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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,558

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This is the grave of Ritchie Valens.

Born in 1941 in Los Angeles, Richard Valenzuela was a child Mexican-America. He grew up in the Mexican neighborhoods of his home town in a period of great discrimination against his community. It was only a couple of years after his birth that LA saw the Zoot Suit Riots, which was basically a military riot against Mexicans. Music was everywhere in his life. His family played mariachi and Valenzuela would learn guitar and trumpet as a child. By the time he was in high school, rock and roll had started to hit and he loved that too. He would bring his guitar to school and sing when he had free time.

By 1957, Valenzuela had become known as the Little Richard of San Fernando. Talent scouts heard. A guy named Bob Keane, owner of Del-Fi Records in LA, checked him out and saw gold. Keane had him change his name to hide his ethnicity and to have a catchier first name. Ritchie Valens it was. He pressed a couple of singles that did pretty well. They went back into the studio and recorded the old Mexican tune “La Bamba.” This became one of the true early hits of the rock era. After that went big, he dropped out of school and started touring full time. Recording “La Bamba” was an interesting choice for a record executive trying to hide that his talent was Mexican. Maybe he changed his mind.

Valens got even bigger after playing American Bandstand in late 58, with his latest song, “Come On, Let’s Go.” He was all over the place for the next few months. And then he died on the legendary flight in 1959 that killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. Valens already hated flying. Valens was 17 years old.

The somewhat known story about that flight is that Waylon Jennings was supposed to be on it, but the Bopper wasn’t feeling well so Waylon said he’d go in the van. It’s such a sad story to lose this kind of talent. I am sure Holly would have adapted to changing musical tastes, if for no other reason that he, like Jerry Lee, could transition to country fairly easily. Valens, I don’t know. But he was great, even if there are only a few tracks. Of course Los Lobos became huge covering him for the biopic starring Lou Diamond Phillips and they continue to play “La Bamba” in every show to the present.

Ritchie Valens is buried in San Fernando Mission Cemetery, Mission Hills, California.

If you would like this series to visit other early rock and rollers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Elvis Presley is in Memphis and Chuck Berry is in St. Louis. Previous posts are archived here and here.

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