Ooh, My Head
Another Unhappy Ritchie Valens Birthday
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Ritchie Valens, one of the world's greatest ever rockeros, would today be celebrating his 81st birthday—if he hadn't "won" a seat on that damned Beechcraft Bonanza in a coin toss with Tommy Allsup. This bitter occasion perennially demands examination, because the horrifying reality was—thanks to Del Fi Records head Bob Keane's cutthroat expediency—Ritchie was as good as doomed from the get-go.
While the 17-year-old wrote 22 of the 33 songs he recorded for Del-Fi (in 8 months!), according to Keane, the kid was hopeless, completely unable to come up with anything on his own.
After all, who better to teach this estupido teenager how to write a rock & roll song than a 35-year-old clarinetist?
Keane [to LAT’s Jim Dawson] in 1980: "He started singing ‘Come On, Let’s Go’ [but] all he had was this title -- he kept playing the same riff over and over. . . . I helped him put an ending and a beginning to it and added lyrics. Then we . . . recorded it.”
Keane [to the Independent's Spencer Leigh] in 1996: "Ritchie usually had a title and a little phrase, but the rest of the song would go nowhere. He hadn't worked out how to write middle eights and the compositions would meander around and come to a close. I had to rewrite the songs and put them together. "
Complete bullshit, of course, as Ritchie's sister Connie Lemos told me in 2017: “Every song was different. Ritchie expressed himself in so many ways, and he always wrote from his own life. ‘Donna,’ of course, and ‘That’s My Little Suzie,’ which was about a friend of ours who had a clubfoot, so when she walked she really did ‘rock to the left and rock to the right.’ Mom used to always tell us, ‘Come on, let’s go!’ And after he had a dream where he was on a flying carpet, he wrote ‘In a Turkish Town.’ All of his feelings, emotions came out in the songs . . . Mom said Ritchie played so hard, she thought he’d make the guitar cry.”
Valens’ rich amalgam of contemporary big beat, Mexican roots and smoldering balladeer depth, enhanced by a natural grasp of shadowy R&B garage funk, represented both a genius-level affinity for the rock & roll idiom’s fast-moving evolution and a clearly illimitable artistic potential. His remains a staggering loss.
While lowlife schmuck Norman Petty cheated Buddy Holly by adding those ghastly backing vocal tracks after the unsuspecting Texan would leave the studio (unforgivably vandalizing multiple masterpieces and allowing the producer to claim 50% of the publishing dough) and contemptible scumbag Jerry Capehart made a career of lying about co-writing Eddie Cochran’s brilliant hits “Summertime Blues” and “Come on Everybody” following the singer’s 1960 death, Keane took cynical exploitation to a stunningly elevated degree. After the plane crash, Keane devoted himself to serially denigrating Ritchie's memory to any who'd listen and cheating the Valens estate for decades, making token royalty payments only after the family sued him (the production of 1987 bio-pic La Bamba finally returned publishing to the estate).
Keane was a thin-skinned little shit, too. After Dawson’s Feb. 3 1980 “Day the Music Died” anniversary piece lead the LAT’s calendar section, “Bob telephoned me on Saturday, when the bulldog edition of the Sunday paper came out, and called me various names because I'd made him look bad,” the writer said.
Worst of all, Lemos said: "Mom never forgave herself for signing his guardianship over to Bob Keane. He was supposed to be there [in Iowa]. Ritchie wasn’t supposed to be making those decisions.”
Our Friday the 13th soundtrack? All Ritchie, All day.