Ritchie Valens' "Donna"

RITCHIE VALENS  “Donna”  b/w  “La Bamba” (Lost-Nite Records #201, early-’80’s reissue;  Original release: Del-Fi Records #4110, 1958)

You could Google “Valens” or “La Bamba” or even “famous plane crashes” and learn all you’d ever need to know about the late great Ritchie Valens, but you’d still only be skimming the surface.   The young Pacoima, CA wunderkind, tragically killed at 17 in the same historic crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson 50 years ago this past February, left such an indelible stamp on rock music that it’s now literally impossible to fathom a world without him.

Winter Dance Party

Though Valens left behind only about an album & 1/2-worth of recorded material, those recordings are so genuine and heartfelt that they still explode from the turntable with an incendiary fury, making evident why Valens remains a major touchstone to everyone from the obvious (Santana, Los Lobos) to the not-so (Led Zeppelin, Richard Hell & The Voidoids).  His biggest hit, captured here on a somewhat questionable oldies-bin reissue, was this 1958 ballad dedicated to the gal that stole his heart, “Donna.”

Play \”Donna\” by Ritchie Valens

Lost-love laments in the style of The Platters or The Moonglows were common by 1958, but it’s Ritchie’s fresh-faced honesty that really sells the song here.  And sell it did, spending 18 weeks in the Top 40, peaking at #2 in December and riding on through into early ’59, when DJs flipped the record and discovered its blistering B-side.

C'mon Let's Go!

Valens took “La Bamba,” a 300-year-old Mexican folk song, turbocharged it with an electrifying rock ‘n’ roll backbeat and face-melting guitar solos, and created the world’s first Spanish-language rock smash.  And then, like a blazing comet zipping through the evening sky, he was gone.

Play \”La Bamba\” by Ritchie Valens

Though only a B-side, “La Bamba” spent 8 weeks in the Top 40, reaching #22.  Los Lobos recorded the song (along with several other faithful Valens covers for the hit biopic of the same name) and sent it to #1 in the Summer of ’87.  But you know that.

To those of you reading this who have children, please do them a big favor:  go to eBay (or better yet a garage sale or flea market) and buy them an old monaural 45 RPM record player and a stack of old rock singles.  Turn off the fucking video games for once in their lifetime.  Let them sit cross-legged on the floor listening to Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Ritchie Valens, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and all the other great architects of rock.  Let them thrill to the tight & smooth harmonies of The Drifters or chuckle at the aural slapstick of The Coasters.  Let them jump up & down like total maniacs to Cousin Jerry Lee’s pounding “Pi-Anna” and Uncle Ritchie’s “Flying Guitar.”   Jump up & down with them until the records skip and you all fall down on the floor together laughing hysterically.  Let your kids feel early in their lives the real, pure, true, uplifting power of rock.  They will love you forever.

NEXT WEEK: Turn around & bend over!