Compared with that of most rock 'n' roll legends, the recorded legacy of Ritchie Valens is slight. Valens had only been recording for about six months when he died at age 17 in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. Nonetheless, Valens' legend would be secure if it rested wholly on his second single, the one that rocketed him to national stardom. With "Donna" and its flip side "La Bamba," Valens apotheosized the romantic and celebratory traditions of Latin music and married them to rock 'n' roll.
By transforming the traditional Mexican wedding song "La Bamba" into a rock 'n' roll classic, Valens proved himself an innovator and a pioneer. He also became a hero and inspiration to young Mexican Americans anxious to rock and, since his death, a number of Hispanic acts have enjoyed some national success, including Chris Montez, Cannibal and the Headhunters, ? and the Mysterians, Sam (The Sham) Samudio, Carlos Santana, Malo, El Chicano and Los Lobos. It is Los Lobos that performs Valens' songs in the new film bio (which opens Friday) and sound track album "La Bamba" (Slash 25605-1).
Los Lobos isn't just a Mexican American band from East Los Angeles that's been performing Valens' songs for years. It is also as inspired a classic rock 'n' roll band as exists, and, in David Hidalgo, it has a singer capable of conveying all the warmth and grace of Valens. If this Los Lobos-Ritchie Valens pairing sounds like a dream date on paper, the results are even more exciting on vinyl. Eight of "La Bamba's" 12 songs are Los Lobos' spiritually faithful, contemporized versions of Valens-associated songs. Full of historical and cultural resonance, these eight cuts give new meaning to rock 'n' roll revivalism.
Los Lobos' "La Bamba" is characteristic of the band's revisions of Valens' uptempo rockers. It features a harder and fuller arrangement and cuts a much steadier groove than the original, which explodes with abrupt rhythmic changes. Los Lobos has also added a ferocious guitar solo to its version, and, in a wonderful musical footnote, tagged on an extended accordion and acoustic guitar coda that returns the song to its folk roots. In some ways, Los Lobos' treatment of ballads like "Donna" and "We Belong Together" is even more moving. Though Hidalgo's tenor is not as high or sweet as that of the very young Valens, the tenderness of his delivery and the band's beautifully subdued playing are reverent without being cloying.
While the other cuts on "La Bamba" are also from the movie, they disrupt what could have otherwise been a brilliant concept album. It is especially disappointing that an exquisite acoustic version of "La Bamba," performed in the movie by Los Lobos in the guise of a traditional Mexican band, doesn't appear on this album. Both Marshall Crenshaw's update of Buddy Holly's "Crying, Waiting, Hoping" and Brian Setzer's revved-up cover of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" are convincing on their own. Howard Huntsberry's version of Jackie Wilson's "Lonely Teardrops" is merely an imitation and, unfortunately, Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love" would have sounded better as one.
Ritchie on Rhino
With Valens in the spotlight, Rhino Records has released "The Best of Ritchie Valens" (Rhino RNLP 70178) and reissued the original three Valens albums. By adding extra cuts to most of his first and finest album ("Ritchie Valens"), "The Best of" serves as the definitive Valens compilation. Like that famous "Donna"/"La Bamba" single, the album shifts from dreamy ballads to ecstatic rockers such as Valens' first hit, "Come On, Let's Go." As no other '50s star except Elvis Presley, Valens was able to deliver teen ballads as sentimental as "Stay Beside Me" alongside the most exuberant rock 'n' roll and make both sound natural.
Including his three hits and some excellent R&B covers (especially the comic "Framed") omitted by the Rhino compilation, "Ritchie Valens" (Rhino RNLP 70231) is nearly as good. It's much harder to recommend on purely musical terms either "Ritchie" (Rhino RNLOP 70232) or "Ritchie Valens in Concert at Pacoima Jr. High" (Rhino RNLP 70233) since each was composed of obvious leftovers after Valens' death. "Ritchie" does include a few polished numbers, including "Paddiwack Song," a children's tune that reveals again how effortlessly Valens transformed the ordinary into extraordinary rock 'n' roll. Only one side of Valens' last album is actually "live," and though it is a very primitive recording, it reveals that after Elvis' Army induction and before the Beatles' arrival, the girls still found plenty to scream about.