Ritchie Valens, the groundbreaking singer-guitarist from Pacoima who inspired subsequent generations of Chicano rockeros, would be celebrating his 76th birthday on Saturday, May 13, if not for that still-shocking plane crash in 1959 that killed him, the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly. May 13 was officially proclaimed Ritchie Valens Day last year by Los Angeles City Council, and this year, his family and supporters have mounted a series of events over the weekend that are the perfect occasion to revisit Valens’ superb stack of records — songs equally tender and muscular, impressively diverse in style, strikingly well-written and, most important, a hell of a lot of fun to listen to.
Valens’ incandescent rock & roll testimony remains as influential and high-impact today as anything in the historical big-beat canon. “Ooh, My Head” and “That’s My Little Suzie” are stone killer rave-ups driven and defined by Valens’ knockout combination of simplicity and soul. And the boy had funk; get a load of the bluesy growl on “I Was Framed” and his knock-down, tore-up instrumental workout “Fast Freight,” all dazzlingly persuasive glimpses into a stunning artistic range the young musician, just 17 when he died, was only beginning to explore.
“Ritchie was my idol,” says fellow local rocker Chris Montez, whose 1963 U.K. tour featured The Beatles as his opening act. “After I had heard ‘La Bamba’ and ‘Donna,’ I bought his album and tried to sing just like him. Before Ritchie, I never knew rock & roll was open for Mexican-Americans because there were no others, so he really opened the door for me.”
Recording with New Orleans studio potentates Rene Hall and Earl Palmer and (who else?) bassist Carol Kaye, Valens’ records exerted an influence across the full spectrum, but most critically in East L.A., where an entire game-changing tribe of equally driven teen players broke out with their own singular soul-rock strut just a few years after his death.
Apart from all that incredible music, Valens also left behind a fiercely loyal family who have worked hard to preserve his legacy. “He was a big brother,” his sister Connie Lemos says. “He teased you, he chased you and he watched over you. But, since my mom worked, he was also a father figure; he fed us, he entertained us, watched over us."
Valens always tried to take care of his family, especially after his recording career really gave him the means to do so. “When he bought us the house, we all drove up, parked outside, and I couldn’t believe it," Lemos remembers. "It was monumental, for people in our position. I said, ‘We are going to live here? It’s like a castle!’ That was the happiest day in my mom’s life, but it also was the saddest, because she really couldn’t live there after he died. She’d rather have him alive, with us.”
What Valens created, in such a brief time span, was nigh on phenomenal — he wrote 22 of the 33 songs he recorded for Del-Fi Records. “His legacy is his music, his pure rock & roll approach,” Montez says. “And he was so versatile, with all the great ballads and songs like 'In a Turkish Town' or that hard R&B 'I Was Framed.' I used to do that one all the time myself.”
“Every song was different,” Lemos says. “Ritchie expressed himself in so many ways, and he always wrote from his own life. ‘Donna,’ of course, and ‘That’s My Little Suzie,’ which was about a friend of ours who had a clubfoot, so when she walked she really did ‘rock to the left and rock to the right.’ Mom used to always tell us, ‘Come on, let’s go!’ And after he had a dream where he was on a flying carpet, he wrote ‘In a Turkish Town.’ All of his feelings, emotions came out in the songs.”
The weekend’s events include two special student assemblies on Friday featuring a cappella doo-wop group The Alley Cats at Valens’ alma mater, San Fernando High School, followed by a meet-and-greet with siblings Connie Lemos, Irma Norton, Bob Morales and Mario Ramirez Friday night at Burbank’s Rocket Fizz (also a launch party for the estate’s newly introduced Richie Valens Soy Capitan Cola). On Saturday, an open-to-the-public sock hop hits San Fernando High, free for anyone 17 and under, headlined by Ritchie's younger brother, Mario Ramirez, and his Backyard Blues Band, with proceeds going to the school’s music program.
Even almost 60 years later, Valens’ loss remains incalculably painful to his siblings. “Ritchie’s career moved so quickly,” Lemos says. “It was like he was on the straightaway and all he had to do was just hang on.”
An unbearable "what if?" hangs over Valens’ death to this day. The only reason he got on the plane, a tiny Beechcraft Bonanza that made an ill-advised takeoff in bad weather, was that he persuaded Holly’s guitarist, Tommy Allsup, to wager his seat in a coin toss. (Allsup died Jan. 11, 2017.)
"Mom never forgave herself for signing his guardianship over to [Del-Fi Records head] Bob Keane," says Lemos. "[Keane] was supposed to be there. Ritchie wasn’t supposed to be making those decisions.”
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“She always said Ritchie played so hard, she thought he’d make the guitar cry.”
Richie Valens Soy Capitan™Cola launch with Valens siblings Connie Lemos, Irma Norton, Bob Morales, Mario Ramirez, at Rocket Fizz, 3524 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank, Friday, May 12, 6:30-8 p.m. (818) 846-7632.
Mario Ramirez & Backyard Blues Band, John Mueller at San Fernando High School Auditorium, 11133 O'Melveny Avenue, San Fernando, Saturday, 5-9 p.m.; $15 general admission, $25 per couple, 17 and under free accompanied by parent. (818) 898-7255. Tickets available via BrownPaperTickets.com.