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"La Bamba" is a traditional Mexican Folk song that became a hit for the young rocker Ritchie Valens' after he died in a plane crash on February 3, 1959 along with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. The song is very popular with Mariachi bands and is often played at weddings. The lyrics are in Spanish: "Para bailar la Bamba se necessita una poca de gracia" means "To dance La Bamba you need to have a little grace." A little translation:
The verses start with a man telling his fiancée, "I'm not a sailor, I'm a captain," indicating his big ambitions. In the next verse he sings, "In order to get to heaven you need a big ladder and a little ladder, a little ladder and a big ladder." At this point, he's climbing for the heavens, then comes the refrain where he says, "Up and up and up I'll go." The song if filled with the optimism of youth, and hit the mark with the teenage audience that consumed this early Rock.
This song was only a modest hit when it was released in November, 1958, but it became far more popular when the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba
was released in 1987. The movie was a big deal because it was the first major, mainstream Hollywood film with a Hispanic subject. The movie was released in the United States in both Spanish and English versions, and Coca-Cola did a marketing tie-in targeting the growing Hispanic population in America - a population that would grow considerably in size and influence over the next several years.
The movie was made with the assistance and blessing of the Valens family, and starred Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie. Marshall Crenshaw played Buddy Holly, Brian Setzer played Eddie Cochran, and Taylor Hackford was the director. The music in the film, including the new version of the title track, was performed by Los Lobos
. Their version went to #1 in both the UK and US. When we spoke with Louie Perez of Los Lobos
, he said that the Valens family asked them to do the film. "For us, it was to bring attention to him and his legacy," he said. "We did it out of really believing in his story."
Unlike most songs with titles that are the name of a dance, this one doesn't give any specific instructions on how to do the dance, so alas, there was no "La Bamba" dance craze. In this song, the singer is expressing how he feels about the dance - a generally good one, as assumed because of what he says about it and the beat/rhythm of the song.
The title does not have a literal translation. The closest associated word is "Bambolear," which means "To Swing."
Thanks to the movie, this became Valens' best known song, but it was far from his biggest hit: that would be "Donna
," which made it to #2. "La Bamba" was the B-side of that single, and it began a chart run when "Donna" faded, peaking at #22 a few days after Valens died. It was Valens' producer, Bob Keane, who suggested a new version of "La Bamba" to use as the B-side of "Donna."
Valens was born Richard Valenzuela in Pacoima, California to Mexican-Indian parents. He didn't speak fluent Spanish, but could understand his mother and speak a fair Spanglish. He did, however, make a huge impact on the Hispanic audience in the United States, who saw one of their own become the first Rock Star. Others who followed include Chris Montez, Trini Lopez, and Sam The Sham & The Pharoahs.
A young guitarist named Carol Kaye played on this track. She was playing in Jazz clubs in 1957 when she picked up some session work, and she went on to become one of the most prolific studio musicians of the '60s and '70, mostly on bass. Working on "La Bamba" was big moment for her. Said Kaye: "What was nice about working for Ritchie Valens was about that time, I was feeling like I didn't want to do studio work. Because I missed Be-Bop and I knew it was going to be rough to make a living in Jazz. But Ritchie Valens was so nice and so warm, and he made the date so pleasant. I thought if they're all like this, then studio work I can do."
Weird Al Yankovic recorded a parody of this song called "Lasagna," which is all about Italian food. (thanks, Steph - SoCal, CA)
The Los Lobos remake of this song was the first song with all Spanish lyrics to hit #1 in America. It was a huge break for the band, which was playing weddings in the Los Angeles area just a few years earlier.
Ritchie Valens was just 17 when this song was released, and was the same age when he died. He made his first recordings in March, 1958, so he was actively recording only for about 10 months. Not much was known about him, and a common misperception was that he was from either Texas or Mexico. For Buddy Holly, the resurgence came when Don McLean recorded his tribute "American Pie
," and for Valens, it was the 1987 movie that brought him to the public's attention. Unlike Holly, whose song "It Doesn't Matter Any More
" made #13 when it was released after his death, none of Valens' posthumous releases hit the Top-40. He didn't even have an album out when the plane crashed.
Kristian Bush of Sugarland
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Mike Watt - "History Lesson, Pt. 2"
Mike Watt of the Minutemen tells the story of the song that became an Indie Rock touchstone. It's also the story of what Mike calls "The Movement."