September, 1958 was a time of preparation for the busy tour
schedule ahead. “Come on, Let’s Go” had been released as a 45
with “Framed” on the flip side. The exact dates of the Del-Fi recording
sessions are not known, although there is the likelihood
that the majority of them occurred during the summer of 1958.
“Come On, Let’s Go” first appeared as the “Pick of the Week” in Billboard magazine on September 1,1958, as stated in the book, Ritchie Valens: The First Latino Rocker, written by Beverly Mendheim. Ritchie was inspired to write “Come On, Let’s Go” by a comment that was often made by his mom: “ Come on let’s go—we’re gonna be late.”
October found Ritchie and his manager Bob Keane traveling up
and down the east coast promoting “Come on, Let’s Go “ and
“Donna,” covering 11 cities in 10 days. On October 6, 1958, his
mother’s birthday, Ritchie made his first appearance on American
Bandstand with Dick Cl ark in Philadelphia. During his
performance, Ritchie broke a guitar string. When he finished his
song, Dick Clark commented that Ritchie sounded great even
playing with a broken sting.
Upon Ritchie’s return from the tour in late October, Donna was released nationally. The east coast tour launched Donna to #1 in Chicago first and then to #1 in each of the other 10 cities Ritchie had toured.
(This Information is from The Oracle of Del-Fi by Bob Keane and Ritchie Valens: The First Latino Rocker by Beverly Mendheim)
Only six months after signing his recording contact with Bob
Keane and Del-Fi Records, Ritchie was ready to go back to Gold
Star Recording Studio and start working on his first album. With
“Come On, Let’s Go” and “Donna” featured on the prestigious
Billboard Spotlight Section, Ritchie’s career was really taking off.
Ritchie had become pretty savvy and confident about recording
and everything went very smoothly. Gone was the “Kid” from
Pacoima.” Yes, he would always remember his roots, but here
stood an Artist in the making.
Ritchie took a working vacation to Hawaii. In Honolulu ,Ritchie performed at the Honolulu Civic Auditorium under the banner, “Show of Star’s.” Performing with Ritchie were Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Paul Anka, and others. Later, Ritchie would talk to the kids at the concert at Pacoima Jr. High about how he had done a little hula-ing while in Hawaii.
One of the songs recorded on Ritchie’s first album, “Ritchie Valens,” was “That’s my Little Suzie.” Many stories have been told as to what inspired Ritchie to write this song, and here’s the true story. Ritchie’s mother had a friend who had a child, Suzie, who was born with a club foot. Suzie was the sweetest of little girls with big brown eyes and a beautiful smile and when she walked she rocked to the left and rocked to the right. “That’s my Little Suzie” is Suzie’s song.
Ritchie returned home to Pacoima from Hawaii. His mom was in her new house—
the house Ritchie had always dreamed of giving her. The sky was the limit and
things were definitely looking up.
Ritchie’s mom threw him a big party with a pretty white Christmas tree. She told Ritchie she had always wanted a white tree all decorated in red. With all the family and close friends together, Mama couldn’t be happier. Her Ritchie was home. On December 10th Ritchie had another homecoming - his concert at Pacoima Jr. High School, where he had graduated just a few years earlier. Little did he know, that concert would be released as an album the following year.
Mid-December found Ritchie headed back to the east coast. His manager, Bob Keane, had managed to book him as a late addition on “Alan Freed’s Christmas Jubilee Show” at the Loews State Theater. Ritchie would be spending Christmas in New York where Ritchie would be performing with The Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley, Jackie Wilson, Eddie Cochran and others. Ritchie and Eddie quickly became good friends - both being from California. Eddie’s fiancee, Sharon Sheeley, had just written a song for Eddie named “Hurry Up”. (Eddie was always late.) Eddie felt it would be a great song for Ritchie to record. It was.
On December 27th Ritchie made his second appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, this time singing “Donna.” Bob Keane remembered Dick Clark saying that he believed Ritchie was the most talented young artist he’d ever had on his show.
For some of his performances Ritchie appeared in his blue satin shirt and black studded vest and pants. Nudie’s of North Hollywood, the company that had designed Ritchie’s outfit, also designed for Elvis Presley and Liberace. Nudie’s was famous for flashy stage clothing. This outfit is on loan to, and displayed at, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.
The New Year would bring Ritchie home, but not before he played various New
York auditoriums, including his only performance at the famous Apollo Theater.
