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The professional career of Ritchie Valens lasted a period of eight months, during which time he recorded some of the most influential songs of the 1950s rock and roll era. His best known song, "La Bamba," is probably the very first Latin Rock song to become a hit, making Valens the father of the Spanish rock and roll movement.
He was born in Pacoima, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles, on May 13, 1941. Brought up hearing traditional Mexican mariachi music, as well as flamenco guitar, R&B and jump blues, he expressed an interest in making music of his own by the age of 5. He was encouraged by his father to take up guitar and trumpet, and later taught himself the drums. One day, a neighbor came across Ritchie trying to play a guitar that had only two strings. He re-strung the instrument, and taught Ritchie the fingerings of some chords. While Ritchie was left-handed, he was so eager to learn the guitar that he mastered the traditionally right-handed version of the instrument. By the time he was attending Pacoima Junior High School, his proficiency on the guitar was such that he brought the instrument to school and would sing and play songs to his friends on the bleachers.
When he was sixteen years old, he was invited to join a local band named The Silhouettes as a guitarist. Later on, the main vocalist left the group and Ritchie assumed this position as well. In addition to the performances with The Silhouettes, he would play solo at parties and other social gatherings.
Ritchie Valens album coverA completely self-taught musician, Valens was an accomplished singer and guitarist. At his appearances he often improvised new lyrics and added new riffs to popular songs while he was playing. This is an aspect of his music that is not heard in his commercial studio recordings. Due to his high-energy performances, Valenzuela earned the nickname "The Little Richard of the Valley".
After this first 'audition', Keane decided to sign Ritchie to Del-Fi, and a contract was prepared and signed on May 27, 1958. It was at this point that he took the name Ritchie, because, as Keane said, "There were a bunch of 'Richies' around at that time, and I wanted it to be different." Similarly, it was Keane who decided to shorten his surname to Valens from Valenzuela, in order to broaden his appeal.
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