About the song
If you love rock and roll, you probably know the song “La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens. It’s a catchy tune that makes you want to dance and sing along. But do you know the story behind this song? How did a 17-year-old Mexican-American boy from California become one of the pioneers of rock and roll with a song that he barely knew how to sing?
The Origin of La Bamba
“La Bamba” is not an original song by Ritchie Valens. It’s actually a traditional Mexican folk song from the state of Veracruz, also known as “son jarocho”. The song dates back to the 18th century and has been recorded by many artists over the years. The lyrics vary depending on the performer, but they usually involve a man who wants to marry a woman named La Bamba. The song is also a dance, where couples use intricate footwork to create a bow signifying their union.
The name of the song and the dance has no direct English translation, but it is related to the Spanish word “bambolear”, which means “to sway”, “to shake” or “to wobble”. The song is typically played on instruments such as harps, guitars and jaranas, which are small guitars with eight strings.
Ritchie Valens’ Version
Ritchie Valens was born Richard Steven Valenzuela in Pacoima, California, in 1941. He was of Mexican descent and grew up listening to mariachi, flamenco, R&B and rock and roll music. He learned to play the guitar at an early age and formed his own band called The Silhouettes when he was 16.
In 1958, he was discovered by a record producer named Bob Keane, who signed him to his label Del-Fi Records. Keane changed his name to Ritchie Valens and gave him a more polished image. He also encouraged him to record some songs in Spanish, since he saw the potential of the growing Latino market in the US.
One of the songs that Keane suggested was “La Bamba”. Valens had heard the song before from his family and friends, but he didn’t know it very well. He didn’t speak fluent Spanish either, so he had to learn the lyrics phonetically. He also added some rock and roll elements to the song, such as electric guitar, drums and saxophone.
Valens recorded “La Bamba” as the B-side of his single “Donna”, which was a ballad dedicated to his high school sweetheart. The single was released in November 1958 and became a hit in both the US and Mexico. “Donna” reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, while “La Bamba” reached number 22. It was one of the first US hits to be sung entirely in Spanish, as well as one of the first to successfully blend traditional Latin-American music with rock and roll.
Valens performed “La Bamba” live on several occasions, including on American Bandstand and at the Apollo Theater in New York. He also appeared in a movie called Go Johnny Go!, where he sang the song along with other rock and roll stars such as Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran.
The Legacy of La Bamba
Sadly, Ritchie Valens’ career was cut short by a tragic plane crash on February 3rd, 1959, which also killed Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. He was only 17 years old when he died, but he left behind a legacy that influenced many musicians after him.
“La Bamba” became a rock and roll classic that has been covered by numerous artists over the years, such as Los Lobos, who recorded it for the 1987 biopic about Valens starring Lou Diamond Phillips. Their version reached number one on many charts around the world and won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
The song has also been recognized as one of the most important songs in rock and roll history. It is ranked number 345 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It is also part of the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, which preserves recordings that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.
“La Bamba” is more than just a song. It is a symbol of cultural diversity, musical innovation and youthful spirit. It is a tribute to Ritchie Valens, who broke barriers and made history with his talent and passion.