January was a busy month with another prime time show, “ The Music Box,” hosted by Buddy Bregman in Burbank. Then it was off to Ritchie’s big screen debut in “Go Johnny Go,” an Alan Freed project where he appeared with Chuck Berry. “Ooh My Head” was the song he sang and it is the only live footage of Ritchie. With the wrap of the movie, Ritchie was back at Gold Star to finish up the tracks for his album, recording “Hurry Up,” “Stay Beside Me,” and “The Paddi-Wack Song.” Ritchie also made appearances at other Southern California spots, including “The Teen Canteen Show,” a fundraiser at West Covina High, and The Long Beach Civic Center Auditorium.
Bob Keane had signed Ritchie with General Artist Corporation (GAC) and they immediately booked him to “The Winter Dance Party Tour.” Ritchie’s mom threw a housewarming- farewell party to celebrate their new home and to give Ritchie’s friends and family time to say goodbye. This tour would be a long one. Ritchie invited Donna to go along on tour, but her father said no. Ritchie promised Donna he would see her when he came back. How could they know that this would be the last time she would see Ritchie.
Ritchie’s Tio Lelo, along with his aunt Ernestine, and his brother Bob, took Ritchie to the airport the next day. Ritchie was flying out to Chicago. With their arms around each other, Ritchie told Bob “I want you to take care of MaMa.”
Ritchie joined the (GAC) “Winter Dance Party Concert” tour with The Big Bopper, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, which included Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup. Also on the tour were Dion and The Belmonts, and Frankie Sardo. The tour performed at more than 8 ballrooms crisscrossing the Midwest in old tour buses with inadequate heating in freezing temperatures, playing to sold out houses everywhere they went.
With the final days of the WINTER DANCE PARTY tour at hand and the weather bitter cold, the artists had become like “family”. In fact, Ritchie and Dion, the youngest members of the group, spent much of their “off” time talking about their own families in an effort to ward off the pain of homesickness.
On January 30th, Ritchie called home to talk to Mom. She wasn’t there, so he talked to Bob about wanting Mom to join him. “You’re gonna have a helluva time trying to get Mom on a plane!” Bob replied. “What about you...we’re still brothers, right?” Ritchie asked. After a brief silence, Bob told him “I’m there, Brother.”
The WINTER DANCE PARTY tour traveled from the Laramar Ballroom in Fort Dodge, Iowa
to the Armory in Duluth, Minnesota, on to the Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay, Wisconsin,
finally arriving at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake Iowa on February 2, 1959.
Huge crowds of teenagers greeted the bus at every stop and Clear Lake was no different.
Frankie Sardo opened the show, followed by JP “Big Bopper” Richardson, and then
Ritchie. By the time Ritchie left the stage the crowd was ecstatic...leaving the performers
backstage in high spirits.
Buddy Holly had had enough of the bus, so he looked into chartering a small plane so that he could do laundry and make phone calls, before the next show, JP (Big Bopper) hadn’t been feeling well, Ritchie had also caught a cold and was tired of the cold buses too. Backstage Tommy Allsup had come in to make sure they had all their equipment before heading to the airport, Ritchie asked Tommy one last time to let him fly. Tommy said okay Ritchie I’ll flip you for it. Ritchie won. Buddy teased Waylon, I hope your bus freezes-up, Waylon who had given up his seat to JP, replied, in jest, ” I hope your plane crashes”. For this, Waylon suffered survivors guilt for the rest of his life.
On the morning of February 3, 1959, the headlines in the Mason City Globe Gazette read, “FOUR KILLED IN CLEAR LAKE PLANE CRASH.” The newspaper article included a picture of the plane leaning against a fence, and debri scattered over a snowy cornfield. In the words of Don McClean’s song, “American Pie,” it truly was the day the music died. The fourth person killed was the pilot of the Beechcraft Bonanza, 21 year old Roger Peterson. “Why Ritchie, Mama?” little Connie asked. Looking through tear stained eyes she said, “God needed him more than we did.”
Working on a car a few blocks away, Bob ran to the house, not wanting to believe what he had heard. As he opened the door, his worst fear had come true... he saw two of Ritchie’s friends on either side of Mom, holding her up. “Bobby, we lost your brother,” she said. “I saw her age 15 years overnight,” Bob said with tears in his eyes.
This was the first time Bob had quit drinking and he had been sober for several months preceding Ritchie’s death. “Me and Ritchie had big plans,” Bob said. “We were putting a band together, I was learning to play bass and Ritchie wanted me to be his road manager, so he wouldn’t have to be alone on the road anymore. My whole world was gone.” Needless to say, Ritchie’s death left a wound that time has not healed.
It is rare that a seventeen year old kid, with an eight-month career, leaves such a lasting impact on the history of Rock & Roll and on people, who to this day still listen to and love Ritchie Valens.
Over the years, one of the questions many people have asked of Bob is “What have you learned?” His answer is, “If you haven’t taken the time to tell all those you love, that you love them...don’t wait, do it now...you never know when you won’t get another chance.”