In one of pop music’s most famous and beautiful turns of phrase, songwriter Don McLean called the date on which the world lost Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson “the Day the Music Died. ” But while three rising young pop stars may have died on February 3, 1959, their music certainly didn’t die with them. On August 29, 1987, nearly 30 years after the most famous plane crash in music history, Ritchie Valens, the youngest of that crash’s three famous victims, made a return of sorts to the top of the pop charts when his signature tune, “La Bamba,” became a #1 hit for the band Los Lobos, from Valens’ own hometown of Los Angeles, California.
Richard Stevens Valenzuela was a 17-year-old San Fernando Valley high school student when he adapted “La Bamba,” a traditional folk song from Veracruz, Mexico, into the vernacular of rock and roll. In climbing to #22 on the Billboard pop chart in January 1959, “La Bamba” became the biggest Spanish-language rock-and-roll hit in history, though the young man who recorded it did not himself speak Spanish. This interesting fact about Ritchie Valens’s life did not become known to many until the release of the hugely successful Hollywood biopic La Bamba, which sent the song from which it took its title on a second run up the pop charts, culminating in its ascent to the #1 slot on this day in 1987.
The Los Angeles alternative rock band Los Lobos was a natural choice to record the La Bamba soundtrack. Though their own work is difficult to categorize, Los Lobos were longtime veterans of the L.A. club scene who could tear through early rock-and-roll classics as easily as they could open for acts as diverse as Bob Dylan and Public Image, Ltd. Though their posthumous memorials to Ritchie Valens (“La Bamba” and “Come On Let’s Go,” both from the La Bamba soundtrack) were the only top-40 hits ever recorded by Los Lobos, their under-the-radar pop career includes many unique and critically acclaimed works (e.g., 1983’s Will The Wolf Survive? and 2003’s Good Morning Aztlàn) that fell just far enough outside both the pop and Latin mainstreams as to miss being true commercial hits.