Mexican-American singer and songwriter Ritchie Valens, best known for the hit song “La Bamba," was considered the first Latino rock star. Valens, who influenced the Chicano rock movement, was just 17 when he died, along with singer Buddy Holly, in a 1959 plane crash that became known as The Day the Music Died.
Valens, who was born in 1941 near Los Angeles, California, joined his first band at age 16. He shortened his last name from Valenzuela to Valens after a record label executive advised him to make his name more radio-friendly.
Valens released his first single, “Come On, Let’s Go,” on the Del-Fi record label in 1958. He became a star with his second single, which featured the songs “La Bamba” and “Donna.” Valens wrote “Donna” as a tribute to a high school girlfriend. His biggest hit, “La Bamba," was a mix of rock and traditional Mexican folk music. Valens, who did not speak Spanish, had to be coached to sing the Spanish lyrics of the song.
Valens died on Feb. 2, 1959, when his small plane crashed into a frozen field in Iowa. Singer Don McLean immortalized the crash, which also killed disc jockey J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, in the hit 1971 song “American Pie.”
Valens` life was the focus of the 1987 feature film “La Bamba,” starring actor Lou Diamond Phillips. In 2001, Valens was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.