Ritchie Valens was just 17 years old when he died alongside Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper when their private plane crashed during their tour of the Midwest. At the time of his death, Valens hadn’t released a single album, but had already established himself as one of the most talented young artists in rock and roll with hits like Donna and La Bamba. Although it’s impossible to know what his legacy would have been had he lived, the fact that his music continues to resonate with so many people to this day suggests that his death was an even bigger loss to music than anyone realized at the time. Here’s our pick of the 10 best Ritchie Valens songs of all time.
10. Fast Freight
All three of Ritchie Valens’ albums were released posthumously. Fast Freight is taken from the second, Ritchie, which was released in October 1959 as a collection of unissued masters from Gold Star Studio along with a handful of demos he recorded at his manager’s home studio. The big hit from the album was Little Girl, but the deep cuts are equally exciting, with Fast Freight standing out as one of the highlights. Although it was never released as a single, it was later chosen to feature on the tracklist of 1981’s The Best of Ritchie Valens.
9. Bluebirds over the Mountain
Bluebirds over the Mountain was originally recorded by Ersel Hickey in 1958. It peaked at No. 75 on the Billboard pop chart. A year later, the song reappeared on Valens’ eponymous 1959 album. Backed by a tinkling tambourine and a lazy guitar, Valens croons his way through the song with his typically buttery vocals. Several other artists gave it a shot afterwards, including the Beach Boys and Robert Plant, but it’s the halting beauty of Valens’ cut that keeps us coming back for more.
Framed was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and originally recorded by The Robins in August 1954. Speaking about his inspiration for the song, Leiber explained: “Another rap took the form of a police drama. We called it “Framed” and gave it a subtext that, despite the humor, refers to the legal brutality that impacted the black community.” Valens’ fiery version can be heard on his second posthumous release, Ritchie. Perfectly polished and immaculately presented, it’s an excellent example of his gift for interpretation.
7. In a Turkish Town
The hauntingly lovely In a Turkish Town was first released on Valens’ debut album, Ritchie Valens. Its divine vocals and almost ethereal arrangements were a hit, peaking at No. 55 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 43 on the US Cash Box. Three years later, it was revisited for the 1962 compilation album, Ritchie Valens Memorial Album, before appearing again in 1981 on the greatest hits collection, The Best of Ritchie Valens.
6. Little Girl
As Classic Rock History notes, while Little Girl didn’t chart highly (it stalled at No. 92 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and No. 93 on the US Cash Box chart), it still occupies a place in fans hearts as one of Valens’ best-loved hits. It was one of the very few singles he was able to release before his death in 1958.
5. Ooh! My Head
As All Music says, it’s impossible to know what kind of an artist Ritchie Valens would have developed into had he not died at such a young age. While both Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper left behind a considerable body of work, all the 17-year-old Valens left was an album and a half of completed studio material, a badly recorded high-school concert, and a handful of demos and rehearsal tapes. But while the recordings are sparse, the quality of songs like Ooh! My Head suggests that had he lived, his legacy would have outstripped even the best of his peers.
4. My Darling is Gone
When Bill Keane was tasked with creating a second posthumous Richie Valens album, he had a problem. All of the usable material had already been taken by the first album, leaving Keane to cobble together an entire album out of demos and rehearsal tapes. Yet somehow, he managed to create a very decent collection. It didn’t produce any big hits, but on tracks like the studio demo My Darling is Gone, the absence of polish only serves to enhance the recording with a raw, poignant intimacy.
3. Come On, Let’s Go
Come On, Let’s Go was written by Valens and released on his self-titled debut album. It was a chart success, peaking at No. 42 on the US Billboard Hot 100 in late 1958. Not only was it remarkable for the fact that Valens was only 16 when he wrote it, but it was the first Chicano-influenced song to ever hit the mainstream music charts. It’s since been covered by numerous artists, including the Ramones and the Paley Brothers, Tommy Steele, the Huntingtons, Girl in a Coma, and the McCoys.
According to Song Facts, Valens wrote Donna for his childhood sweetheart, Donna Ludwig. They met at San Fernando High and stayed together until Valens’ death. Valens had told Donna he was writing a song about her, but the first time she heard it was on the radio. Recorded just a few months before his death, the song became his breakout hit, charting at No. 2 on February 23, 1959.
1. La Bamba
La Bamba was actually released as the B side to Donna, but it’s since emerged as Valens’ signature tune. Valens adapted the song from a traditional Mexican folk tune, the oldest recorded version of which was released under the name of El Jarocho by Alvaro Hernández Ortiz in 1938. Valens replaced the folk with rock and roll and livened it up with a huge dose of teenage energy. Although it didn’t fly as high up the charts as Donna, it’s now regarded as one of the greatest songs of the era, making it to No. 354 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and into the Latin Grammy Hall of Fame.