fi Records

It is the late 1950’s in southern California, and a young superstar named Ritchie Valens, whether he knows it or not, is about to change the culture of America forever. In a matter of eight months, the Hispanic student at San Fernando High School just became one of the biggest celebrity musicians of the day.1 After dropping out of school in order to record and tour full time, Richard Valenzuela was making phenomenal Rock N’ Roll music, both on stage and in the studio. While America quickly became obsessed with the undeniably talented teen, nothing could prepare them for his next release.

From the beginning, the odds were against young Richard. He was merely sixteen, and, as a young Latino, there were few opportunities for someone like him in the American mainstream music industry, let alone in Rock ’n Roll. He saw proof of this fact early in his career, facing prejudice and discrimination at every turn. He was even forced to change his name to Ritchie Valens in order to make it easier for his fans to pronounce—a compromise that gave way to controversy and anger from his family.2 Ritchie realized that, even though he was opposed to the changing of his name, it would be a smart move for him as a musician. But even after his family name was taken from him, he refused to let go of his heritage. In fact, it seemed that he tightened his grip.

Ritchie wanted to do something to pay tribute to his Latino culture. With the assistance of Bob Keane of Del-Fi Records, he decided he would combine the two worlds that he was now so heavily a part of, by turning the Spanish tune “La Bamba” into an upbeat rock song. Only knowing English, Ritchie had to learn the lyrics of the traditional Mexican folk song phonetically. After countless takes in the studio, he recorded the song on a two-track record with a second soon-to-be hit Oh, Donna.3

Ritchie released the track and promptly shook up America. Most people had no idea what the song was about, but, for one of the first times in modern music history, they didn’t care. The charismatic rhythm of the song combined with Ritchie’s unique voice; it was impossible to dislike it, and the song spread like wildfire, taking his career to new heights.

Seeing Ritchie perform was a spectacle only few Americans were graced with. His energy and impeccable guitar skills would engage the thousands of audience members from start to finish.4 While the crowd was swooning over every single song, there was nothing like that epic guitar riff that carries the tune of La Bamba.3 As soon as Ritchie’s guitar pick hit his strings, the fans simply could not contain themselves.

La Bamba movie poster | Photograph | 1984 | Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Unfortunately, Richard Valenzuela’s career was ended even quicker than it begun. Soon after his explosive rise to fame was sparked, and before he could finish his tour, Ritchie Valens was killed in a plane crash along with fellow artists Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper J.P. Richardson.6 The tragedy triggered nation-wide shock, and the day became known by many as “The Day The Music Died.”7

Although his life was ended much too early, perhaps it was this terrible fate that immortalized him in music history. His music and the rest of Valens’ amazing life inspired the film La Bamba, a timeless and classic film. Ritchie’s brave move in the release of “La bamba” inspired and enabled many other Hispanic artists to begin to make their way into the spotlight, making it much more than just a great song. We see the repercussions still today, through modern Latin Rock bands and all the sub-genres surrounding them, and will without a doubt continue to experience the fruits of the song for decades to come. Needless to say, American music and culture would not be the same without Richard Valenzuela’s audacious contributions.

  1. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2004, s.v. “Ritchie Valens.”
  2. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Ritchie Valens,” by Scot M. Guenter.
  3. “‘La Bamba’ one of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century,” Broadcast Transcript. Weekend All Things Considered, NPR, July 15, 2000.
  4. St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 2nd ed. “Valens, Ritchie (1941–1959),” Candida Taylor.
  5. “‘La Bamba’ one of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century,” Broadcast Transcript. Weekend All Things Considered, NPR, July 15, 2000.
  6. Robert Wright, “The Day The Music Died,” Aviation Safety, July 1, 2015.
  7. “What Went Wrong On The Day Music Died?” Interview by Robert Siegel, Melissa Block, All Things Considered, NPR, February 3, 2009.
La Bamba: A Song for Everyone
4 (80%) 1 vote

Tags from the story
,
Written By
More from Joel Gracia

Les Paul: The Man Behind The Guitar

From a very early age, it was obvious that young Lester William...
Read More

60 Comments

  • The article was exciting a fun. It is a tragedy that he died so young after he did to succeed but at least he will never be forgotten. Such a good story I could almost hear the music. A song that never gets old by such a young boy. Too bad he had to go so soon imagine the effect he could have had.

