Name at birth: Richard Valenzuela
Ritchie Valens' hit tune "La Bamba" made him America's first Hispanic rock star. He was just a kid of 17 from the Los Angeles suburbs when he released his first hit, "Come On Let's Go," in 1958. Later that year he recorded the sentimental ballad "Donna," but it was the flip side of that disc, the rollicking sung-in-Spanish "La Bamba," which became a more memorable hit. Early in 1959, still only 17, he was killed in a plane crash after performing a show in Clear Lake, Iowa. (The same plane crash killed fellow stars Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper.) The 1987 movie La Bamba resurrected the legend of Valens (with Lou Diamond Phillips playing the singer); a new version of the title song, recorded by the band Los Lobos, became an even bigger hit than the original.
Valens won a coin toss with guitarist Tommy Allsup to get a seat on the fatal flight. The Big Bopper also talked bassist Waylon Jennings into giving up his seat; Jennings later became a well-known country music star… Record producer Bob Kane suggested the stage name “Valens,” which he thought would have more appeal to non-Hispanic audiences.