When the song “American Pie” was first recorded and released by Don McLean in 1971, it was referencing the tragic deaths of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens, as quoted in the lyrics, “the day the music died,” The trio boarded a chartered airplane after their concert performance in Clear Lake, Iowa on February 3, 1959. Ritchie Valens won a coin toss against Holly’s bassist, Tommy Allsup, to earn a seat on the plane, but was among the trio of artists who perished when it inexplicably crashed shortly after it took off the runway. When the news of what happened got out, the world of shocked music fans mourned. At the age of seventeen years old, Ritchie Valens was the youngest person on the plane.
Before American Pie
Born as Richard Steven Valenzuela out of the San Fernando Valley of the Los Angeles region, Valens grew up listening to a mix of traditional Mexican mariachi music, flamenco guitar, jump blue, and R&B. While still just a small child, Valens took up a solid interest in music where he learned how to play the guitar, trumpet, and drums. By the time he was sixteen years old, he had joined a local band where he first started out as a guitarist, then as a lead vocalist. This continued until he was discovered during the summer of 1958. By the time autumn came around, Valens had to choose between attending high school or embarking on a music career already full of promise. Valens chose to continue touring throughout the United States, performing at venues and on various television programs as they were booked.
Ritchie Valens was instrumental in pioneering the Latino influence on the rock and roll music genre during the short period of time of his career. As the first Chicano-Latino to crossover into mainstream rock, Valens served as a nationwide inspiration that would later see the likes of Carlos Santana and Los Lobos join in on the ranks of recording and releasing a successful stream of Latino-Rock. In 1987, the combined performance of actor Lou Diamond Phillips and Los Lobos during the 1987 motion picture titled “La Bamba” immortalized Ritchie Valens in a touching tribute movie illustrating how the Latin-American icon rose to become such a shining star full of promise, only for it to be cut short by tragedy.
Top 10 Ritchie Valens Songs
#10 – Fast Freight
“Fast Freight” was released in 1959 on the A-side of what would be the second of three credited original albums recorded and released by Ritchie Valens. Although the song itself never charted upon release, it not only appears in the 1959 album, “Ritchie,” but also on the 1981 ‘The Best of Ritchie Valens.” It was among the collection of songs featured on a record that would return the name of Ritchie Valens back onto the album charts after a twenty-seven-year absence.
#9 – Hurry Up
The song, “Hurry Up,” was originally written by songwriter, Sharon Sheeley. Sheeley is credited for writing a number of hit singles for stars such as Glen Campbell, Ricky Nelson, and Eddie Cochran. Ritchie Valens recorded and released Hurry Up as a single, which not only on his 1959 album, “Ritchie,” but also on the 1981 “The Best of Ritchie Valens.”
#8 – Stay Beside Me
“Stay Beside Me” was the lead track for the 1959 album, “Ritchie.” Although it never did reach the music charts in the form of a hit, it is also found in 1981’s “The Best of Ritchie Valens” as among the best music Valens performed in the short period of time he was able to enjoy his music career.
#7 – In a Turkish Town
In 1959, “In a Turkish Town” charts on the US Billboard Hot 100 at number fifty-five and on the US Cash Box at number forty-three. This song is also included in 1962’s “Ritchie Valens Memorial Album,” as well as on his original 1959 album, “Ritchie Valens.” 1981’s album, “The Best of Ritchie Valens,” also has In a Turkish Town as among the songs in the list that’s classified as among his best.
#6 – Little Girl
Although “Little Girl” didn’t chart high on the US Billboard Hot 100 at number ninety-two and on the US Cash Box at number ninety-three, this song is still marked as among the best of Ritchie Valens. On the 1981 “The Best of Ritchie Valens” album, it is among the list of the artist’s best songs he was able to record and release before the tragic plane crash that would bring the man’s life and career to an abrupt halt. Although Valens himself is no longer here, the legacy of his music continues, including his performance of Little Girl.
#5 – Ooh! My Head
“Ooh! My Head’ was not officially released as a single, yet is among the best songs performed by Ritchie Valens. Valens is seen performing this song in a coffee shop in the trailer of 1959’s “Go Johnny! Go,” a film starring Alan Freed and Sandy Stewart. It is among the songs included in the 1981 “The Best of Ritchie Valens” album.
#4 – We Belong Together
“We Belong Together” was released in 1959, alongside the hit single, “Little Girl.” On the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, it peaked at number ninety-two while on the US Cash Box at number ninety-three. Together, both songs achieved this chart rating as the songs were released on the same album, “Ritchie.” It’s also on the 1981 album, “The Best of Ritchie Valens,” as well as on the “Ritchie Valens Memorial Album,” which was released in 1962.
#3 – Come On, Let’s Go
The single “Come On, Let’s Go,” is the first recorded and released by Ritchie Valens that would hit the music charts. In 1958, on the US Billboard Hot 100, it peaked at number forty-two, while on the US Cash Box at number fifty-one. It even charted with Australia’s Kent Music Report at fifty-three. This song served as more than just a chart-hitting achievement for Valens, as it also was the first time a mainstream music chart would have a Chicano-influenced song make an appearance on it.
#2 – Donna
The highest-charted single directly recorded and released by Ritchie Valens is “Donna,” which peaked on the US Billboard Hot 100 and the US Cash Box charts at number two. It also peaked in fourth place in Australia. The song served as a tribute by Ritchie Valens to his high school sweetheart, Donna Ludwig. This song also appeared on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart at number eleven. Donna was still prominent on the music charts at the timing when Ritchie Valens died in that fateful plane crash that would rob music fans worldwide of a rising star that had only begun to show off his talent.
#1 – La Bamba
“La Bamba” is Ritchie Valens’ most influential recording as it has appeared and reappeared on the music charts on more than one occasion. Upon the song’s original release in 1958, it was on the B side of his record that featured “Donna” on the A-side. Although La Bamba didn’t originally chart as well upon release as Donna did, over the stretch of time it is that one song that instantly connects fans to Valens the moment they hear it or its title. When Lou Diamond Phillips played the role of Ritchie Valens for the 1987 film also titled “La Bamba,” it sparked a revival of this hit classic. Originally on the music charts, it peaked at number twenty-two on the US Billboard Hot 100 and number forty-nine with the US Cash Box.
When the song was listed at number 354 on the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time by Rolling Stones Magazine, La Bamba was the only non-English hit to be included on the list. “La Bamba,” was also inducted into the Latin Grammy Hall of Fame, and in 2019, was registered by the Library of Congress into the National Recording Registry as a preservation piece for its significance in cultural and historical influence. Los Lobos, whose 1987 version of Ritchie’s most recognizable hit, charted worldwide at number one.