Ritchie Valens' Star Burned Brightly for Pacoima
March 25, 2001
So many stars have made the San Fernando Valley their home that it's easy to become jaded here by brushes with celebrity. In the Northridge neighborhood where I grew up, my pals liked to pedal our Schwinns up Louise Avenue and sneak a look through the fence at Jim Davis, the star of our favorite TV show "Rescue 8." Jim didn't get the fame we thought he deserved until he portrayed the gruff oilman Jock Ewing on "Dallas."
Everyone I knew claimed some star as their neighbor. It was a marker of the unique lives we lived in the Valley, the bedroom community for Hollywood and the site of its leading studios. But no big star ever burned as brightly for his neighborhood as Ritchie Valens did for Pacoima. When Valens was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this past week, it gave overdue notice to an artist whose achievements were plainly astounding.
Before he died at age 17, Valens was being likened to Elvis. John Lennon later called him an inspiration. Not bad for a teenager who made records for just eight months before perishing in the infamous Feb. 3, 1959, plane crash that also took rock legend Buddy Holly and J.P. (The Big Bopper) Richardson.
Just as notable, Valens was the first Chicano from Pacoima to make his mark in American culture. Then as now, Pacoima was stranded on the margins of the Valley, a place where newly arrived immigrants were welcome to try their hand at not being poor anymore. People didn't often get out the way he did. Growing up as Richard Valenzuela, his heroes included the singing movie cowboys who lived in wealthier areas of the Valley, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. He too played guitar and, as a teenager, was invited to join the Silhouettes, a Pacoima garage band. They played at dances and parties for East Valley car clubs like the Lobos, whose members were Chicano, and the Lost Angels, whose members were white.
Valenzuela's rocking chords and exuberant vocals drew big crowds and talent scouts. In the summer of 1958, Bob Keane of Del-Fi Records signed Valenzuela to a contract--a solo deal without the Silhouettes and with a less-Mexican sounding stage name.
There had not been a Mexican American rock star, but Ritchie Valens became an immediate sensation. His single, "Come On, Let's Go," rose on the national charts. Ritchie's next record, "Donna," was written for his sometime girlfriend at San Fernando High, Donna Ludwig. The hit ballad became a classic of '50s rock, as did the flip side "La Bamba," Ritchie's electrified version of a Mexican folk song.
Ritchie bought a flashy road outfit from Nudie Cohn, the Lankershim Boulevard clothier-to-the-stars who costumed Elvis and Roy Rogers, and conquered New York. He stayed at the Plaza Hotel and played beside Bo Diddley and Buddy Holly at the famed Apollo Theater.
Ritchie came home a hero. His fame bought his mother a house on Remington Street, and he gave free concerts at his old schools, San Fernando High and Pacoima Junior High. The Pacoima concert on Dec. 10, 1958, was recorded on classmate Gail Smith's tape recorder and later released by Del-Fi. On the recording, students scream wildly as Smith introduces Ritchie as "a success story of one of last year's graduates." Respected rock critic Lester Bangs wrote later: "It would be hard to find a recorded rock concert in which the performer displays more honest, humble warmth than Valens does here."
Before leaving on the Winter Dance Party tour, Ritchie and his mother prayed for a safe trip at the Guardian Angel church on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. The tour turned into a miserable ordeal of long overnight rides in freezing buses. After a concert in Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly chartered a small plane and took along Ritchie and the Big Bopper. The Beechcraft Bonanza lifted off in a snowstorm about 1 a.m. and crashed minutes later in a cornfield. The bodies were not discovered in the snow until almost midday Feb. 3, 1959. A letter from Ritchie's mother was found in the teenager's coat pocket: "Be good and I miss you more every day."
Rock music was ignored by most newspapers then, and his Pacoima upbringing made Ritchie even more invisible. A brief wire story in the now-defunct Valley Times the afternoon of the crash mistakenly gave his age as 21and never mentioned that he was local. The item ran below stories on the widening of Moorpark Street and on a Reseda man planning a transatlantic boat trip.
Donna Ludwig, by then at James Monroe High School, heard the news from a girlfriend. "Donna"--her song--was the No. 3 pop record in America, but school officials would not let the distraught senior leave campus. By the next afternoon, the Valley Times caught on that Ritchie was a local phenomenon but relegated the follow-up story to page two. When the Valley News and Green Sheet came out the following day, finally there was a picture of Ritchie on the front page and the headline became "Valley Singer, 3 Others Die." The Los Angeles Times, also late to the story, ran an interview that morning with Ludwig.
That Saturday, February 7, a thousand mourners squeezed into St. Ferdinand's church in San Fernando for the requiem Mass. More stood outside in a mist as church bells pealed over the streets of the Valley's first city. Richard Valenzuela was buried at San Fernando Mission Cemetery while "several hundred of the boys and girls who were his fans stood with bowed head," the Times reported. The Silhouettes served as pallbearers. "After the funeral I came home and cried like a baby for a very long time," the band's vibes player, Gil Rocha, told Valens biographer Beverly Mendheim.
Writing later in Rolling Stone, Bangs called young Ritchie Valens "a quiet, underrated yet enormously influential member of that handful of folk visionaries who almost single-handedly created rock and roll in the '50s." Del-Fi Records still distributes a boxed-set CD that includes the performance at Pacoima Junior High.
A postage stamp and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame memorialize the singer, and the former Paxton Park on Laurel Canyon Boulevard is now the Ritchie Valens Recreation Center. An annual festival is held there in his honor. Not bad for a kid from Pacoima whose star only flared for eight short months.
©Kevin Roderick 2001