‘La Bamba’ is a traditional Mexican folk song, from the state of Veracruz. Ritchie Valens, a 17 year old rising star, converted the tune to rock and roll. It’s one of the best known Spanish language tunes in the rock and roll vernacular, but Valens’ version started its life as a b-side.
It was originally issued in 1958 as the b-side to ‘Donna’, a song that Valens wrote as a tribute to his girlfriend Donna Ludwig. Valens was born Richard Valenzuela, but didn’t speak Spanish at his San Fernando home; he had to learn the words phonetically. The words translate as “To dance La Bamba you need to have a little grace”. Valens’ version was recorded with prominent L.A. studio musicians, including Carol Kaye (playing acoustic guitar for this session) and drummer Earl Palmer.
Valens’ early career was stifled by a fear of flying. He was off school for his grandfather’s funeral in early 1957, when there was an accident over his junior school school. Two planes collided above the school playground and the debris killed three students and injured another 75.
Valens was touring the Midwest in early 1959, on “The Winter Dance Party” tour with Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Dion and the Belmonts, and Frankie Sardo. The winter conditions were tough; drummer Carl Bunch was hospitalised with frostbitten feet, and Valens took over on drums for some of the show.
After a performance in Clear Lake, Iowa, on 2 February 1959, Valens, Holly, and the Big Bopper flew out in a chartered plane. The plane crashed a few minutes after takeoff, killing all the passengers. This event was later commemorated by Don McLean as “the day the music died”. Valens was only 17 when he passed away.
After Valens’ death, ‘La Bamba’ was released on the a-side of a single and included on the posthumous album Ritchie Valens. It’s clearly his legacy song from his brief career as a successful musician – the 1987 biopic about Valens life was named La Bamba. In the movie Lou Diamond Phillips played Valens and Marshall Crenshaw played Buddy Holly. The film also featured a remake of ‘La Bamba’ by Tex-Mex legends Los Lobos – their spirited version was the first all-Spanish language #1 hit in America.