  • I can imagine waking up on a Sunday morning to this song while my mom cleans. It is one of those songs that never really gets old. Though it is very popular and I know it so well, I never really knew about who wrote it or the history behind it. I also find it surprising all the struggles that Ritchie Valens went through and overcame. Overall, It was a very good and well written article.

  • I always knew there was a wonderful story behind La Bamba. I remember at some point in high school, we watched a movie depicting the teen. I’m certain it was a pretty good film too. Good job though Joel. I think you did a good job of getting all the facts together here to paint a story, just like a film.

  • Interesting article. I have heard La Bamba before but did not knew much of Ritchie Valens. It is amazing what he did in his life at such a young age. Dropping school in pursuit to become a professional musician. It is sad to heard how his lose his life but he will always be reminded with his song. Great article and keep it up with the good work!

  • Growing up, I used to watch the movie La Bamba, I never knew much about Richie Valens besides what was played on the movie. I enjoyed reading this article, to hear about the various struggles and accomplishments he went through which led him to become a famous singer. Also, I never knew Richie had to change his name, but I do know one thing for sure, his legacy will continue to live on for decades to come.

  • it is so unfortunate when people that have such a positive influence on people pass away so soon. it only makes you think what else could they have done if they were still alive. I’m glad that you put the video in the article because I couldn’t remember what the song was but as soon as I played it and immediately remembered what is was.

  • This article and the story it tells is most definitely a familiar story amongst Hispanic children. I, myself, having gone to a primarily bilingual elementary school, had this song memorized for school recitals. I wish he hadn’t changed his name however. I too have many people mispronounce my name daily, but I don’t think I would ever even consider changing my name. I also wish he hadn’t because Valenzuela is my grandmother’s maiden name so it only makes me wish he hadn’t changed it even more.

  • This article was great, the story flowed smoothly. Hearing La Bamba at countless parties I never imagined the meaningful story nor impact the song possessed. It is inspiring that Richard Valenzuela did not allow the prejudices of the time stop him from fulfilling his dream and making his mark on music. It is a tragedy that his life was taken much to soon, the music he could have written and the impact it could have had!

  • The author produced a well-written article on La Bamba, and this is definitely a popular and catchy track. Learning about Richie Valens personal life and how he produced hit tracks like “La Bamba” and “Oh Donna” are classic. Overall, this was a well-structured article and the Youtube video that was included was clever, as well as the images exhibited throughout the article.

  • This article makes me so happy! I absolutely love reading about success in the Hispanic community. La Bamba definitely gave our culture some positive recognition. It is very inspiring for other Hispanic artists that don’t think that embracing our culture can lead to success. Although his time with us was short, he definitely left a great impact.

  • Richie Valens was a very talented musician. His music is loved by many and continues to be loved by the new generations. I did not really know much about Richie Valens before reading this article. It is sad that he had to change his name in order to help him be successful. Even then he never let go of his heritage and used it to help him rise to the top. It is also unfortunate that he could not enjoy his fame for very long as his life was cut short by the plane crash.

  • Before reading this article I had no clue who Ritchie Valens was but I had heard his music before. It is fascinating to learn about what stars went through in order to be successful with a career in music. However, it is disgraceful that Richard was forced to change his name just for his fans. Overall, I think the pictures and video that were included were excellent visual aids and the article went straight to the point.

  • Growing up, I had always heard my parents talking about the movie “La Bamba.” I really enjoyed reading this well-written article. Before reading, I did not know that this famous song was made by a high school dropout, Richard Valenzuela. His story is truly inspiring, He went against all odds. Although his life ended in a tragic accident he worked hard to become someone who revolutionized music in the American music culture.

