Rock star Ritchie Valens was only 17 when he died in a plane crash.
Valens may have been young, but he was already an accomplished musician, one who would become legendary for his pioneering mix of Latin sounds and rock ‘n’ roll music. He was the first Latino musician to achieve true mainstream success, and his hit songs influenced generations of musicians who followed him, from Carlos Santana to Los Lobos to Selena and more. And he left behind a string of singles that are still beloved today. Here are a few fan favorites.
“Come On, Let’s Go” was part of a key moment in Valens’s too-short career — he played it for a nation of eager viewers on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, his first appearance on the hit show. After his death, the song was covered by the Ramones, Los Lobos, and many more.
Valens wrote “Donna” about his real-life high school sweetheart, Donna Ludwig. The success of the song brought Valens back to Bandstand for a repeat performance.
“Donna” was the A-side to the song that now seems to define Valens. “La Bamba” was his Latino-crossover masterpiece, a rockin’ version of a traditional Mexican folk song. Though Valens was proud of his Mexican heritage, he was raised speaking English and knew very little Spanish. He had to learn the song’s lyrics phonetically in order to turn in this legendary performance.
Just as it did in 1958, “La Bamba” still makes listeners want to dance. We think it’s a legacy the teen rocker would have been proud of.