SONG: La Bamba
ARTIST: Ritchie Valens
Listen to it here:
“La Bamba” is a Mexican folk song that is originally from the state of Veracruz. The oldest known recorded version is by Alvaro Hernande Ortiz, who recorded the song with the title “El Jarocho” in 1938 or 1939: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zRIHqlycss
The song has a dance associated with it and was originally a wedding dance. It was also recorded by multiple Mexican artists throughout the 1940s, and was even used as a presidential campaign song.
Ritchie Valens had learned the song in his youth from his cousin, Dickie Cota. Valens was proud of his Mexican heritage and wanted to record a song that was a nod to his background. He recorded a rock and roll version entitled “La Bamba” in 1958, and it became the first major hit rendition of this song.
Richard Steven Valenzuela was born in 1941 into a family of Mexican heritage living in Los Angeles. He had two younger sisters and two older brothers and his parents had emigrated from Mexico. Valenzuela grew up listening to traditional mariachi music and flamenco guitar, alongside R&B and jump blues. At age 5 he was encouraged by his father to take up the guitar and the trumpet, and later he also taught himself drums. By junior high, Valenzuela would bring his guitar to school and sing and play songs to his friends every day.
When he was 16, Valenzuela joined a local band, The Silhouettes (not the “Get a Job” Silhouettes, another band of the same name) and made his performing debut as their guitarist and lead singer in 1957. Bob Keane, the owner and president of the small record label Del-Fi Records, saw “Little Richard of San Fernando” at a matinee show and invited him to audition for him. Valenzuela signed with Del-Fi in 1958 and changed his name to Ritchie Valens for simplicity and to take away any comparisons with Little Richard.
On his first recording session, Valens recorded two records, the second of which contained La Bamba as a B-side. This album was pressed and released quickly and became an instant hit. The record went gold, and Valens had to drop out of high school to accommodate his busy performing schedule.
Unfortunately, this is where the story of Ritchie Valens ends. After a performance on February 2, 1959 in Clear Lake, Iowa, Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Valens boarded a small plane headed to Fargo, North Dakota. Minutes after take-off, the plane crashed, killing all of the passengers and the pilot on impact. At just 17 years old, Valens was the youngest to die in the crash.
La Bamba was listed at number 354 in the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time by Rolling Stone magazine, making it the only non-English language song included on this list.
Ritchie Valens was 15 years old when his father died. He missed school on the day of the 1957 Pacoina mid-air collision because he was attending his father’s funeral. From that time on he had recurring nightmares of the disaster, which led to a fear of flying.
I have such vivid memories tied to this song, this is another one that’s hard to be objective about. My dad had this song on a mixed tape in his old truck, and I remember one time (I must have been about 6 or 7 years old) making him replay this song over and over again. I thought it was universally considered the best song in the world because I thought it was the best song in the world. He was also tied into the Buddy Holly tragedy that I was obsessed with at the time. Anyway, the song. I feel like it has such life, joie de vivre in the guitar and in Richie’s delivery. Also, Richie sounds young, but not like a teenager. His voice isn’t amazing, but works perfectly for the song. When I went in to listen again to try and hear the instrumentation it went like this: “Ok guitar, that’s electric guitar…here comes the voc-CLAVES. WE HAVE CLAVES. TICK TICK TICKTICKTICK.” I would like to speak to the studio engineer who mic’d this. I read there’s also acoustic guitar here, but I had to strain my ear to hear him ching ching ching in the background. Anyway, I love this song. I can’t help it.
There’s a lot to dislike on this song, from the simplistic form, the super weird sounding bass/guitar thing going on, the overbearing presences of the clavess or whatever they are. Despite all this, it’s just such a fun song. Ritchie Valens sounds much older than his 16 years, and his voice is really pleasing. You can tell he enjoys singing this song, and he just delights in rolling his Rs. I don’t think they took many takes of this song in the studio. It sounds like Valens almost misses his entrance right at the beginning, and the ending is more than abrupt. Maybe this song isn’t particularly inspiring, but it’s definitely a lot of fun. Imagine what Valen’s voice would have sounded like at 30.
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
Los Lobos and The Gypsy Kings combine for this cover:
And Harry Belafonte at Carnegie Hall:
Listen with us!
Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist:
Link to the Best of the Best 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist:
One thought on “Song 93 – La Bamba”
Another great example of “What if…?” I can only imagine the music we’d have from him and many others who passed away before their time.