  • I believed I was pretty familiarized with Ritchie Valens, but had no clue that he changed his name so that more people could pronounce it. At a young age of seventeen years old, Ritchie had such good intentions with La Bamba: to help diversify both Latin and American cultures. So unfortunate that he passed away, he could have made many more great hits. Loved the article, and the clip of the song definitely adds to it!

  • Article does Ritchie Valens story great justice. I had heard the song multiple times but had no idea who it was by. It is sad to think after dropping out of school and trying to make a living off of doing what he loved, making music, he faced discrimination. He did how ever make a name for himself rather quickly. Sad how his life ended however his music is still loved and played today.

  • Interesting article. I am not familiar with Ritchie Valens but I have heard the song. It is sad that he had to change his name to get a record deal but I am glad he did not allow them to completely take away his Hispanic heritage and allowed him to do La Bamba. I had heard about the plane crash that killed the musicians and it was a terrible loss to the music industry. It was interesting to me that he did not know Spanish but had to learn the song phonetically.

  • No wonder this article is nominated for best storyteller! It is a great story and structure. As I said in my first comment for this article, there is no song as iconic as La Bamba. It is a song for everyone and anyone. It is truly saddening to see how Ritchie’s career and life ended so shortly, it can be compared with Selena’s life. Such young talent lost. Great article, best of luck!

  • Your title is very good. I love music and i like learning about different genres and artist. Its sad to me that people who are Latina or Mexican or Hispanic have to struggle in the music industry. He shouldn’t have to change his name for others, artist should be their selves. People really need to open their arms for diversity. Music and art is what brings cultures together. Its sad that his life ended like that. tragic he was just on his way up.

  • Being of Hispanic heritage the song La Bamba was a well-known song in my household. I was definitely excited to see that an article was written on the man who created one of the most iconic vocals in the world. The article was a well-written article the article had a great flow to it allowing readers to engage in the career and creation of the man who created La Bamba.

  • Probably being one of the most recognizable Latin tunes in America’s history, I remember this being played at plenty of quinces and middle school parties. I like how you gave the history behind Ritchie and then were able to show how it affected the Latino culture. I think Ritchie definitely did create something to commemorate Latino culture. Really nice article!

  • This was the second time I have read this article. I still believe this was a great article. I appreciate the fact that it showed us as readers some of the struggles not just Richard Valenzuela had to go through but also the struggles of a Latino cultured artists had to go though. However to also showed us if we stick to our roots and stay true to who we are we can change the world as we know it.

  • An extremely well written and put together article that I could not look away from. Just reading the name of the song beings nostalgia from when I was a kid. This style of music is what my mom would play for us growing up. I knew about his death in a plane crash just as Richard Valenzuela was making it big, but not the size of impact he made to the music world.

  • Everyone loves La Bamba- the movie and song- and in turn, most people love Richie Valens. I really had no idea that he was asked to change his name, but I’m glad that he didn’t just abandon who he was after that and made one of the biggest bumps in tribute to his heritage. This article did a really great job in showcasing his successes before he unfortunately passed.

  • I really appreciated the intro paragraph that set the tone for what was to be describe about Ritchie Valens career. It was so unfortunate to have read that artist like Richie Valens and buddy holly were lost all at once in a plane crash. This article was an interesting read and I enjoyed the visuals provided. The tone of the article was also vibrant which made the article more fun to read.

  • This was a good article about a great artist. La Bomba was surely a very important piece of music not only during that time but also in today’s world. Before reading this I did not realize that Ritchie’s name was actually Richard Valenzuela. I does make sense though, considering the time that he was in, that he was told to change in it order to have a chance at becoming more successful in a mainstream audience. It is sad that he was told to change it but perhaps it was the name change that allowed La Bomba to become such a hit and pave the way for future Hispanic and Mexican artists.

