Rock Stars Die in Plane Crash, February 3, 1959
February 3, 2009 | 12:00 am
Ritchie Valens' Roots
Los Angeles Times, July 19, 1987
WATSONVILLE, Calif. -- "I still remember the first time we heard Ritchie sing on the radio," the mother of the late Latino rock 'n' roller Ritchie Valens recalled about that distant day, almost 30 years ago.
"I told his brother Bob, come on, let's go to Saugus. I had some business there. I had a 1950 Olds then. The body wasn't too good, but I paid $50 for each tire and I bought five. I pulled over to the side of the road when 'Come On, Let's Go' came on the radio. We just sat there looking at each other amazed."
In those days, before son Ritchie became a star, the family lived in the San Fernando Valley. Mrs. Consuelo (Connie) Valenzuela would often take her kids to the Spanish-language movies, especially to the Million Dollar Theater in downtown Los Angeles where they would see master comic Cantinflas and Mexican charro/singer Tito Guizar. "I always thought you had really arrived when a film made it to that theater," she remembered.
Connie Valenzuela said she plans to return soon to the Million Dollar Theater with her now grown daughters. But this time they'll be seeing the Spanish-language version of "La Bamba," the new movie about her son's all-too-brief singing career and her family.
Buddy Holly, left, Jerry Lee Lewis and Joe Mauldin in 1958
The Valens family now lives in the Central California farming community of Watsonville (south of San Jose). Over the July 4 weekend, "La Bamba" had a "hometown" preview for Valens' family and neighbors at the Fox Theater here, a typical Art Deco-styled movie house from the '30s that usually plays Spanish-language films today. The preview was given by Columbia Pictures to herald the nationwide opening of the film in English and Spanish this week.
The Valens family's on-screen counterparts were also at the screening: Lou Diamond Phillips, who plays Ritchie; Rosana De Soto, who is seen as Connie Valenzuela, and Esai Morales, who portrays the jealous half-brother, Bob Morales--the role that is pivotal in the film. But away from the excitement of the screening, Connie Valenzuela, 72, sat in one of her daughters' homes, surrounded by her several children and grandchildren. The two-story tract home has a wall devoted to photographs of Ritchie. One hand-tinted studio portrait shows a grinning teen-age Valens in a sport coat and bow tie, another of him standing next to a black-and-chromed '57 Thunderbird.
She was reflective, if a little dim, about memories of her son, who died Feb. 3, 1959 in a plane crash during a snowstorm in Iowa. That crash also killed two Texas rockers, Buddy Holly and J. P. (The Big Bopper) Richardson.
Connie Valenzuela said many of Ritchie's early songs came from things around his barrio when the family lived in the San Fernando Valley community of Pacoima. " 'That's My Little Suzie' was about a crippled neighbor girl. 'She rocks to the left, and rocks to the right' described her." Another, "Hurry Up," came from an expression that Valenzuela said she used to get her kids to do chores. (Her memory falters here, since the song wasn't actually written by Valens but appeared on his first album.) However, "Come On, Let's Go" did indeed come from an expression used by both Ritchie and his mom whenever they went somewhere.
Valens with Bob Keane. Notice Valens' Gibson f-hole guitar.
"Later, when he started going out to play at different places, I would worry. After all, this 16-year-old kid was often out until midnight. So I'd call up one of the deejays, because at that time they would sponsor dances. Once, I called Art Laboe and told him it was time to get the guys home. Laboe never listened to me. But whenever I'd call up and ask to speak to Jerry Wallace (of "Primrose Lane" fame), he'd see that Ritchie would be back before I knew it." As she remembered, Connie Valenzuela, seated by the kitchen table, smiled.
Her children listened to her recollections, some for the first time. One of Valens' favorite songs, Mrs. Valenzuela said, was a child's lullaby he called "The Paddi Wack Song," which he sang accompanied by his guitar to his young sisters in the family's backyard.
In the summer of 1986, New Visions (Taylor Hackford's film production company) began filming the story of Ritchie's life, as written by Luis Valdez. Ritchie's grown up and married sisters Connie Jr. and Irma had small parts as farm workers in the opening sequence. Their own daughters, Gloria and Kristin, played their mothers (Ritchie's sisters) as young girls. (Mrs. Valenzuela and Ritchie's brother Bob also have small roles in the film.) Having seen the film several times now, both sisters have mixed emotions about the movie.
