"La Bamba"

Ritchie Valens

album cover

Es Para Bailar

Ritchie Valens has at least two significant rock-trivia claims to fame: The Los Angeles native is regularly identified as the "first Hispanic rock star." And because he was on the same ill-fated plane that killed the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly in 1959, he's one of rock's original road tragedies, forever part of "the day the music died."

Valens was seventeen at the time of the crash. He was just beginning to attract national attention as a hitmaker—he'd performed his first single "Come On, Let's Go," four months before on American Bandstand—and had only completed one full album of material. Valens's second single was "Donna," a ballad he wrote for his real-life girlfriend; "La Bamba" was on the flip side.

Where "Donna" resembles countless mildmannered '50s love songs, "La Bamba" is a shot of unrestrained wildcat exuberance unlike anything else. Building on the simple shooping beat of maracas, Valens creates a guitar melody for the ages, merging Chuck Berry–style riffs with the nimble lines of Mexican mariachi music—in fact, "La Bamba" is an adaptation of a traditional Mexican wedding song. Valens sings in phonetic Spanish (he'd been raised speaking only English), delivering the ridiculously catchy lines with such energy, no translation is necessary. This is one of the first instances of a rock song toppling language and cultural barriers.

Passionately covered by Los Lobos (see p. 453) for the 1987 Valens biopic of the same name, "La Bamba" is one of those watershed moments that tends to overshadow everything else. That's not fair to Valens, whose spry guitar inventions (see "Come On, Let's Go," "Bonie Maronie," and others on any decent compilation) exhibit a boundless energy that suggests had he missed that plane, Valens might really have gone on to shake up the music world.

Genre: Rock
Released: 1958, Del-Fi
Appears On: Rockin' All Night: The Best of Ritchie Valens
Another Interpretation: Los Lobos: La Bamba, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Next Stop: Chan Romero: Hippy Hippy Shake
After That: Los Lobos: How Will the Wolf Survive?
Book Page: 799

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