  • It’s truly devastating as to how a young star quickly rose to fame, despite all odds placed against him, and ended with a very short lived career. Society was truly against him, but in a way his music gave way for the assimilation of two worlds, much like how Ricardo’s life was lived out (being from Southern California). As the article states, his emergence from the prejudice gave way for the wide-spread of the incorporation of Mexican-American culture.

  • It always makes me glad to see that a minority was able to make such a huge societal impact. Especially in an era where he was facing discrimination. Although he had to make a slight change to his name, he was still able to represent the Latin population through his music. It’s quite inspiring that such a young man was able to play his cards just right in the American music industry and was able to break barriers thus paving the way for more Hispanic artists to make it big. This was a very well written article.

  • Ritchie Valens was an incredibly talented artist. I always thought that Ritchie spoke mainly Spanish and would have had to learn English in order to produce music. It is kind of funny because I come from a Hispanic background and I don’t speak any Spanish either, not to mention that my name is also Richard with Richie as my nickname. It is sad to hear about how he died so young, I wonder how much more he could have changed Rock n’ Roll if he lived longer.

  • It is so sad hearing that his career was ended before he really got to fully live out a life of fame. I have heard of the movie la bamba and heard the song but have never actually heard the story of his fame. It is so sad that he had to change his name just so it would make it easier on his fans. Changing someones name is changing their whole identity and he did it just to fit in better. I’m glad he still embraced his heritage by making a song in Spanish. It is so sad that his life ended so soon but he made a big impact in music history with the little time he was given.

  • This was a great article! Everyone has heard of this song at least once in their life time. However not everyone knows who wrote it or the story behind it. It was inspiring to read about how Richard pushed passed all the trials and tribulations that he had to go through because of his Latino culture. I absolutely loved this article, great job!

  • I used to be slightly obsessed with the movie La Bamba and the actor who portrayed Richie, Lou Diamond Phillips. That is part of why I was so excited when I came across your article. The fact that has always stuck out to me in the Richie Valens story was the fact that Valens wasn’t his last name. They had him change his name because Valenzuela was too difficult to pronounce. He was good enough to perform in front of white crowds but he had to let go of a piece of himself in order to do it.

  • Great story about a talented, ambitious musician. I love the fact that he had the guts to drop out of high school and chase his career. What made me enjoy this more was about actually enjoying the song myself and knowing that even my parents heard it. Sadly but maybe true, his death might have been what helped elevate his fame in history, the story of a beloved singer gone at the peak of his career.

  • Amazing article, Richie Valens is one of my all time favorite musical artist. I had no idea that he was forced to change his name for that reason. It was really interesting because I just learned more about an artist that I really enjoy listening too. It is truly a tragedy that his life ended so early, who knows how many more hits he would have made or what he could have accomplished in his lifetime.

  • Wow! I have listened to this song my whole life and never knew this story! I didn’t know he was killed in a plane crash either. It makes sense though, most musicians or famous people, die in plane crashes. I also was surprised to hear that he was so young when he started to get popular. a true tragedy no doubt. I am really curious why it seems that young up and coming Mexican American artist seem to die young before they hit mainstream America?

  • To be perfectly frank I had only selected to comment on this article because of the sole fact that its subject matter made me question just how this pertains to history. although even with this mindset going in, I found this article to be very well-constructed and informative on someone I never really knew about. I never knew his original name so I appreciated how informative this article was in explaining the legend of Richie Valens.

  • Very well written article, I really enjoyed that it included a youtube video of him performing. As popular as ‘La Bamba’ was and still is, I had never heard of who had written it or the author’s story behind it. It’s fascinating to read that despite Ritchie Valens Latino background and the struggles he might have gone through to become famous, he was still able to and did it fairly quickly.

  • I really loved this article because it talks about the creation of La Bamba and how it had such a huge impact on America at that time! I enjoy reading the short life of Ritchie Valens because it talks about all the accomplishments he made at such a young age. It deeply saddens me how his life ended so short because he had the rest of his life to make his name even bigger. This article was very informative and I enjoyed reading Ritchie Valens’ biography.

