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Shades Of Richie

February 2, 2018

Tomorrow will mark the 59th anniversary of the death of Richie Valens.

Most of us “non-millennials” have heard of Richie Valens. He was the one who brought us Donna and La Bamba before dying tragically in an airplane crash in 1959. I remember vividly singing along to both of these songs when I was a teenager a few years later. The line, “I had a girl, Donna was her name….” still echoes in my musical consciousness. For me the memories of Richie Valens are stronger than most. Here’s why:

Richie Valens was born Richard Steven Valenzuela on May 13, 1941 in Pacoima, California. Pacoima is just a stone’s throw from the town of San Fernando, where I grew up. I knew the turf well when I was a kid. It was a tough landscape that was unyielding and hostile to anyone who didn’t have the sand to survive. Richie and I both survived the San Fernando experience. That’s the first thing we have in common. Although we never met, living in San Fernando taught us both those keen survival instincts.

Richie went to San Fernando High School after graduating Pacoima Junior High School but never finished. He left high school in the autumn of 1958 to pursue his music career full-time. By then he was already a star. I, on the other hand, attended neighboring Sylmar High School and graduated in 1966. In 1970, I began teaching at San Fernando High School where Richie Valens had already been a legend for 12 years. To this day, this high school is known as the home of Richie Valens. My time at San Fernando High School as a teacher is something I will always treasure. The school had that old-time spirit that is simply lacking in most schools today. My classes were composed mainly of Black and Mexican students, many of whom I am still in touch with through internet sites such as Classmates.com.

Donna was a real person, not just a name in a song. Her real name was Donna Ludwig. She was a typical teenage girl of the late 1950’s but her independent streak gave her the gumption to date Valens against the vehement opposition of her father. Her father managed a Packard automobile dealership in Beverly Hills. She never forgave her father for his “bigoted” rejection of Valens or for the recording deal he pressured her into after the singer’s death. Her father wasn’t fond of Richie even after he immortalized his daughter in his chart busting song of 1958. She left home at 18 and later married three times and was known by the name of Donna Fox-Coots. She rarely gave interviews throughout the years but did contribute to the 1987 movie La Bamba. In an odd coincidence, I delivered papers as a kid to the Ludwig family. They always treated me well but then I was just a lowly paperboy who came to the door once a month to collect for the San Fernando Sun newspaper.

Valens had a fear of flying due to a freak accident at his junior high school when on January 31, 1957 two airplanes collided over the playground, killing or injuring several of his friends. I remember this incident very well. It was a terrible tragedy that made me always look up when I was on the playground as a kid. Richie overcame his fear of flying because of the demand for touring across the United States. I overcame my fears, not for touring success, but for the necessity of work commitments. That’s another thing we have in common.

Irony surrounds his death. Richie Valens died in a plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa on February 3, 1959 along with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. He was only 17 years old. Valens was only on the plane because he won a coin toss with Holly’s backup guitarist Tommy Allsup for the last seat on the plane. Holly’s bassist, Waylon Jennings, voluntarily gave up his seat on the plane to J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper), who was ill with the flu. It is often stated that this was the only coin toss that Valens every won. The tragedy inspired singer Don McLean to write his 1971 hit “American Pie”, immortalizing February 3 as “The Day the Music Died”.

Richie Valens is buried at the San Fernando Mission Cemetery in San Fernando, California. This is also the resting place of my grandmother, Anna Maria Flor Rizzi who died just a few months before Valens. I have been to this cemetery many times over the decades to share my thoughts with both. It is this cemetery that also brings Richie Valens’ memory into my life so often.

Valens will always be remembered by the public as a pioneer of Chicano and Latin Rock. He influenced many in the music world, including Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys, and Carlos Santana, as he had become nationally successful at a time when very few Latinos were in American rock and pop music. To me, he’ll be remembered more personally as the pride of my hometown and an inspiration in my own musical evolution. There will always be shades of Richie in my life.

Here’s the original recording of Donna: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMcHbh6HBDk

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From → America, Music

2 Comments
  1. Who knew? Nice post, as usual. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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