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.
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89 Comments

  • La Bamba is one of the most iconic songs from the 20th century. Although Richie Valens was not able to have a longer career due to his unfortunate death, he was able to become an inspiration for Hispanic musicians. This article was really well written and informative, I really enjoyed reading this and learning more about Richie Valens and his music.

  • I love the song La Bamba, and every time I hear it, it makes me incredibly happy. Thats the reason I was so happy to see that someone had written an article about it. I also really like that the author included a video in their article. However, I thought it was sad that Ritchie Valens felt a need to change his name in order to gain fame. By stripping himself of his name, he was in a way stripping his identity of his Latin roots.

  • Reading this article made me so incredibly happy because of the fact that the knowledge of the Latino community is beginning to spread and more and more people are continuously speaking or remembering about this amazing movement. Ritchie Valens was one of the first to begin it and though his career was short, his impact will forever leave and impact in this world.

  • This article does a great job of telling the inspiring story of Ritchie Valens and how he found success. I respect Valens and his decision to drop out of school and pursue his dream in music, because the amount of self confidence to make a major life decision like that isn’t something that is rewarded with success often.

  • This is a really good story about Ritchie Valens. This proves to show that we really do not need an education to become something in life. I am joking but I am really glad that his career worked out for him. It is really brave to drop school and to pursue your dream. Not many people can say that things will be able to work out. I find it really tragic the Ritchie passed. But you did really good on this article.

  • I grew up listening to folk songs of the Hispanic culture, but I only knew La Bamba the way, Ritchie Valens performed it. My Dad loves the movie and my brothers and I know every song on it. Growing up with something doesn’t really let you see the value in it but as I grew older I realized the influence that he had on the music and Mexican- American culture and after reading this, I am surprised by the amount of talent and influence he had. He changed what Rock was and he changed what people thought about Mexican-Americans.

  • Mexican American heritage contributes to the idea that civilizations are a mixture of both culture and acceptance. By introducing new ideas and customs, progress is furthered in the pursuit of creating a society that is strong and thriving. Ritchie Valens and his talents, as expressed in the article, showcase the thrilling and wonderful nature that comes from socialization and creation within a civilization.

  • This is another story of proof that us latinos can overcome anything. For Spanish speaking artists to compete with American music is mere impossible and in order to make it that song has to be a very good hit. His famous song La Bamba is very catchy and is heard in most parties and events. I did not know how his life ended, that is a very sad way to die but I think La Bamba cemented his music legacy and in what he did for the latino music of the time.

  • Ritchie Valens and others like him really sparked a movement for Latin artists to grow into a larger scope of genres. Tragically he died before he could see his lasting impact on Latin music culture. Ritchie Valens, even after death, influenced music in the Latin culture and culture around America. He and others like him caused many people to start taking Latin music more seriously.

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