La Bamba

Album: Ritchie Valens (1958)
Charted: 49 22


  • "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 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; she went on to become one of the most prolific studio musicians of the '60s and '70s, mostly on bass. Working on "La Bamba" was big moment for her. Kaye told Songfacts: "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."

    Kaye also played bass on the score to the 1987 film La Bamba.
  • When the Los Lobos version of this song hit #1, Taylor Hackford became the first director with consecutive #1 hits from four films: "Up Where We Belong" from An Officer And A Gentleman, "Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)" from Against All Odds, and both "Separate Lives" and "Say You Say Me" from White Nights.
  • Weird Al Yankovic recorded a parody of this song called "Lasagna," which is all about Italian food. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    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.

Comments: 33

  • Anthony Greene from UsaThank you for the best example of history and the music from that era, I am again very much appreciated to your help, Sincerely Anthony.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyPer: {12-15-2017}
    The Library of Congress named the latest additions to the National Film Registry Wednesday (December 13th, 2017) and 'La Bamba' - the 1987 biographical movie of the life of Ritchie Valens - was among the honorees. Other films named were 'Spartacus', 'Superman', 'Die Hard', 'Dumbo', 'Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner' and 'Titanic'.
  • Peter Roberts from New Zealandive just heard the labamba sessions on utube and there no way richie could have played lead solo there was aparantly anouther guitarist at the session, irving ashby i reckon he did the lead break
  • Michael from Atlanta, GaIf anyone has seen the documentary movie the Wrecking Crew, I believe Hal Blaine coined this term because of his fear of the many talented Black Musicians who made up the House Band of Rendevous Records who included Ernie Freeman on piano, Rene Hall on guitar, Red Callendar on Bass, Plas Johnson on sax, and the most recorded and greatest drummer who ever lived Earl Palmer on drums.
  • Michael from Atlanta, GaSeveral people have asked about or said that they heard a piano on song La Bamba. The piano player was Ernie Freeman who was one of the busiest Musicians, Arrangers, and Music Artists beginning in the mid fifties up until the late seventies. Ernie Freeman and Rene Hall who both played on La Bamba with Carol Kaye, Buddy Clark, and the late great Earl Palmer had a lot to do with it success. Ernie Freemam has won Grammy Awards for his Arrangements of songs 'Strangers In The Night' by Frank Sinatra and 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' by Simon and Garfunkel. He was Music Director for Reprise Records in the mid 60's and Arranged virtually every session for Producer Snuff Garrett for Liberty Records between 1959 - 1964. He was a major Creative Contributor to the music of Artists like Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Bobby Vee, Connie Francis, Petula Clark, Johnny Mathis, Julie London, Frank Sinatra, Carol Burnett, and many more.
  • Mister Danger from CaracasTime ago I read a statement somewhere, don't remember the reference. According to it, Ritchie Valens heard this rock version in a night club, performed by some "unknown" band and when they needed a B-side for Donna, he decided to record "La Bamba" following the style of this original rock version. The "legend" says that the players in that night club were actualy Trini Lopez and his band. Trini Lopez recorded La Bamba about 5 years later. You don't need to be a musical expert to percieve that the version by Trini Lopez is better than the one made by Ritchie Valens which, in the first place, never was intended to be a hit.
    A detail I never understood about this version by Trini Lopez is that he uses the same "pidgin" Spanish of Ritchie Valens. While this is quiet logical in the case of Ritchie Valens, I understand that Trini Lopez speaks a good Spanish.
    Finally, I find that the characterization of Lou Diamond Phillips in the movie "La Bamba" doesn't really reflects the real image of Ritchie Valens. As you can see in his real life videos and photos, he didn't have a typical chicano look and I believe he never wanted to be "recognized" as a Hispanic; he even changed his name to have that "anglo" sound. In late '50s it was not a good detail in your curriculum to be a "latino".
  • Greg Lucero from Stockton, Ca.I'm sorry but I have to disagree with this songfact. To say this song was only a modest hit up until the movie La Bamba came out is not accurate. This song has been playing on the radio ever since I was a kid. It's always been popular. If you read the newspaper article when Ritchie Valens, Buddy holly and the Big Bopper died; ( ( it focuses on Ritchie Valens who was a rising Rock n Roll star who had sold millions of records. What your songfact should say is that the song La Bamba became more popular after Ritchie Valens death.
  • Charles from 79928, TxAt least two other songs borrowed at least part of the melody from this song - Twist and Shout, (Performed by the Beatles) and Stand (Performed by R.E.M.) which only borrowed the introduction.
  • Jimi from Qingdao, ChinaActually, La Bamba is the second song with all-Spanish lyrics to reach No. 1. The first? Tequila, by the Champs.
  • Steve Dotstar from Los Angeles, CaLouis,
    I do remember hearing a piano in the mix on La Bamba..perhaps it was Rene Hall? He was an all around musician who did arranging as well...
  • Steve Dotstar from Los Angeles, CaJust like to say how proud we are that Ritchie played one of the first sock hops in the gym at West Covina high School,(Los Angeles Area) which opened around 1958....
    in less than a year he would be gone. :(
  • Jimi from Qingdao, ChinaI know La Bamba is the first real Spanish-language song to reach No. 1, but I actually won a radio call-in contest with an earlier "all-Spanish" No. 1 hit that the DJs originally disputed, but eventually had to accept. The song? "Tequila," which hit No. 1 in 1958.
  • John from Eugene, OrRitchie Valens was 17 when he died in the plane crash that also killed the legendary rocker, Buddy Holly (February 3, 1959). Ritchie's real last name was Valenzuela, which reveals his ethnicity. Ritchie performed on The Johnny Otis Show in Los Angeles and perhaps it was preserved, ask Johnny Otis, he's still alive as of today (May 12, 2010).
  • Louis Rodriguez from Lancaster, CaIn answering Jim from Kansas City re: guitarist on recording of La Bamba, according to Bob Keane,who was Ritchie's record producer the following are the musicians of record in this recording: Rene Hall Buddy Clark Carole Kaye and the legendary drummer Rock & Roll Hall a Famer: The Great EARL PALMER, along with Richie of course. One last note if anyone listens to this recording does anyone else hear a piano.

