La Bamba/Donna (1958)
You can draw a nearly straight line from Ritchie Valens through Carlos Santana to Los Lobos, growing specifically out of the song “La Bamba.” The flip side, actually the “A” side of the single, is “Donna,” equally an inspiration to Latino American performers because it proved that Hispanic rockers could cross over and create a smash with an “Anglo” song.
The two songs couldn’t be more unalike either in their roots or stylistically, reflecting the ethnic and racial tensions so many Americans have felt on their journey through the immigrant country.
“La Bamba” followed by “Donna”
“La Bamba.” is part of American Rock vernacular, as familiar as any record ever created. Its Mexican-inflected Rockabilly sound more than a half century later is still unique, chiming with a clarity often imitated but never quite duplicated. Above all, it is a joyous piece of work, a clear celebration. The singer had obviously tapped into something he was very proud of. It is his sharing of the discovery of his heritage that lends such potent radiance to the piece.
Ironically, Ritchie Valens did not know Spanish, having grown up in a strictly English-speaking household in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles, forcing him to learn the lyrics of “La Bamba” phonetically.
Regardless of that detail, “La Bamba” remains the most influential Rock song ever sung in a language other than English. The rubbery guitar sound is a benchmark for guitarists who followed. Ritchie was 17 at the time.
Other significant songs with Latin influence that Ritchie cut before his life was snuffed out on the infamous “day the music died” in 1959 are: “Cry, Cry, Cry,” (a fine rocker done in a voice that was clearly maturing in its ability to execute more difficult leaps and shouts), as well as the Mexican pop standard, “La Malaguena,” an instrumental.
“Donna” is more conventional in sound and outlook, but it remains one of the achiest of heartbreak songs, and the back-story of prejudice against Mexican Americans makes it all the more compelling. The real Donna’s family forbade her to see Valens. Upon reading, the lyrics seem to be nothing more than teenage pap, but the singer injects them with such feeling that we have to take notice:
Oh, Donna, Oh, Donna…
I had a girl, Donna was her name
Since she left me I never been the same
‘Cause I love my girl
Oh Donna where can you be
Where can you be
Ritchie’s guitar playing is subliminal, spare and has informed songs as disparate as The Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl” and Clapton’s “Thorn Tree In The Garden” from Layla and Other Love Songs.
Here’s part of the real Donna’s story:
Ritchie Valens was killed – less than a year after the platter hammered the charts – in the devastating plane crash with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. Sixteen-year-old Donna Ludwig, then of Granada Hills in the Valley, told the Los Angeles Times that she had earlier chided Valens during one of their long phone conversations, urging him to write a song for her as he had promised. Due to Donna’s father’s bigotry the pair had been going steady secretly.
That cat was let out of the bag big-time once the song hit the airwaves and zoomed to #2 on Billboard’s charts.
As Donna recalled: “While we were talking right there on the telephone, he wrote the words to ‘Donna,’ and he read them to me. He called me the next night and sang the song to me, and played the guitar. It was wonderful. I didn’t believe it was going to be recorded.”
All the adult irrationality and what-if’s of every teenage life are summed up in “Donna” and the story of how it was written.
- Ritchie Valens was 17, the youngest casualty, on the Day The Music Died.
- Now in her 70s, Donna Ludwig (now Fox), the Donna of the song, still features the letters RIP-RV on her license plate.