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Shades Of Ritchie

February 2, 2018

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

Most of us “non-millennials” have heard of Ritchie 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 Ritchie Valens are stronger than most. Here’s why:

Rtichie 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. Ritchie 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.

Ritchie 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 Ritchie Valens had already been a legend for 12 years. To this day, this high school is known as the home of Ritchie 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

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 Ritchie 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. Ritchie 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. Ritchie 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 ever won. The tragedy inspired singer Don McLean to write his 1971 hit “American Pie”, immortalizing February 3 as “The Day the Music Died”.

Ritchie 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 Ritchie 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 Ritchie in my life.

Here’s the original recording of Donna:

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From → America, Music

  1. Who knew? Nice post, as usual. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Allen, for your memorial on Richie Valens. I remember his songs, less his story and even his tragic death. You render the account vivid and make it “news”, as if it happened yesterday!

    Liked by 4 people

  3. I enjoyed this post as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on allenrizzi and commented:

    Since this is one of my most popular posts, I thought a reblog was in order. 🎵

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post! I believe the music we have loved becomes such a big part of us, and the musicians themselves are part of us as well. So many of the greatest musicians died very young. At such a tender age, they became legends in their own time. And all these years later, their music inspires us. Each of these artists is one of a kind…they cannot be replaced; their memory lives on in the music. Thank you for sharing this well-written tribute, dovetailing your own personal journey, in a poignant way.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Good of you to remember Richie Valens, I too remember his tragic death. But in all honesty, had forgotten he was a Californian. Always a tragedy when anyone’s life gets cut short. We are all unique and irreplaceable. Good listening to Donna again!

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Lil Bit permalink

    I would like to know if you have any contact information for Donna or her family. It is a private matter. I have a Federal Statute Case that was never prosecuted that I am a witness & victim in. I have nearly lost my life over the theft of my Identity & the kidnapping of my children. That case that an FBI Office asked us how many people know about has the Dwyer name in it. Dwyer plane service owned the plane Richie & the others were on. Thank you for your cooperation in this matter

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Lola Newman permalink

    Did Donna passway and or what year? What happened to Bob and his mother

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Lola – Donna is still living as far as I know. She has been married three times/
      Richie’s mother Concepcion “Concha” Reyes died in 1987. His brother Bob Morales died at age 81 in September 2018. Thanks for stopping by.


  9. I remember Valens and his music and his death. But then again I’m 77. Richie’s music and death is sometimes over shadowed because Buddy Holly and “the big bopper” died in the same crash. It was the day the music died. I was 16 years old. Nice post. And thanks for following my blog.

    Best regards from Florida.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Great Post.
    I too grew up in Sylmar and San Fernando.
    I knew Richie’s brother who was in the Motorcycle Gang The Galloping Gooses. I grew up with many of them.
    As you said it was a Rough and Tumble existence. On one side of my childhood home was Pacoima and the other side was Down Town San Fernando.
    Pacoima was home to predominately African Americans and the other side Mexican people.
    Me being a Chubby Jewish Kid I got tough and lost weight by being chassed home by one of the factions or the other.
    There are many fun memories to go along with the tougher type.
    Here is a funny story that happened to me in the hallway of San Fernando Jr High.
    I was just getting out of a class and into a hallway full of black kids. Down the hall, I spotted a buddy named Dave Blackie.
    Being the brilliant kid I was I yelled “Hey Blackie”!!!!!
    After the cloudburst of fists and feet, I managed to make my escape. I was really small compared to the size of the crowd so I flew in and out like a Whirling Dervish.
    The Plane Crash:
    I was at Morningside Elementry when we saw a big plane flying where it shouldn’t have been.
    We heard the crash at Richie’s school.
    I knew a kid at San Fernando High that had lost a leg in that crash.
    He was paid a large settlement and went on to design Wheel Chaires. He did very well.
    Don Parent

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember the plane crash. Many of us at Dyer Street Elementary School were looking up in the air for months.


  11. Diarmuid Breatnach permalink

    Gracias por eso — very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

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