Richard Steven Valenzuela was born in Pacoima, (near Los Angeles), California in 1941. His parents were of Mexican descent and young Ritchie Valenzuela grew up hearing traditional Mexican mariachi music, as well as flamenco guitar, R&B and jump blues. His father encouraged him to take up guitar and trumpet, and later he taught himself the drums. A left hander, Richie learned to play the guitar with his right hand.
At junior high school, he brought his guitar to school entertained his friends. Richard joined a local band, the Silhouettes, as a guitarist, when he sixteen. They played at local gigs and when the main vocalist left the group, he assumed the position. On stage, Ritchie began improvising new lyrics and adding new riffs to popular songs. He soon caught attention, and his growing fans referred to him as "the Little Richard of San Fernando". Bob Keane, the owner and president of small record label Del-Fi Records in Hollywood, came to see him and signed him to his label. Richard Valenzuela became Ritchie Valens to widen his commercial appeal. Valens demoed several songs in Keane's studio that he later recorded at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood. The demos primarily consisted of Valens singing and playing guitar.
Still at High School, Richie recorded "Come On, Let's Go", and "Framed", at Gold Star Studios in 1958. Released days later it became a local hit. Double A side, “Donna/La Bamba" followed and sold over one million copies. Richie Valens left High School to concentrate on his career.
"La Bamba", was a spirited reworking of an old Mexican huapango (or Mexican fiesta dance) often played at weddings. The song melded traditional Latin American music with rock and roll and was the first pop song to be sung entirely in Spanish. Ironically, the Valenzuela family spoke only English at home, and he knew very little Spanish. Valens learned the lyrics phonetically in order to record "La Bamba" in Spanish.
Keane wanted to capitolise on Ritchie’s new success and set a fevered pace of gigs and personal appearances across the States. The teenager had a morbid fear of flying after one of school friends was killed and others injuried in a freak plane collision over his school playground. For the sake of his career he overcame his fear and travelled by air to Philadelphia to appear on Dick Clark's American Bandstand television show; Hawaii, where he performed alongside Buddy Holly and Paul Anka ; and New York to appear on Alan Freed’s 1958 Christmas Jubilee. After returning to Los Angeles, he filmed an appearance in Alan Freed's movie Go Johnny Go!
In January 1959, Ritchie Valens joined the Winter Dance Party tour. The tour featured such acts as Buddy Holly, Dion and the Belmonts, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson. Over three weeks, these performers were set to play 24 concerts in the Midwest. After the show at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, they were set to perform the next day in Moorhead, Minnesota. Conditions for the performers on the tour buses were abysmal and bitterly cold and Carl Bunch (The Belmonts) developed frostbite on his feet and had to be hospitalised. Several others, including Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, caught the flu. Buddy Holly chartered a small plane and Ritchie Valens won a seat on the plane in a coin toss with Holly's guitarist Tommy Allsup. J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson also traded places with another original passenger, Waylon Jennings. The plane took off, during a light snowstorm, but only travelled a short distance before crashing into a cornfield. All four passengers and the pilot were killed.
Ritchie’s first, self-titled album was released shortly after the accident and did well on the charts. Despite his age and a recording career that lasted only eight months, Ritchie took Latino music into mainstream rock. He is now considered to be the forefather of the genre known as Chicano and Latin rock, inspiring many other musicians of Mexican heritage.