Latin Music USA

S1 E7 | CLIP

The Legends: Ritchie Valens

Richard Valenzuela had been unknown beyond Pacoima until a young record producer heard him play at a local movie house and invited him to his Hollywood studio. Thus was born Ritchie Valens, the "great brown hope" of Latin music. Watch LATIN MUSIC USA, airing Friday, April 28 and Friday, May 5 at 9/8C on PBS (check local listings). Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

AIRED: October 19, 2009 | 0:04:37

♪ A white sport coat

♪ And a pink carnation...

SMITS: In the 1950s, Los Angeles was known to most of America

as a shining city of freeways and movie stars.

(crowd clamoring)

But there was another Los Angeles,

unseen by most of the country.

There, tens of thousands of Mexican-Americans

lived in crowded barrios,

many just getting by,

working in tedious, often backbreaking jobs.

("Ooh, My Head" plays)

Then in 1958, the son of a factory worker

from a tough Mexican neighborhood just outside L.A.,

rose out of the barrioand into the national spotlight.

♪ Hey, hey, now, now, baby

♪ Let's just go all night long... ♪

Ritchie Valens had become

the first Mexican-American rock and roll star.

♪ There won't be no Tutti Frutti ♪

♪ No lollipop

♪ Come on, baby just rock, rock, rock. ♪

TONY VALDEZ: Ritchie Valens comes out of Pacoima, California

in the San Fernando Valley here in Los Angeles

and he becomes the great Brown hope.

He is the man that is going to not just sit in the garage

and play music,

but maybe, maybe go to Carnegie Hall.

SMITS: Valens-- born Richard Valenzuela--

had been unknown beyond Pacoima, until a young record producer

heard him play at a local movie house

and invited him to his Hollywood studio.

BOB KEANE: When he walked in

and he got his axe out and started noodling around...

You know, well, this one guy comes up to me

and says, "What the hell is this?"

He said, "A Mexican rock and roller?

There ain't no such thing."

I said, "Hold on, pal."

♪ Well come on let's go, let's go, let's go, little darlin' ♪

KEANE: We changed his name to Valens,

because I knew that if we put a record out

and called him Valenzuela, they wouldn't even listen to it.

They'd just throw it in the trashcan.

♪ Well, now swing me, swing me all the way... ♪

GIL ROCHA: When Ritchie took off

and his record came out and it hit the stations,

we were all, "Yay!"

We were very excited.

Not only because he was Ritchie,

but because he was Mexican-American.

KEANE: After we worked together for about three months,

one day he said, "Bob-o, I want you to come out

and meet my mother."

He took me to the little house, and under the house,

they had a couple of sleeping bags,

and he and his cousin, that's where they slept.

And at that point, that's when he said to me,

"Bob-o, the one thing I want is I want to buy my mother a home."

So, I said, "Well, don't worry, Ritchie,

"you're going to be a big star

and we'll get you a home for your mother."

SMITS: Later that summer,

as Keane drove Valens up the coast

for an appearance in San Francisco,

the song that would become a cornerstone

of Chicano rock and roll began to take shape.

KEANE: I had a new Thunderbird

and Ritchie was in the back with his guitar.

And all of a sudden, there's this...

(humming melody of "La Bamba")

And I said, "Wow, man, that might make a hell of a record.

Let's do something with that."

♪Para bailar la bamba♪

♪Para bailar la bamba♪

♪ Se necesita una poca de gracia ♪

♪ Una poca de gracia

♪ Para mi, para ti

♪ Y arriba y arriba...

The irony is that the biggest hit that Ritchie Valens ever had

and the song for which he will be forever known

was sung in Spanish, "La Bamba."

And the audience, the Anglo audience,

seemed to look past that or didn't care.

♪ Soy capitan, soy capitan...

VALDEZ: What greater moment could there be for us

than to have this kid, this Mexican-American kid

from Pacoima, with a record that people in Poughkeepsie

are singing to and they don't even know what the lyrics mean!

♪Para bailar la bamba♪

♪Para bailar la bamba...♪

It gives white America and black America

the opportunity to look at some brown-skinned people

and say, "Hey I like that music."

♪ Y arriba y arriba


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