"I was too young to really know my brother," Connie Jr., 36, admitted. "He died when I was barely 7. I never knew all the problems poor Bob went through or all my mother had to put up with him at the time. After the film was over I just wanted to hold on to both of them. It's brought us all so much closer."
Irma, 35, nodded in approval of her sister's evaluation. "I wanted to see more about my brother Ritchie's career. I guess we didn't realize that it was going to be about both Bob and Ritchie. I remember calling New Visions one day and asking if the film was still about Ritchie. And they said, 'Well, more or less, but it's a story about two brothers now.'
The graves of Concepcion and Richard "Ritchie Valens" Valenzuela, San Fernando Mission, 1992.
"I guess I was disappointed in some ways by that focus, but if it brings my brother's music to the world, then I'm for it." Irma pointed to her young son Eddie, whose light skin and hazel eyes reflect what his uncle Ritchie must have looked like at 12. "He's my own little Ritchie," Connie Jr., his aunt chortled, as she hugged the embarrassed youngster.
Morales, 50, who has lived in Watsonville since the early '70s, once wanted to be a fireman and, later on, an illustrator. He saved many animated gels from Walt Disney's Buena Vista's studios when he worked briefly as a garbage collector, he said. (The film, however, shows him finding Woody Woodpecker and Buzz Buzzard gels at Columbia Pictures--"La Bamba's" distributor.)
After many family difficulties and some trouble with the law, he finally matured and settled down. He worked as a counselor in a drug/alcohol abuse program in the '70s and today is married with eight children and is self-employed as an upholsterer-mechanic.
"I rejoined the family in 1952 because Ritchie was real upset over my (step) Dad's death." It was Bob's turn to recall his half-brother's memory. Dressed in black leather pants with a colorful jacket and Indian jewelry, he was undeniably an older version of the rebel and womanizer portrayed in the film.
Morales reluctantly admitted, as his younger sisters teased him, that his mom beat him up one night when he arrived home in a drunken state. However, in the film this incident is colored by Valdez who allows Morales to escape his mother's wrath with his machismo intact.
Another real-life incident handled differently in the film is when Morales takes Valens to a Tijuana brothel where Ritchie pays little attention to the ladies, but is fascinated by the musicians performing the traditional Mexican folk song, "La Bamba." Valens was later to electrify and immortalize "La Bamba" in 1959 as the first Spanish-language song to make it onto the top 10 pop charts. The song peaked on the charts a few weeks after his death.
"I never took Ritchie to that brothel. We had gone to Tijuana several times on a family trip with all the kids. We still have pictures in an album of the kids posed with a typical donkey. I, of course, was the one that had wound up in the red-light district on several occasions," he smiled mischievously.
(Actually, Valens' inspiration for the creation of "La Bamba" as a Latin rock song took place during his childhood when he would listen to it at family gatherings where Mexican music was played, according to his sister Connie. She said his mentor and "uncle" Dickie Cota taught the boy how to strum a guitar and how to sing it in Spanish. Connie Valenzuela said: "Ritchie never spoke in Spanish because his dad never did. I of course still speak it, but when I was around his father I never would.")
Ritchie Valens' mother shook her head. The conversation seemed to have put her in a jovial mood.
Asked why her personalized license plates on her late model Cadillac bear the words "Hi-Tone," Mrs. Valenzuela confessed it came from one of Ritchie's songs by the same name. "You know in the movie, some of the kids call him 'Hi Tone,' but that wasn't actually his nickname. It was sort of a slang expression for something or someone that was fancy or stuck-up. Latin people would say, ' Eso es hi-tone' (that's real fancy). And since Ritchie would dress up real sharp, they'd refer to him as 'hi tone' when he did."
Not all of the Valenzuela family's memories are quite as pleasant. One incident involved the house that Ritchie bought his mother months before his death. The house was heavily damaged by fire in 1967 and Ritchie's gold record for "Donna" and one of his guitars were destroyed, along with other mementos.
Dealing with Ritchie's former manager and promoter Bob Keane (who spelled his last name "Keene" until 1970) hasn't been so simpatico, either.
