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Rock pioneer Ritchie Valens remembered 50 years later

Famous singer's parents once worked at a Saugus munitions plant

Posted: February 7, 2009 11:14 p.m.
Updated: February 8, 2009 4:55 a.m.

The grave of Ritchie Valens is piled high with flowers.

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He was only 17 when his life was snuffed out in a small plane crash 2,500 miles from his family and friends. That in and of itself, is a tragic enough ending for a young life, but this was no ordinary kid.

During his brief lifetime he had already recorded three hit records and was well on his way to becoming the first Latino rock 'n' roll star.

Yes, Richard Valenzuela, known to the music world as Ritchie Valens, was going places.

When Valens died while on tour 50 years ago Tuesday alongside rock 'n' roll legend Buddy Holly and "Chantilly Lace" singer J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, much of the Cold War-era adult world failed to take notice. The story was reported on page 66 of The New York Times. But his death made a lasting impression on a generation of teenagers and musicians, especially those of Latino heritage.

His most successful song, "La Bamba," has the distinction of being the first rock 'n' roll song to be sung completely in Spanish (even though Ritchie didn't speak the language). His pioneering efforts influenced the likes of Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys and Carlos Santana. It also earned him a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

Feb. 3, 1959, came to be known as "The Day the Music Died," made famous in the lyrics of the 1971 Don McLean hit "American Pie." More than a decade earlier, rocker Eddie Cochran wrote a song called "Three Stars," about Valens, Holly and the Big Bopper. Ironically, Cochran would die a short time later in a car crash in England.

The date also came to be remembered by many rock 'n' roll historians as the moment the raucous angst-driven style of early American rock 'n' roll went into hibernation - only to be revived just a little more than five years to the day later when The Beatles appeared on the "Ed Sullivan Show."

Valens, who was from Pacoima, was brought back to San Fernando for his burial.

On Tuesday, my wife Kim and I got up early and took a detour from our usual commute to stop in the San Fernando Mission Cemetery to pay our respects.

I had been to his grave years earlier and remembered the approximate location. I anticipated being able to zero in on the actual spot simply by approaching the throngs of fans encircling a grave mounded by flowers.

But at this early hour, there were no fans - and few flowers. A kindly groundskeeper pointed us to the grave which was marked by only two small bouquets. A couple of notes were there as well.

One said, "‘The day the music died' is the day I wish had never come. We love you."

We spent a few minutes alone at the site. While we were there, we wondered if it was a source of pride or pain for Ritchie's mother, Concha, who is now at rest beside him, to hear his songs during the nearly 30 years she lived after his death.

Incidentally, Valens' parents both worked in a munitions plant in Saugus at the time of his birth.

The fans and flowers apparently arrived after our visit. When I stopped back the next day, the grave was largely covered. A groundskeeper told me that a steady stream of fans had shown up at the gravesite throughout the day.

Earlier my wife had downloaded Valens' three major hits, "La Bamba," "Donna" and "Come On, Let's Go," onto her iPod. We listened to these songs through our car's sound system as we made our way to work.

She observed that it would probably astound Ritchie Valens to know that his music was still around and that it could now be played from a device smaller than a matchbook.

It could be better said that Feb. 3, 1959, was the day the music-makers died - but not the music - because the music, in whatever form it will be played, will live on forever.

E.J. Stephens is a Santa Clarita resident. His opinions are his own and not necessarily those of The Signal. He can be reached at deadwrite@yahoo.com.

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