Saturday, December 24, 2011

December 24: Ritchie Valens, "La Bamba"

Artist: Ritchie Valens
Song: "La Bamba"
Album: Donna (single)
Year: 1958

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For a handful of songs that have been recorded over the course of music history, there is a specials status that defies any attempt at description.  These elite songs have become so timeless and universal that they transcend the boundaries of music itself and are cultural institutions onto themselves.  Such songs number in the single digits, and they have appeared scattered across the past century, coming from all genres and backgrounds.  Strangely enough, a number of such songs were recorded by artists whose careers were ended far too soon, and this is certainly the case when one looks at the singles from Ritchie Valens.  Without question the first Hispanic star of the "rock era," Valens died at age seventeen in the infamous plane crash that also took the lives of Buddy Holly and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson.  Due to this fact, as well as the reality that Valens' songs had just begun to gain a wider audience, it is impossible to speculate on "what could have been" had his career not ended; and yet the fact remains that nearly every one of the few songs he did record have easily withstood the test of time.  It is the unique fusion of his own cultural roots with the spirit and drive of the early rock and roll sounds that make his music so exciting, and there are few songs in history that can boast the recognition and sheer joy that can be experienced on Ritchie Valens' 1958 classic interpretation of "La Bamba."

Truth be told, there are perhaps only one or two guitar riffs from any point in history that are more instantly recognizable than that which opens "La Bamba," and yet it is the fact that even after hearing it countless times, this progression can still inject a massive amount of energy into the listener.  It is the almost overwhelming vitality that the guitar projects which quickly sets "La Bamba" far beyond almost any other recording, and there is a youthful sense of fun that is completely unique.  Furthermore, there is a tone within Ritchie Valens' playing that sounds completely unlike any of his contemporaries, and this is where the idea of the "Latin guitar" sound was first heard by the masses.  In many ways, it is also the rather sporadic presence of the bass guitar which emphasizes the overall mood on "La Bamba," as after giving the lead-in to the guitar, it only works as a punctuating point to the rest of the song.  This in itself goes against the traditional role of the instrument within a rock and roll arrangement, and it is in this element where one can see the first appearances of the cultural influences from Valens.  The way that the percussion makes "La Bamba" bounce and swing is easily the most entrancing aspect of the song, and it is the manner with which all of these sounds mix together so perfectly that make this a musical experience unlike any other.

Along with this absolutely unforgettable musical orchestration, the vocals from Ritchie Valens are impossible to mistake for any other singer.  Much like the music over which he is singing, it is the spirit with which he sings that is so captivating, if not overwhelming, and when it comes to a raw and honest vocal performance, few singers can hold their own against this recording.  From the moment e begins singing, Valens holds nothing back, and the exuberance with which he is performing enables "La Bamba" to quickly overcome any issues that might arise from those who do not speak Spanish.  The fact that the mood of the song is able to overpower the lyrical content proves just how unique a recording lives within "La Bamba," and yet this is also due to the fact that Valens possessed what is without question one of the most naturally powerful and emotive voices of all time.  As he easily works a large portion of the vocal scale, it is the distance from the microphone that one can detect which unintentionally gives "La Bamba" a more personal feel, and one can easily picture Valens recording this song amidst a massive gathering of people in celebration.  In fact, this idea is exactly what the song is all about, as while it has been interpreted in a number of different musical ways over the decades, at its core, "La Bamba" is about dancing and a good time, and this is exactly what one gets from Ritchie Valens' recording.

In the decades that followed the release of "La Bamba," it is almost impossible to note all of the covers that have emerged, as artists from almost every genre have attempted to make the song their own.  From the award-winning recording by Los Lobos to Bobby Darin to a number of punk bands, "La Bamba" as crossed over into every conceivable musical culture, further cementing its place as one of the most uniquely powerful and important songs in history.  Yet strangely enough, "La Bamba" was not even released with the intent of it becoming as big a hit as it has over the years.  It was initially placed as the b-side to another Valens' hit, "Donna," and due to this, one can argue that this single stands as one of, if not the greatest of all time.  However, it did not take long for "La Bamba" to outpace the a-side of the single, and it managed to find its way to the top of the charts in nearly a dozen countries, becoming the first non-English vocal performance to ever reach such success in the United States.  Even in modern times, the song still occupies a very unique place within culture, and it can be found in a wide array of films, television shows, commercials, and being used to energize crowds at sporting events across the globe.  Powered by an amazingly infectious guitar riff and one of the most unforgettable vocal performances in history, there is simply no overstating the impact and importance of Ritchie Valens' legendary 1958 rendition of "La Bamba."

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