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Ritchie Valens

Valens will forever be known primarily as one of the two rock stars (along with the Big Bopper) who perished with Buddy Holly when their private plane crashed in the midst of a Midwest tour in 1959. At the time, Valens had just established himself as one of the most promising young talents in rock & roll, just missing the top of the charts with his ballad "Donna," and recording a pioneering blend of rock and Latin music with its almost equally popular flipside, "La Bamba." More than almost any other rock star who died prematurely, it's difficult to assess his unrealized potential; he was only 17 at the time of his death, and had just barely begun to make records. The first Hispanic rock star, Valens grew up in Los Angeles suburbs, and was playing guitar by the time he was in junior high school. Inspired by Little Richard and rockabilly performers, he was discovered by producer Bob Keane in 1958. Keane signed the guitarist to his Del-Fi label, and they soon had a sizable hit with the brash "Come on Let's Go," which made number 42. It was the pensive, almost awkward "Donna" that got him to number two in early 1959. More innovative was the flipside, "La Bamba," sung entirely in Spanish, and featuring some fierce guitar work, as well as the thick sound of the Danelectro bass, which gave the instrument more electric presence than it had ever previously enjoyed on a rock & roll disc. Valens only had about two albums worth of material in the can, as well as some lo-fi live tapes of a gig at a local junior high, before his death; undoubtedly some or many of these were demos or unfinished tracks. A few other singers emulated Valens' Mexican-American brand of rock in the following years, most notably Chan Romero (originator of "Hippy Hippy Shake," who also recorded for Del-Fi and used some of the same musicians that had backed Valens) and Chris Montez. In the 1980s and 1990s, L.A. Latino rock band Los Lobos were often cited for reflecting Valens' influence. The 1987 film La Bamba (whose soundtrack featured Los Lobos) gave his story the Hollywood treatment, exposing his legacy to millions even as it introduced the usual distortions and factual errors in its dramatization of his brief life. Richie Unterberger

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