The temperature was nine below zero, but a trip last week to one of the final sites that rock ‘n’ roll star Ritchie Valens played was “worth every bit of it,” for his brother.
“There was 40 people who had been at the original concert in 1959. They said Ritchie blew the roof off the place,” in Green Bay, Wis., said Bob Morales, 71, Valens’ older brother.
“I’m still high” from the experience, said Morales, who was in Green Bay on Friday for the tribute concert, one of a series of events marking the deaths of Valens, Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper on Feb. 3, 1959.
“I haven’t been that cold since I worked at Green Giant” (frozen food plant), said Morales.
But after a day at home in Moss Landing, Calif., Morales headed back to the Midwest for more tributes to his brother, the first Latino rock star.
With brother Mario Ramirez and sisters Connie Lemos and Irma Norton, Morales is in Clear Lake, Iowa, for “50 Winters Later,” a six-day celebration of the music of three men who died shortly after their concert there.
Morales said it’s been a long-time goal “to get America to recognize Ritchie as a pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll,” and feels the family has been successful.
Valens’ siblings actively oversee his estate, and have seen more attention to him in the last 25 years than in the first 25 years after his death.
“La Bamba,” the film about Valens’ life, came out in 1987, a postage stamp was released in 1992, and Valens was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. The family has organized tribute concerts in Watsonville, Calif., and a new box set of Valens’ music is planned this spring.
Although Valens’ recording career lasted eight months, with three hit records, Lemos isn’t surprised that people are still interested.
“My brother was definitely not a one-hit wonder. He was an original. He was not a wannabe,” said Lemos. “He wrote 22 songs” at a time when most singers didn’t write their own material, Lemos said. When Valens recorded cover versions “he made them his own.”
He recorded 33 songs, released on three albums, all after his death.
The “La Bamba” film has helped make fans of people who were born long after Valens died, Lemos said. She hears from people who said they learned of the movie through their parents.
On the Valens Web site, “we get e-mails from kids 18, 16, 13, 8 years old,” Lemos said. The younger fans “can relate with Ritchie,” who died three months short of his 18th birthday.
“They call it ‘The Day The Music Died,’ but the music didn’t die,” said Lemos, 58.
The box set coming out this year will include original Valens material and cover versions, Lemos said. One of the bands will be Los Lobos, which had a hit with “La Bamba,” on the movie soundtrack. The Backyard Blues Band, fronted by Valens’ younger brother, Ramirez, will also be on the package.
Valens, who was living in the San Fernando area, debuted with “Come On Let’s Go,” in the summer of 1958. He had two more hits, “La Bamba,” and “Donna,” which were on the charts in early 1959.
“Donna,” which Valens wrote about his girlfriend, was the bigger hit at the time, but it was “La Bamba” that later became Valens’ best-known song.
“50 Winters Later,” organized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is six days of sock hops, symposiums and a big concert on Monday at the Surf Ballroom, site of the 1959 show. The family was scheduled to participate in a symposium about Valens on Thursday.
The event “is bigger than the 35th, bigger than the 40th,” Lemos said.
The lineup for the final show on Monday night includes those influenced by Holly - Bobby Vee, Graham Nash and Peter and Gordon - and Los Lobos and Los Lonely Boys, Latino bands that can trace their roots to Valens.
Also on the bill is Tommy Allsup, now 77, a guitarist in Holly’s band who lost a coin flip with Valens to determine who would go on the plane. “I’ll be excited to see him,” Lemos said of Allsup, who remains active in music.
The Winter Dance Party, a tour through the upper Midwest by bus, included Valens, Holly, Dion and the Belmonts and J.P. Richardson, known as The Big Bopper.
Richardson, a Texas disc jockey and songwriter, had one big hit with “Chantilly Lace.” His writing credits include “Running Bear” and “White Lightning.”
Holly, whose biggest hit was “Peggy Sue,” has been cited as an influence by such performers as the Rolling Stones, the Beatles (Paul McCartney bought the publishing rights to Holly’s songs) and Bob Dylan.
A new member of Holly’s band was future country star Waylon Jennings, who was talked out of his seat on the plane by Richardson.
The tour bus heater had broken, and news reports at the time cited the miserable conditions as one of the factors that led Holly to charter a plane. He wanted to get to the next concert venue ahead of the bus so he would have time to launder stage clothes.
The Clear Lake concert, where admission was $1.25, ended close to midnight on Feb. 2. An hour later, the plane took off from nearby Mason City and crashed in a field a few miles away.
// Notes from the Road
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