The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, is hosting 50 Winters Later, a tribute concert Feb. 2, 2009. The concert is sold out. However there is a guest book with readers' comments. There is also a video.
"You know Bob Keane has controlled Ritchie's music for all these years. Oh, I get a bit of money now and then. BMI sends me a statement. But do you know that Keane presented me with a bill of $4,000 for Ritchie's funeral? And that '57 black and silver-chromed Thunderbird (it's blue in the movie) that Keane gave Ritchie? Well, he kept it in his garage after I lost Ritchie. We went over to his house one day to get it away from him"--Connie Valenzuela's voice was stern as she continued--"but he kept insisting it was his."
Keane, an L.A. big band leader and record producer, has just released a 12-inch Latin dance cut--"La Bamba '87"--using an alternate take of Valens' vocal track recorded during the original 1958 session). He said Valenzuela's charges are "ridiculous."
"She was in worse financial condition than I was," he said in a Sunset Boulevard Mexican food eatery. "I put up over $7,000 so they'd ship the kid's body back and put him in a decent coffin. I still have the check somewhere."
As far as the Thunderbird, Keane said: "I may have told Ritchie at one time that if he kept doing as well as he was, I might get him a car. But I never really promised him one."
Unprepared for the sudden fame that Ritchie's music generated, Connie Valenzuela was also completely unaware of the world of contracts and music rights. When Keane's partner, the late Herb Montie, contacted her about a managing contract for her son, Ritchie was already playing clubs and being recorded by Keane. "One day Herb called me and said to sign a contract just in case anything might happen to Ritchie; otherwise, I wouldn't get anything. So I did. I got an insurance policy on his life." (Later, she collected double indemnity on that policy.)
When Valens died, his first album hadn't even been released yet (though the film shows Keane giving them out at record hops). "It took them eight days to send Ritchie's body back from Iowa. They didn't send him to me by plane. Instead, they sent him on a train to San Fernando. When they (Keane and associates) came in to the mortuary, they brought copies of the album. It had been released in those eight days since his death. I originally wasn't going to play the album because it was too painful. But I finally put on a brave front and said to myself, 'I'm going to play them before I bury him,' and I did."
The years after Valens' death were lean ones. "We didn't want the memories brought back. Everyone wanted a contract for Ritchie's music. 'Mrs. Valenzuela, would you sign this contract on your living room table and send it back to us.' That's what one promoter wrote me."
She then tried to manage an Asian-Mexican singer, Chan Romera, who gained some regional recognition in California with his version of "Hippy Hippy Shake." After attending a Ritchie Valens memorial dance here, she decided to move from Pacoima, which harbored many unhappy memories.
In the '70s, the Valenzuela families were approached by Walter Ulloa, who was preparing a screenplay of Ritchie's life. The family gave him two years to come up with something. "He never was able to sell it. In fact, when Donna Ludwig (Ritchie's teen-age girlfriend whom he immortalized in the song "Donna") read the script, Ulloa had to change it because he had portrayed Donna's parents as bigots." Actually, Connie Valenzuela explained, Donna's mom liked Ritchie, it was her father who didn't. "I ultimately told him to forget about it," she said.
When Danny Valdez (Luis' brother and associate producer of the film "La Bamba") finally connected with the Valenzuelas, they weren't interested in another film project. Valdez lives 15 miles away in San Juan Bautista (home for El Teatro Campesino, of which he and Luis are founding members). Ultimately, the Valenzuelas gave him five years to get the project together. It was completed two years ahead of the deadline.
"He (Danny) plays my brother in the film," says Mrs. Valenzuela. "But they got it wrong. My brother was blond. Danny is dark. Oh well, that's Hollywood, I guess," she added, shifting her attention from the film "Jaws," which her grandchildren were watching in the living room. "I was a little nervous the first time I saw the film. I've gotten used to it now. I tire easily from a recent operation I had. But everything seems to be coming up real nice now."
Connie Jr., a customer service rep for a local insurance company and the mother of two, summed up how she will always remember her brother Ritchie. "He was never too busy for us. Bob was out there with women and booze; Mom worked a lot, and my dad had left us. But we had Ritchie. He was like my mom, dad or best friend. He was always there for Irma and I. That's all we had. It was him."