On February 3, 1959, rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, together with pilot Roger Peterson. The event later became known as “The Day the Music Died”, after singer-songwriter Don McLean referred to it as such in his song “American Pie” in 1971. The crash was not known by that name until after McLean’s song became a hit. The meaning of the lyrics has long been debated, and for decades, McLean declined to explain the symbolism behind the many characters and events mentioned. However, the overall theme of the song is the loss of innocence of the early rock and roll generation as symbolized by the plane crash which claimed the lives of three of its heroes.
“…But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver.
Bad news on the doorstep;
I couldn’t take one more step.
“I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride,
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died…”
At the time, Holly and his band, consisting of Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup, and Carl Bunch, were playing on the “Winter Dance Party” tour across the United States Midwest. Rising artists Valens and Richardson had joined the tour, as well. The long journeys between venues on board the cold, uncomfortable tour buses adversely affected the performers, with cases of flu and even frostbite. After stopping at Clear Lake to perform, and frustrated by such conditions, Holly chose to charter a plane to reach their next venue in Moorhead, Minnesota. Richardson, who had the flu, swapped places with Jennings, taking his seat on the plane, while Allsup lost his seat to Valens on a coin toss. Soon after takeoff, late at night and in poor, wintry weather conditions, the pilot lost control of the light aircraft, a Beechcraft Bonanza, which subsequently crashed into a cornfield. Everyone on board was killed. The event has since been mentioned in various songs and films. A number of monuments have been erected at the crash site and in Clear Lake, where an annual memorial concert is also held at the Surf Ballroom, the venue that hosted the artists’ last performance.
Buddy Holly terminated his association with the Crickets in November 1958. For the start of the “Winter Dance Party” tour, he assembled a band consisting of Waylon Jennings (bass), Tommy Allsup (guitar), and Carl Bunch (drums), with the opening vocals of Frankie Sardo. The tour was set to cover 24 Midwestern cities in as many days. New hit artist Ritchie Valens, J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Dion DiMucci with his band The Belmonts joined the tour to promote their recordings and make an extra profit.
The tour began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on January 23, 1959. The amount of travel soon became a logistical problem. The distances between venues had not been properly considered when the performances were scheduled; instead of “circling” around the Midwest to each town, the tour zig-zagged with distances between cities over 400 miles. General Artists Corporation, the organization that booked the tour, later received considerable criticism for their seemingly total disregard for the conditions they forced the touring musicians to endure:
“They didn’t care. It was like they threw darts at a map … The tour from hell — that’s what they named it — and it’s not a bad name.”
Buddy Holly historian Bill Griggs
The entire company of musicians traveled together in one bus, although the buses used for the tour were wholly inadequate, breaking down and being replaced with astounding frequency. Griggs estimates that five separate buses were used in the first 11 days of the tour — “reconditioned school buses, not good enough for school kids.” The artists themselves were responsible for loading and unloading equipment at each stop, as no road crew assisted them. Adding to the disarray, the buses were not equipped for the weather which consisted of waist-deep snow in several areas and varying temperatures from the 20s to as low as -36 °F. One bus had a heating system that broke down shortly after the tour began, in Appleton, Wisconsin. Later, Richardson and Valens began experiencing flu-like symptoms and drummer Bunch was hospitalized for severely frostbitten feet, after the tour bus simply broke down in the middle of the highway in subzero temperatures near Ironwood, Michigan. The musicians replaced that bus with another school bus and kept traveling.
After Bunch was hospitalized, Carlo Mastrangelo of The Belmonts took over the drumming duties. When Dion and The Belmonts were performing, the drum seat was taken by either Valens or Holly. As Holly’s group had been the backing band for all of the acts, Holly, Valens, and DiMucci took turns playing drums for each other at the performances in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Clear Lake, Iowa.
