Ritchie Valenzuela (1941-1959)

There will surely be no shortage of news marking the 50th anniversary of what happened today.  Most of it will be recapitulations of the already established narrative of “the day the music died”–stuff largely focused on the pre-baby boomers and their “loss of innocence.”  But there is much more that can be said about that day and the three music stars immortalized by its tragedy.

As a music fan, a Chicano, and a historian, what stands out to me most about today is the music of Ritchie Valens.  The first Chicano Rock ‘n Roll legend, Valens had already become a prolific music writer at the time of his death at age 17.  Often overlooked by rock historians, Valens was more than a pop star, he was part of a new sound, one emerging from the unique cultural mix of postwar Los Angeles.

Here’s the classic, “Come On Let’s Go,” not his biggest hit or his most lasting but a vivid example of the teen’s hybrid talent.  While to our ears it may seem common, the sound here was anything but common at the time.  It presaged a sound that would become pop in a few year’s time, but it is a sound that was always Ritchie.

For a brilliant analysis on Valens, as well as the broader picture of Mexican American music in Los Angeles at mid-century, check out the new book by historian Anthony Macias, Mexican American Mojo: Popular Music, Dance, and Urban Culture in Los Angeles, 1935-1968.

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