Richie Valens died aged seventeen on 3rd February 1959 in a plane crash. Following a performance in Clear Lake, Iowa, which ended around midnight, Buddy Holly, Richie Richie Valens and The Big Bobber flew out of the Mason City airport in a small plane that Buddy Holly had chartered. Just after 1:00 am the three-passenger Beechcraft Bonanza departed for Fargo, North Dakota, and crashed a few minutes after take-off for reasons remaining unknown. The crash killed all three passengers and pilot Roger Peterson instantly upon impact.
Richie Valens's remains were buried at San Fernando Mission Cemetery, Mission Hills, California, U.S.A.
Richie Valens was born Richard Steven Valenzuela in Pacoima, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles. His parents, Joseph and Concepcion, were from Mexico. He was the second of five siblings with older brother Bob Morales, younger sisters Connie and Irma, and younger brother Mario Ramirez. Ritchie was brought up hearing traditional Mexican mariachi music, as well as flamenco guitar, R&B, and jump blues. Richie 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 Richie 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 Richie was attending junior high school, he brought the guitar to school and would sing and play songs to his friends. When he was sixteen years old, he was invited to join a local band, the Silhouettes as a guitarist, and when the main vocalist left the group, he assumed the position. During October, 1957, he made his performing debut with the Silhouettes. Richie attended Pacoima Junior High School and San Fernando High School.
Richie 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 nineteen fifty-eight 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 Richie 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. His recording equipment comprised an early stereo recorder and a pair of Neumann U-47 condenser microphones.
Richie Valens demonstrated several songs in Keane's studio that he later recorded at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood. The demos primarily consisted of his singing and playing guitar, but some of them also featured drums. These originals can be heard on the Del-Fi album, Ritchie Richie 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 demonstration recording sessions with Keane in his basement studio, Keane decided that Richie 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 nineteen fifty-eight, were "Come On, Let's Go", an original credited to Richie Valens/Kuhn, and "Framed", a Leiber and Stoller tune. Pressed and released within days of the recording session, the record was a success. Richie Valens's next record, a double A-side, the final record to be released in his lifetime, had the song "Donna" (written about an actual girlfriend) coupled with "La Bamba". It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA.
By the autumn of nineteen fifty-eight, the demands of Richie Valens' career forced him to drop out of high school. Keane booked appearances at venues across the United States and performances on television programs. Richie Valens had a fear of flying due to a freak accident at his junior high school when, in January 1957, two airplanes collided over the playground, killing or injuring several of his friends. Richie Valens had been at his grandfather Frank Reyes' 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 where he sang "Come On, Let's Go". In November nineteen fifty-eight, Richie Valens flew to Hawaii, where he performed alongside Buddy Holly and Paul Anka. Richie 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 27th 1958, he returned to Philadelphia and American Bandstand, this time performing "Donna".
After returning to Los Angeles, Richie 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, Richie returned to Gold Star Studios several times, recording the tracks that would comprise his two albums.
In early 1959, Richie Valens was traveling the Midwest on a multiple-act rock-and-roll tour dubbed "The Winter Dance Party". Accompanying him 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.
Conditions for the performers on the tour buses were abysmal and bitterly cold. Midwest weather took its toll on the party. Carl Bunch had to be hospitalized with severely frostbitten feet, and several others, including Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, caught the flu. The show was split into two acts, with Richie Valens closing the first act. 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 Richie Valens or Buddy Holly. A surviving color photograph shows Richie Valens at the drum kit. Black and white photos found in 2014 taken by Mary Gerber in 1959, which are on display at the Surf Ballroom show Buddy Holly playing drums for Dion when Dion's regular drummer had frostbitten feet.