On Monday, February 2, the tour arrived in Clear Lake, Iowa, having driven 350 miles from the previous day’s concert in Green Bay. The town had not been a scheduled stop, but the tour promoters, hoping to fill an open date, called the manager of the local Surf Ballroom, Carroll Anderson, and offered him the show. He accepted, and they set the show for that night. By the time Holly arrived at the venue that evening, he was frustrated with the ongoing problems with the bus. The next scheduled destination after Clear Lake was Moorhead, Minnesota, a 365-mile drive north and northwest (and, emphasizing the poor planning, a journey that would take them directly back through two towns they had already played within the last week.) No let up after that was in sight, as the following day, they were scheduled to travel back almost directly south to Sioux City, Iowa, a 325-mile trip.
Holly decided to charter a plane to take his band and him to Fargo, North Dakota, which is adjacent to Moorhead. The rest of the party would have picked him up in Moorhead, saving him the journey in the bus and leaving him time to get some rest.
Surf Ballroom manager Anderson called Hubert Jerry Dwyer, owner of the Dwyer Flying Service, a company in Mason City, Iowa, to charter the plane to fly to Hector Airport in Fargo, the closest one to Moorhead. Flight arrangements were made with Roger Peterson, a 21-year-old local pilot described as a “young married man who built his life around flying”.
The flying service charged a fee of $36 per passenger for the flight on the 1947 single-engined, V-tailed Beechcraft 35 Bonanza (registration N3794N), which could seat three passengers plus the pilot. A popular misconception, originating from Don McLean’s eponymous song about the crash, was that the plane was called American Pie. In fact, no record exists of any name ever having been given to N3794N.
The most widely accepted version of events was that Richardson had contracted flu during the tour and asked Waylon Jennings for his seat on the plane. When Holly learned that Jennings was not going to fly, he said in jest: “Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up.” Jennings responded: “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes”, a humorous but ill-fated response that haunted him for the rest of his life.
Ritchie Valens, who once had a fear of flying, asked Tommy Allsup for his seat on the plane. The two agreed to toss a coin to decide. Bob Hale, a DJ with KRIB-AM, was working the concert that night and flipped the coin in the ballroom’s side-stage room shortly before the musicians departed for the airport. Valens won the coin toss for the seat on the flight.
In contradiction to the testimony of Allsup and Jennings, Dion has since said that Holly approached him along with Valens and The Bopper to join the flight, not Holly’s bandmates. In a 2009 interview called “The Winter Dance Party”, Dion claimed that Holly called him, Valens, and Richardson into a vacant dressing room during Frankie Sardo’s performance and said “I’ve chartered a plane, we’re the guys making the money [we should be the ones flying ahead]…the only problem is there are only two available seats.” According to Dion, it was Valens, not Richardson who had fallen ill, so Valens and Dion flipped a coin for the seat. In his interview, no mention is made of Jennings or Allsup being invited on the plane. Dion claims that he won the toss, but ultimately decided that since the $36 fare (equivalent to US$300 in today’s money) equaled the monthly rent his parents paid for his childhood apartment, he could not justify the indulgence.
After the show ended, Anderson drove Holly, Valens, and Richardson to the Mason City Municipal Airport. The weather at the time of departure was reported as light snow, a ceiling of 3,000 feet (910 m) AMSL with sky obscured, visibility 6 miles (9,700 m), and winds from 20 to 30 mph (32 to 48 km/h). Although deteriorating weather was reported along the planned route, the weather briefings pilot Peterson received failed to relay the information.
The plane took off normally from runway 17 (today’s runway 18) at 12:55 am Central Time on Tuesday, February 3. Dwyer, the owner of the flight service company, witnessed the take-off from a platform outside the control tower. He was able to see clearly the aircraft’s tail light for most of the brief flight, which started with an initial left turn onto a northwesterly heading and a climb to 800 feet. The tail light was then observed gradually descending until it disappeared out of view. Around 1:00 am, when Peterson failed to make the expected radio contact, repeated attempts to establish communication were made, at Dwyer’s request, by the radio operator, but they were all unsuccessful.
Later that morning, Dwyer, having heard no word from Peterson since his departure, took off in another airplane to retrace his planned route. Within minutes, at around 9:35 am, he spotted the wreckage less than 6 mi (9.7 km) northwest of the airport. The sheriff’s office, alerted by Dwyer, dispatched Deputy Bill McGill, who drove to the crash site, a cornfield belonging to Albert Juhl.