  • I absolutely loved reading this article, it had a great storyline and was definitely clear in explaining who Ritchie Valens was, his life, what he did to achieve his dream and the impact he left upon the music industry universally. I was introduced to Ritchie Valens and his music when I was very young, thanks to my grandparents and parents, so I was previously aware of him and his rise to fame, short career and his unfortunate death. I have seen the film La Bamba and I particularly enjoy watching it because much like this article, it captures intricate detail of a fallen hero in the music world and how huge of an impact his legacy will leave.

  • As a child I remember hearing this song popularized by Richie Valens on all types of events. How important it was Richie on the paving of the road where many other Latino artists would go through over the years. He was truly an inspiration to many, and it is lamentable that he died at a young age. Excellent article, very well written and very engaging as well.

  • Growing up I absolutely loved this movie it was good. My grandparents like this kind of music; this young superstar was an inspiration to many. It’s insane how he rose to stardom at the age of 17 out of luck. This article was written very well, and it told his story even better. I really enjoyed this article grate job!

  • Great article, very interesting. I have heard this song, but I did not know the history of the song or the man who wrote the song. It is really sad how his story ended, I think that music really lost a great artist in that plane crash. The movie “La Bamba” is a great tribute to Richie Valens. Very well written and put together article.
    .

  • I remember listening to this song when I was young my grandpa would play this song every time we got in the car. I had no idea of his death on a plane crash, but I do think that the author was right that it did immortalize himself into the music industry. The name change was shocking to me too, just so that it will be more appealing to the public. He had such great accomplishments at such a young age. This article was very impressive and entertaining.

  • I had never before heard of Ritchie Valens’s story, but through this article I definitely gained a lot of knowledge on such a great artist. Valens went through an enormous number of struggles in order to become a mainstream music icon. Even though he faced prejudice and familial disapproval, he still persevered and preserved his culture. This has simply made him an even greater artist in my eyes. It is really depressing that as soon as he achieved his goal, his life was taken, but I am glad that he was able to influence music in the way that he did.

  • Such a well known song, and to know who the artist of the spin off of “La Bamba” was Ritchie Valens. Such an inspiring article he did so much at such a young age, and the fact that he knew this song was going to be a hit since he did not know Spanish. This song is a great example of the power of music, so many people had no idea what the song was saying but the rhythm made anyone move. His success may have been take over by fate but this song lived and will continue to live through generations

  • PERFECT title choice! Indeed, la Bamba is a song for everyone, breaking any time or age barrier. It’s actually the first song I learned to play on the guitar. I knew little about Ritchie, so most of your article was new knowledge for me. You use great evidence throughout the text, specifically when mentioning the reason for Valens’ name change and what it provoked. Without a doubt, he left behind the greatest musical legacy, the most timeless song of all time. I am sure if he was alive, he would have produced more of those tunes. What a great take on a great individual! Good job!

  • Great article! I really liked how you effectively structured you article. Honestly, I have never heard about the context before. It’s amazing how he decided to combine the two worlds that he was a part of by turning the Spanish tune “La Bamba” into an upbeat rock song with the assistance of Bob Keane of Del-Fi Records. It was upsetting to read that Ritchie Valens was killed in a plane crash. To sum it up, i really enjoyed reading your article.

  • I remember singing and dancing to this song as a child, but never knew about the singer. It’s unfortunate to read that he had to change his name for his career to be successful, but I like how he didn’t forget about his culture and still kept his Hispanic identity. This is a very well written and informative article. Good job!

  • Great article! Growing up I remember my grandma would always listen to old songs which included La Bamba and would always watch the movie all the time. This story was truly tragic of how he died so young while he was on the cusp of making it big. This was a really interesting article and able to cover his life and success. Great job!

  • I had heard the song and never really knew or wondered who was behind it, but this article provided a lot of about that. He went for his dreams despite his family’s approval and I think that’s a lot of dedication. Although his life ended so suddenly and tragically, his music will continue to live on. Well written and overall a Great article!

