The Day the Music Died, Feb. 3, 1959 Part 4 of 5: Ritchie Valens
By Richard Zowie
I remember watching La Bamba, the movie about Ritchie Valens’ life, while a freshman at A.C. Jones High School in Mrs. Moreno’s Spanish I class. I knew already what would happen at the end, but still, I’ve never felt sadder while watching a movie as I did when Ritchie died and the song Sleepwalkers played. The sadness I felt for Valens was the sadness I’d feel about seven years later when Tejano star Selena died from a fatal gunshot wound. Another young, talented star who left us far too soon.
For Valens, I had the privilege of talking to his younger sister, Connie Lemos, and to his older brother, Bob Morales. Connie is nine years younger than her brother while Bob is four years older.
Connie (named after her mother) recalls how when Ritchie wasn’t out performing, he was at home helping to take care of his younger siblings. Bob, at the time, was older and wasn’t living at home anymore, and their mother didn’t have babysitter money.
“He was famous for only a short time and the rest of the time he was our brother,” she said. “At home he didn’t act like a celebrity. He hung out and practiced and we listened to him. He’d ask what we wanted to hear.”
Musicians tend to be different in their private lives than they are on stage, and Ritchie was no exception. Connie described him as very funny, and a big kidder, but who was shy around people he didn’t know and quiet around unfamiliar places.
“Once you got to know him he’d open up and his true personality shined through,” she said. “Most who knew him said he was very shy, humble and polite and didn’t forget where he came from. He always said, ‘Yes sir’, ‘No sir’ and ‘Thank you.'”
The younger kids did have to keep quiet, when Ritchie would record songs into his reel-to-reel machine.
And, of course, Ritchie’s mom also helped him promote himself and did many other things to help him get his music career started. Connie recalls this amusing anecdote of her mother: “Bob Keane (who discovered him) would have him sign promotional shots. When Ritchie would get tired, Mom would also sign some. We’d sell them for a nickel each.”
Fifty years later, Bob and Connie both remember that fateful day when they heard the news of their brother’s plane crash.
Bob was working on a 1950 Oldsmobile when a next-door neighbor told him what they’d heard on the radio and asked if his Mom was home. A man who finds it very difficult to talk about his brother without getting choked up, Bob described the scene, which mirrored the movie:
“It blew my mind,” he said. “I remember jumping in a car and going home to see Mom to see if it was true. My car died on the way there and I ran the rest of the way. Mom said we’d lost him. Even now, I can’t watch the movie all the way through.”
Connie was walking home when she and her sister were approached by a girl from school. The girl asked if she was Ritchie’s sister and then told her she’d heard on the radio that her brother was dead. Of course, abrupt news like that couldn’t possibly be true, but when Connie got home, what she saw told her it was.
“Back in those days, there were no laws that the first of kin had to be alerted before they could broadcast a death,” she recalled. “When I got home, Mom was inside surrounded by Ritchie’s friends. I saw a look on her face I’d never seen before and I knew it was true. Even as child you know the look of total hurt. From that moment on it was like she enveloped in a cloud. She wasn’t there, like she was in shock.”
Connie added: “At first you don’t believe it. It can’t be true. It must be someone else. He’s fine. But when he didn’t come home and you’re then in the middle of a funeral it becomes real…Ritchie was a father figure. He wasn’t just a brother, but also a caregiver. He was our guide.”
Movies tend to exaggerate for artistic differences, but both Connie and Bob are overall satisfied by the job La Bamba did in portraying their brother. Connie enjoyed both Lou Diamond Phillips’ and Esai Morales’ performances. Yes, Ritchie’s Mom did put up her rent money to rent out a place for her son to perform. Yes, Ritchie did indeed buy a house for his mother when he signed a recording contract.
Bob is also upfront about the movie and the way he was 50 years ago. In the movie, he’s played by Morales and depicted as a talented artist who struggles with alcohol and with being a responsible adult. The movie ends with Bob screaming Ritchie’s name at a bridge.
“They made me look good in the movie,” Bob said. “I have regrets but can’t go back and undo them. [Ritchie] inspired me to take a better path for myself. It made me what I am today.”
Even 50 years later, Bob’s view of Ritchie is very similar to Larry Holley’s view of his brother Buddy. “I’m proud of him and still miss him every day,” Bob said. “He knew what he wanted to do at 17…I don’t know why I was left behind.”
If he were alive today, Connie believes her brother would’ve settled into producing and recording. By the time of his death at 17, he’d recorded more than 30 songs-about two-thirds were ones he’d written. What’s more, Connie has spoken to Maria Elena Holly and learned of how close Ritchie and Buddy had grown together. Buddy apparently was so impressed with Ritchie that they discussed writing and producing music together when their Winter Dance Party tour was done.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Ritchie, Buddy and the Bopper’s death, there were performances in Clear Lake, Iowa from January 28 to February 2, featuring musicians of various genres. Among the many artists scheduled to perform were The Big Bopper Junior, The Crickets, Los Lonely Boys and Los Lobos. Connie said she’d spoken with Carlos Santana about the event also.
February 3, 1959 is commonly called “The Day the Music Died”, a name used by Don McLean to describe that fateful day in his song “American Pie”. While the three died and left behind careers that were just beginning, Connie said the music is very much alive.
“We watched a PBS documentary, and they talked about Ritchie and all the musical acts that came out of the Los Angeles area,” she said. “Fifty years later he still inspires musicians. Kids are still writing and recording about Ritchie, and they’re still picking up guitars because of Ritchie.”
And he’s no doubt an inspiration to his younger brother, Mario Ramirez, who performs lead vocals and harmonica for The Backyard Blues Band.
Richard Zowie is a Michigan-based writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.