The Bonanza had impacted terrain at high speed, estimated to have been around 170 mph (270 km/h), banked steeply to the right and in a nose-down attitude. The right wing tip had struck the ground first, sending the aircraft cartwheeling across the frozen field for 540 feet (160 m), before coming to rest against a wire fence at the edge of Juhl’s property.
The bodies of Holly and Valens had been ejected from the torn fuselage and lay near the wreckage. Richardson’s body had been thrown over the fence and into the cornfield of Juhl’s neighbor Oscar Moffett, while pilot Peterson’s body was entangled in the plane’s wreckage. With the rest of the entourage en route to Minnesota, ballroom manager Carroll Anderson, who had driven the party to the airport and witnessed the plane’s takeoff, had to identify the bodies of the musicians. County coroner Ralph Smiley certified that all four victims died instantly, citing the cause of death as “gross trauma to brain” for the three artists and “brain damage” for the pilot.
Holly’s pregnant wife, María Elena, learned of his death from the reports on television. A widow after only six months of marriage, she suffered a miscarriage shortly after, reportedly due to “psychological trauma”. Holly’s mother, on hearing the news on the radio at home in Lubbock, Texas, screamed and collapsed. María Elena Holly did not attend the funeral and has never visited the gravesite. She later said in an interview: “In a way, I blame myself. I was not feeling well when he left. I was two weeks pregnant, and I wanted Buddy to stay with me, but he had scheduled that tour. It was the only time I wasn’t with him. And I blame myself because I know that, if only I had gone along, Buddy never would have gotten into that airplane.” A policy was later adopted by authorities not to disclose victims’ names until after their families have been informed.
The “Winter Dance Party” tour did not stop; Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup continued performing for two more weeks, with Jennings taking Holly’s place as lead singer. Meanwhile, the funerals of the victims were being held individually; Holly and Richardson were buried in Texas, Valens in California, and pilot Roger Peterson in Iowa. A memorial service for Peterson was held at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Ventura, Iowa, on February 5. A funeral was held the next day at St. Paul Lutheran Church in his hometown of Alta; Peterson was buried in Buena Vista Memorial Cemetery in nearby Storm Lake. Peterson’s parents later received condolence letters from the families of Holly and Valens.
The official investigation was carried out by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB, precursor to the NTSB). It emerged that pilot Roger Peterson had over four years of flying experience, of which one with Dwyer Flying Service, and had accumulated 711 flying hours, of which 128 on Bonanzas. He had also logged 52 hours of instrument flying training, although had passed only his written examination, and was not yet qualified to operate in weather that required flying solely by reference to instruments. He and Dwyer Flying Service itself were certified to operate only under visual flight rules, which essentially require that the pilot must be able to see where he is going. However, on the night of the accident, visual flight would have been virtually impossible due to the low clouds, the lack of a visible horizon, and the absence of ground lights over the sparsely populated area.
Furthermore, Peterson, who had failed an instrument checkride nine months before the accident, had received his instrument training on airplanes equipped with a conventional artificial horizon as source of aircraft attitude information, while N3794N was equipped with an older-type Sperry F3 attitude gyroscope. Crucially, the two types of instruments display the same aircraft pitch attitude information in graphically opposite ways.
The CAB concluded that the accident was due to “the pilot’s unwise decision to embark on a flight” that required instrument flying skills he had not proved to have. A contributing factor was the pilot’s unfamiliarity with the old-style attitude gyroscope fitted on board the aircraft, which may have caused him to believe that he was climbing when he was in fact descending (an example of spatial disorientation). Another contributing factor was the “seriously inadequate” weather briefing provided to the pilot, which “failed to even mention adverse flying condition which should have been highlighted”.
On March 6, 2007, in Beaumont, Texas, Richardson’s body was exhumed for reburial in a more fitting part of the local Forest Lawn cemetery. The musician’s son, Jay Perry, took the opportunity to have his father’s body re-examined to verify the original findings, and asked forensic anthropologist William Bass to carry out the procedure. Among the rumors surrounding the accident that this second examination sought to verify was that an accidental firearm discharge took place on board the aircraft and caused the crash, since two months after the event, a farmer had found at the crash site a .22 (5.6 mm) pistol known to have belonged to Buddy Holly. Another rumor had Richardson surviving the initial impact and crawling out of the aircraft in search for help, prompted by the fact that his body was found farther from the wreckage than the other three. Bass and his team took several X-rays of Richardson’s body and eventually concluded that the musician had indeed died instantly from extensive, nonsurvivable fractures to almost all of his bones; no traces of lead were found from any bullet. Coroner Smiley’s original report was, therefore, confirmed.
In March 2015, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) received a request to reopen the investigation into the accident. The request was made by L. J. Coon, a retired pilot from New England who felt that the conclusion of the 1959 investigation was inaccurate. Coon suspected a possible failure of the right rudder, or a problem with the fuel system, as well as a possible improper weight distribution. Coon also argued that Peterson may have tried to land the plane and that his efforts should be recognized. In April 2015, the NTSB declined the request, citing that the evidence presented by Coon was insufficient to merit the reconsideration of the original findings.
Fans of Holly, Valens, and Richardson have been gathering for annual memorial concerts at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake since 1979. The 50th-anniversary concert took place on February 2, 2009, with Delbert McClinton, Joe Ely, Wanda Jackson, Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys, Chris Montez, Bobby Vee, Graham Nash, Peter and Gordon, Tommy Allsup, and a house band featuring Chuck Leavell, James “Hutch” Hutchinson, Bobby Keys, and Kenny Aronoff. Jay P. Richardson, the son of the Big Bopper, was among the participating artists, and Bob Hale was the master of ceremonies, as he was at the 1959 concert.
In June 1988, a four-foot-tall granite memorial bearing the names of Peterson and the three entertainers was dedicated outside the Surf Ballroom with Peterson’s widow, parents, and sister in attendance; the event marked the first time that the families of Holly, Richardson, Valens, and Peterson had gathered together.
In 1989, Ken Paquette, a Wisconsin fan of the 1950s era, made a stainless-steel monument that depicts a guitar and a set of three records bearing the names of the three performers killed in the accident. The monument is on private farmland, about ¼ mile (0.40 km) west of the intersection of 315th Street and Gull Avenue north of Clear Lake.
Paquette also created a similar stainless-steel monument to the three musicians located outside the Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where Holly, the Big Bopper, and Valens played their second-to-last show on the night of February 1, 1959. This second memorial was unveiled on July 17, 2003. In February 2009, a further memorial made by Paquette for pilot Roger Peterson was unveiled at the crash site.
A large plasma-cut steel set of Wayfarer-style glasses, constructed by Michael Connor of Clear Lake, similar to those Holly wore, sits at the access point to the crash site.
The first song to mention the crash was “Three Stars” written by Tommy Dee in 1959 as a tribute to Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper. It was first recorded by Tommy Dee with Carol Kay and released on April 5, 1959, by Crest Records, selling over one million copies and awarded a gold disc. The lyrics suggested the three “stars” represent the three musicians that died in the crash:
Look up in the sky
Up toward the north
There are three little stars
Brightly shining forth
They’re shining so bright from heaven above
Gee we’re gonna miss you,
Everybody sends their love
On the left stand Ritchie Valens
A young boy just seventeen
Just beginning to realize
And explore his teenage dreams
Why did God call him oh so far away
Maybe to help some boy or girl
Who might have gone astray
With his star shining in the dark
On a lonely night to light the path
And show the way, the way that’s right
Gee we’re gonna miss you,
Everybody sends their love
On the right stands Buddy Holly
With a shy grin upon his face
Funny how you always seem to notice
That one little curl out of place
Not many people really knew Buddy
Or understood how he felt
But just a song from his lips
Would make the coldest hearts melt
Buddy’s singing for God now, His chorus in the sky
Buddy holly we’ll always remember you
With tears in our eyes
Gee we’re gonna miss you,
Everybody sends their love
In the middle stands a stout man
The big Bopper is his name
Now God has called him
Perhaps to new fortune and fame
He wore a big Stetson hat
And sort of rambled up to the mike
How can we ever forget those wonderful words
“You know, well I might”
A year after Eddie Cochran recorded the song, he died in a car accident on his way to an airport. Although recorded in 1959, Cochran’s version was not released until 1966 as a UK single and for the first time in the United States on 1972 compilation album in the Legendary Masters Series. Cochran audibly breaks into sobs in his recording, most notably in the second verse.
“Three Stars” was also covered by Ruby Wright (1959) Bonnie Owens with Tommy Dee (1963, recorded in tribute to Hawkshaw Hawkins, Cowboy Copas and Patsy Cline), Showaddywaddy (1975), and Palma Violets (2013).
Scott #2734 is the booklet version of the Ritchie Valens stamp released as part of the United States Postal Service’s Legends of American Music Series on June 16, 1993, in Cleveland, Ohio, and Santa Monica, California. The stamps celebrated rock & roll and rhythm & blues music with a sheet of thirty-five and a booklet of thirty 29-cent stamps. They featured legendary performers Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Clyde McPhatter, Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, Ritchie Valens, and Dinah Washington. Mark Stutzman designed the Presley, Holly, Haley, and Valens stamps. John Berkey designed the Redding, Washington, and McPhatter stamps. Stamp Venturers, Inc., produced the sheet stamps (perforated 10) while Multicolor Corporation printed the booklets for the American Bank Note Company (perforated 11 vertically). There were 14,285,715 Ritchie Valens sheet stamps (Scott #2727) and 32,947,000 copies of Scott #2734 printed.
Richard Steven Valenzuela was born on May 13, 1941, in Pacoima, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles, California. His parents were Joseph Steven Valenzuela and Concepcion Reyes; he was of Mexican descent and the second of five siblings with older brother Bob Morales, younger sisters Connie and Irma, and younger brother Mario Ramirez.
Ritchie Valenzuela was brought up hearing traditional Mexican mariachi music, as well as flamenco guitar, R&B, and jump blues. Valenzuela expressed an interest in making music of his own by the age of five, and he was encouraged by his father to take up guitar and trumpet, and later taught himself the drums. Though Valenzuela was left handed, he was so eager to learn the guitar that he mastered the traditionally right-handed version of the instrument. By the time Valenzuela was attending junior high school, he brought the guitar to school and would sing and play songs to his friends on the bleachers. When he was 16 years old, he was invited to join a local band, the Silhouettes, as a guitarist, and when the main vocalist left the group, Valenzuela assumed the position. On October 19, 1957, he made his performing debut with the Silhouettes. Valenzuela attended Pacoima Junior High School (now Pacoima Middle School) and was a student at San Fernando High School at the time of his death.
A self-taught musician, Valenzuela was an accomplished singer and guitarist. At his appearances, he often improvised new lyrics and added new riffs to popular songs while he was playing.
Bob Keane, the owner and president of small record label Del-Fi Records in Hollywood, was given a tip in May 1958 by San Fernando High School student Doug Macchia about a young performer from Pacoima by the name of Richard Valenzuela. Kids knew the performer as “the Little Richard of San Fernando”. Swayed by the Little Richard comparison, Keane went to see Valenzuela play a Saturday morning matinée at a movie theater in San Fernando. Impressed by the performance, he invited the youth to audition at his home in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, where he had a small recording studio in his basement. An early stereo recorder (a two-track Ampex 601-2 portable) and a pair of Neumann U-47 condenser microphones comprised his recording equipment.
After this first audition, Keane signed Ritchie to Del-Fi on May 27, 1958. At this point, the musician took the name “Ritchie” because, as Keane said, “There were a bunch of ‘Richards’ around at that time, and I wanted it to be different.” Similarly, Keane recommended shortening his surname to “Valens” from Valenzuela to widen his appeal beyond any obvious ethnic group.
Valens recorded several songs in Keane’s studio that he later professionally re-recorded at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood. The demos primarily consisted of Valens singing and playing guitar, but some of them also featured drums. These originals can be heard on the Del-Fi album, Ritchie Valens – The Lost Tapes. Two of the tracks laid down in Keane’s studio were taken to Gold Star Studios and had additional instruments dubbed over to create full-band recordings. “Donna” was one track (although two other preliminary versions of the song were made, both available on The Lost Tapes), and the other was an instrumental entitled “Ritchie’s Blues”.
After several songwriting and demo recording sessions with Keane in his basement studio, Keane decided that Valens was ready to enter the studio with a full band backing him. The musicians included René Hall, Carol Kaye, and Earl Palmer. The first songs recorded at Gold Star Studios, at a single studio session one afternoon in July 1958, were “Come On, Let’s Go”, an original (credited to Valens/Kuhn, Keane’s real name), and “Framed”, a Leiber and Stoller tune. Pressed and released within days of the recording session, the record was a success. Valens’s next record, a double A-side, the final record to be released in his lifetime, had the song “Donna” (written about a real girlfriend) coupled with “La Bamba”. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA.
By the autumn of 1958, the demands of Valens’ career forced him to drop out of high school. Keane booked appearances at venues across the United States and performances on television programs. Valens had a fear of flying due to a freak accident at his junior high school when, on January 31, 1957, two airplanes collided over the playground, killing or injuring several of his friends. Valens had been at his grandfather’s funeral that day, but was upset about the loss of his friends.
He eventually overcame his fear enough to travel by airplane for his career. He went to Philadelphia to appear on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand television show on October 6, where he sang “Come On, Let’s Go”. In November, Valens flew to Hawaii, where he performed alongside Buddy Holly and Paul Anka. Valens was added to the bill of legendary disc jockey Alan Freed’s Christmas Jubilee in New York City, singing with some of those who had greatly influenced his music, including Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, the Everly Brothers, Duane Eddy, Eddie Cochran, Keith O’Conner Murphy, and Jackie Wilson. On December 27, he returned to Philadelphia and American Bandstand, this time performing “Donna”.
After returning to Los Angeles, Valens filmed an appearance in Alan Freed’s movie Go, Johnny, Go! In the film, he appears in a diner miming his song “Ooh! My Head”, using a Gretsch 6120 guitar, the same model Eddie Cochran owned. Between the live appearances, Valens returned to Gold Star Studios several times, recording the tracks that would comprise his two albums.
In January 1959, Valens joined a multiple-act rock-and-roll tour dubbed “The Winter Dance Party” with were Buddy Holly, Dion and the Belmonts, J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Frankie Sardo. All performers were augmented by Holly’s new backup band, including Tommy Allsup on guitar, Waylon Jennings on bass, and Carl Bunch on drums. The show was split into two acts, with Valens closing the first act. Following the airplane crash in the early morning of February 3, 1959, as with Holly and Richardson, Valens suffered massive and unsurvivable head injuries along with blunt force trauma to the chest. At 17, Valens was the youngest to die in the crash.
The tragedy inspired singer Don McLean to write his 1971 hit “American Pie”, immortalizing February 3 as “The Day the Music Died”. Valens’s remains were buried at San Fernando Mission Cemetery, Mission Hills, California.
Valens’ first album, titled simply Ritchie Valens, was posthumously released by Del-Fi Records in March 1959, one month after his death. It is his only studio album entirely composed of master tracks recorded at Gold Star Studios. The album peaked at #23 on the Billboard album chart. It was followed in October by the release of Ritchie, which includes his remaining unissued masters from Gold Star Studios plus demos he recorded at manager Robert Keane’s home studio. Also featured is Valens’ last charted single, “Little Girl”, which reached #92 on the Billboard charts in July 1959.
On December 10, 1958, Valens, having completed a recent tour of Hawaii, gave a performance at his old Pacoima Junior High School. The show was emceed by Gail Smith, a close friend of his who later became president of the Ritchie Valens Memorial Fan Club in Los Angeles. Valens’ guitar and vocals were only accompanied by drummer Don Phillips. The concert was taped using a small portable tape recorder.
After Valens’ death, numerous Ritchie Valens Fan Clubs were formed all over the nation. By late 1960, with no further records released since the Ritchie album a year before, his manager Robert Keane received letters en masse from fan club members who were hoping there were more of Valens’ songs to be released. Keane responded by obtaining the tape of four songs from the Pacoima Junior High show and pressing it to record. To fill the “live” side of the album, an early demo of “Come On, Let’s Go”, bearing no resemblance to the released “hit” version, was added with live audience dubbed in. As Valens’ entire Gold Star Studios master output had been released on his first two albums, side two was filled with unfinished demos recorded at Keane’s home studio. Keane provided narrative descriptions of each track. The result was Ritchie Valens in Concert at Pacoima Jr. High released by Del-Fi Records in December 1960.
Ritchie Valens was a pioneer of Chicano rock and Latin rock and inspired many musicians of Mexican heritage. He influenced the likes of Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys, and Carlos Santana, as he had become nationally successful at a time when very few Latinos were in American rock and pop music. He is considered the first Latino to successfully cross over into mainstream rock.
“La Bamba” proved to be his most influential recording, not only by becoming a pop chart hit sung entirely in Spanish, but also because of its successful blending of traditional Latin American music with rock. Valens was the first to capitalize on this formula, which was later adopted by such varied artists as Selena, Caifanes, Café Tacuba, Circo, El Gran Silencio, Aterciopelados, Gustavo Santaolalla, and many others in the Latin alternative scene. Ironically, the Valenzuela family spoke only English at home, and he knew very little Spanish. Valens learned the lyrics phonetically to record “La Bamba” in Spanish.
“Come On, Let’s Go” has been covered by Los Lobos, the Ramones and the Pale Brothers (the Ramones on guitar, bass and drums and the Paley Brothers on vocals), Tommy Steele, the Huntingtons, Girl in a Coma, and the McCoys. In Australia, Johnny Rebb and his Rebels on Leedon/Canetoad Records covered the song. “Donna” has been covered by artists as diverse as MxPx, Cliff Richard, the Youngbloods, Clem Snide, Cappadonna, and Misfits.
Robert Quine has cited Valens’s guitar playing as an early influence on his style. Valens also inspired Jimi Hendrix, Chan Romero, Carlos Santana, Chris Montez, and Keith O’Conner Murphy, among others.
Valens’ nephew, Ernie Valens, has toured worldwide playing his uncle’s songs, including a new version of the “Winter Dance Party” tour with Buddy Holly impersonator John Mueller. This tour has taken place at many of the original 1959 venues in the Midwest and is managed by C3 Entertainment, a company that specializes in retro brands.
In 1985, artist Manuel Velasquez (assisted by 25 students) created a 12 foot by 20 foot mural which was painted on the side of a classroom building at the former Pacoima Junior High (now Pacoima Middle School) depicting Ritchie Valens’ image, records labeled with some of his greatest hits, as well as the newspaper article about the plane crash that took his life. A park in Pacoima was renamed in Ritchie Valens’ honor in the 1990s. Originally named Paxton Park, a city council member representing Pacoima, proposed the renaming to honor Valens so residents will “remember his humble background and emulate his accomplishments.”
In 1979, musician Tommy Allsup started a club, “Tommy’s Heads Up Saloon”, in Dallas. The club was named for the fateful coin toss between Valens and him twenty years prior.
“Boogie with Stu” from Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti album was inspired by Valens’ song “Ooh, My Head”. It did not credit Valens or Bob Keane, instead crediting Valens’ mother. Eventually, a lawsuit was filed by Keane, and half of the reward went to Valens’ mother, although she was not part of the suit.
A section of the 5 Freeway in the northeast San Fernando Valley will be named after Valens. The Ritchie Valens Memorial Highway will be located between the 170 and 118 freeways.