  • What an interesting story about a very interesting guy. I had no idea od the origins of ‘La Bamba’ but I definitely did not expect that it was sung by someone who couldn’t even speak Spanish. I was certain that the origins of the singer would have had a strong Spanish accent and not an american one! Its amazing that Ritchie defied all of his critics and rose to fame as fantastically as he did. Its just a shame it was so short lived. Great article

  • La Bamba is a great song that I even hear in our media today. I believe that it was incredibly smart to combine both of the Latin and American cultures. It was what set from apart from other artists at the time. It is also encouraging that he still went for dreams even though he family did not completely support him. Many people would not be able to handle that type of environment. Not only was he facing trouble in his personal life but also from the public. It is sad that his life ended so soon. I wonder what other amazing songs he would have come up with.

  • This was a very interesting article, I have never heard of the song La Bamba before this article. It is crazy how America dealt with color in the 20th century, having to change his name to be more “American” is very upsetting to me. He influenced many other races to pursue their musical dreams and was very inspiring. I learned a lot from this piece, great article!

  • I enjoyed reading this Article. I knew of Ritchie’s death but I did not know of his name change. I love the song “La Bamba” and I agree that he made it shine through his recreation of it. Yes, he did have his time of fame and he is remembered through history and movies, but I don’t think that to this day we have very much diversity in the music business. I would love for that to change though.

  • This is a very well written article. I always loved the song La Bamba. I mean I practically grew up listening to it. I didn’t know the history behind the song though. It’s kind of sad that Richard had to change his name to a more American one at the time because Latinos weren’t as prominent in America as they are today. It’s also even more sad that he died at such a very young age. At least he left us with a great song before he passed.

  • “La Bamba” continues to be one of my favorite movies, portraying struggle and success all in one with a fantastic arrangement of music. Ritchie Valens is a very authentic musician with an iconic song that is commonly known among many. His Latino heritage made his music more appealing yet was faced with a lot of persecution. The article was very well written and interesting. I enjoyed reading and learning a little more about Ritchie Valens as an artist and his rise to fame. His experience in the music industry can serve as an inspiration to other artist who want to pursue similar dreams but have the same struggles. Money, race, and fame.

  • I remember reading about Richie Valens a couple years back. He definitely pioneered a new phase in music when it came to the present day American music of that time. La Bamba is an iconic song, and one that is easily recognizable. It did sadden me to hear of how his career came to an end. I knew he wasn’t around anymore, but to leave this Earth in the manner he did and at the climax of his career, is disheartening.

  • Most of my knowledge of Ritchie Valens comes from the movie. I did not know that he had to change his name, although many musicians do. His music influenced many other Latin musicians. It would be nice to know what other hits he would have produced. I did not know that Buddy Holly was on the flight as well. It is a tragedy that they had to go so soon and so young.

  • Richie Valens is such a well-known rock n roll artists. I recall watching the “La Bamba” movie as a little kid but my memory of it is a bit fuzzy. I had no clue that his real name was Richard Valenzuela yet I can understand why he changed his name, even I find it hard to say his last name without butchering it. I enjoyed reading your article and the video of Richie playing “La Bamba” adds to it all. Good work!

  • I had heard the song many times, but never knew where it’d derived from. I was also not aware that Ritchie Valens had gone out in such a tragic way. Although I sadly cannot say it was the first time I had heard of a musician that died in a plane crash (Otis Redding and Randy Rhoads). It is interesting that the article also underlined the racial tension Valens was put through because of his Latino descent.

  • I thought I knew a lot about Ritchie Valens, and consider myself a big fan of his music but I had no idea he changed his name so that people could pronounce it easier. I find Ritchie Valens story really interesting because of all the things he accomplished at such an early age and also that he died so young at seventeen years old. Overall, this was a really intriguing article and it does a well job of describing a portion of Ritchie Valens rise to fame.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *