It’s been nearly 60 years since a plane crash extinguished the life of Richard Steven Valenzuela — Ritchie Valens — but the rock & roll sounds of “La Bamba,” “Come On, Let’s Go” or the love ballad “Donna” have him among the pantheon of music legends.
His younger sister, Connie Valens, says even more important is that Valens, a Pacoima native, remains a part of the community where he grew up.
“He left a legacy that, if you’re young and have your dreams and are willing to sacrifice, you can make them come true,” she said over the phone from Iowa, where she moved some years ago. “And family comes first.”
Valens’ family — sisters Connie and Irma Norton, and brothers Bob Morales and Mario Ramirez — will share some of that legacy with the San Fernando Valley community Friday and Saturday, May 12 and 13, as they celebrate “Come On Let’s Go Rock ’n’ Roll Day” to commemorate Valens’ 76th birthday with a series of events.
Last year the Los Angeles City Council proclaimed a day of honor for the iconic Latino rock star and his family, who keep his memory alive through their nonprofit Ritchie Valens Foundation.
They want to annually honor the anniversary of his birth. This year they are doing it through a series of events that will culminate on Saturday with a “sock hop” dance at San Fernando High School, Valen’s alma mater. The money raised would benefit the school’s ASB Music Program.
Success At A Young Age
Ritchie Valens was born on May 13, 1941 and learned to play guitar after getting a few lessons from his uncle and cousins, Connie remembered.
“He heard songs and taught himself to play. He joined the (school) band, somebody saw him and offered him a record deal,” she said.
His career lasted barely eight months but he had several hits, most notably “La Bamba,” an old Mexican folk tune that he turned into a rock & roll classic.
Connie, who was in elementary school at the time, remembers those days fondly.
“We heard his songs on the radio. He would come home excited from the concerts with sacks of pictures, publicity pictures he had to sign,” she said. “My sister and I would sell them at school for a nickel each. We were pretty popular.”
On Feb. 3, 1959 — what many dubbed “The Day the Music Died” — Valens was killed in a plane crash in Iowa. The accident also claimed the lives of fellow musicians Buddy Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.
The 1987 biographical movie about Valens, titled “La Bamba,” renewed interest in the musician, who was later inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
A Father Figure
While new generations may only know about Valens through his music and the movie, Connie remembers him as the older brother who took care of them.
“He was a father figure,” she said.” Mom was a single mother. The summer before he went on tours, mama went to work and Ritchie was there to take care of us. He made sure we ate, made sure we didn’t get into trouble.”
He was also trying to get his family out of poverty, a message Connie hopes to convey to San Fernando High School students during two special assemblies on Friday, which will feature the Alley Cats, a nationally touring a cappella Doo-Wop group.
“I want to tell them that they can pave their own way. They don’t have to sit around and have someone pave it for them,” Connie said.
“Kids nowadays get lazy. We want them to see that with a little hard work and determination and enthusiasm — tienen que tener ganas. They have to have a will, a desire to step forward.”
“Ritchie had a purpose, to free his family from a life of poverty. Nobody has to live in poverty. You can be poor, but not live in poverty — but you have to want to do it. I want to give them a little nudge in that direction,” she added.
Connie believes it’s an easy message for the San Fernando High School students to grasp, some of whom may share some of the same circumstances that her family endured.
“First of all, Ritchie is a local kid. He was somebody who grew up in the same circumstances that they’re growing up, with a single parent family,” Connie said.
“He could have been their peer. He was taking classes in the same classrooms, he lived there in San Fernando. I hope that’s something motivational, that they can see a little bit of themselves in Ritchie — being Hispanic, coming from broken homes.
“There’s a way out. You need to find what is inside of you and shape it into something for your future. I want it to be personal for them. They, too, can live their dream.”
Apart from the school assemblies, there are other events to acknowledge the second annual Ritchie Valens Day in Los Angeles on Friday. Connie, her brothers and sister will appear at a “meet and greet” to debut “Ritchie Valens Soy Capitan” Cola at the Rocket Fizz Candy and Soda Pop Shop, located at 3524 W. Magnolia Blvd. in Burbank, at 6:30 p.m.
On Saturday evening they return to San Fernando High School for the family-friendly sock hop in the school’s gym.
Everyone is encouraged to wear 1950s attire. The music will be courtesy of John Mueller of Winter Dance Party and Ritchie’s brother Mario Ramirez, whose group The Backyard Blues Band will play Valens’ hits.
Sal Rodriquez, a drummer of the rock group War, will be the guest emcee.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” says Connie, herself a San Fernando High graduate.
She said that when they were thinking of a way to honor her brother, they immediately thought of the school.
“What better venue than San Fernando High School? We wanted to involve the entire community and give a little bit back too,” she said.
San Fernando High students will be admitted to the dance free with school ID. Tickets for the sock hop are only available the day of the event, cash only at the door. Adults are $15, while couples pay $25. Kids under 18 are free with parent. For more information, visit www.RitchieValens.com.