  • Linc from Beaumont, TxValens was supposed to ride a bus to the show he was attending with Buddy Holly and Big Bopper. He had a cold and the bus was not heated. Valen's was worried about whether or not he would be able to proform if he had a sore throat or lost his voice so he was invited to take the plane with the show headliners.
  • Johnny from Hershey, Pa, PaRE: Carol Kaye: Carol says that she did play on "La Bamba," her first recording session, but she played rhythm guitar. Richie himself played the lead. She was using her Gibson Super 400 guitar, which she soon traded in on a Jazzmaster.
  • Ivette from La, CaI love the movie it's so cool.Ritchie Valens had alot hits during his time especially "la bamba" was the besssst.I admire him so much he's the best I wish that he could still be alive.
    R.I.P Ritchie Valens.The best forever.
  • Mark from Houston, TxAs a native speaker, I don't think his pronounciation is all that bad for an American (North, Central, South) speaker. Only a Spanish Castillian snob would think it's horrendous, but the Brits could say the same about American English pronounciation.
  • Mark from Houston, Tx"Bamba", is pocho (border slang) for "luck" -"pura bamba" would mean that you just lucky had good luck instead of talent.
  • Scarrie from Minneapolis, MnThe song refers to a traditional Mexican wedding dance. The dance is a display of unity. The couple performs complicated steps around a ribbon and the steps eventually ties the ribbon into a knot. This is where the expression "tying the knot" comes from. I first learned about this in my high school Spanish class.

    ~Scarrie -Minneapolis,MN
  • Noel from Christchurch, New ZealandLike Buddy Holly & The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens also goes down in 50s Rock & Roll history! with this song. ( May they all rest in peace )! Harry Belafonte also did a version of La Bamba.
  • Emily from Westchester, Ohwow this song is amazing! i can't believe how amazing it is. like oh shoot its so great. nottt hahahahahaha i never even heard it actaully. my brother of 45 years of age told me that its a great song but i never heard it. so i just thought i'd leave a comment on it. it seems like a wonderful song, title and all but i will soon look forward to listening to it.
  • Mark from Lancaster, OhThis song seems very far ahead of its time. Latin influence on popular music in the 50's and '60's resulted in stuff like the tango and cha-cha; certainly nothing in rock. And then La Bamba comes along, like nothing else before. I think it was a significant factor in rock music later in the '60's and beyond. One of my favorites, and I always felt that it marked something of a fundamental change in popular music.

  • Amber from Anchorage, Aki think if you want to know anything about the song, like what it means, the lyrics and translations, you should look up Los Lobos not Ritchie Valens because they actually performed it and basically made their own version

    LV, NJ
  • Joe from Kent, CtJim, The guitar on Valen's La Bamba was played by a woman, Carol Kaye. Carol is one of the most famous Los Angles session musicians, who was part of Phil Spector's studio band, the Wrecking Crew. She is best known as the bass player on tons of hits for the Beach Boys, Monkees, Ray Charles and many others.
  • Howard from St. Louis Park, MnThere was also a version of La Bamba recorded by Trini Lopez.
  • Antonio from Monterrey, MexicoEven when Valens couldn't speak Spanish, trust me, he did a greater job with the language than many other "hispanic artists"...
  • Nathan from Defiance, OhI think that the Los Lobos version is actually
    better than the original.
  • Brian from Meriden, CtI think it's worth mentioning that while La Bamba may have earned the right to be considered the Latin legend's biggest hit due to it's general staying power and it's unofficial status as his signature song, the song you mention as it's B-side (?), (Oh) Donna, peaked 20 places higher on the Billboard pop chart. Like later acts like the Goo Goo Dolls and Mr. Big, it was the love ballad that actually proved more successful, at least in the emergence period of the artist.
  • Jim from Kansas City, MoWho played the guitar solo on Ritchie's La Bamba,was it Ritchie or some other musician?I know that it sounds way ahead of its time.
  • Matt from Millbrae, CaI dont care about his accent..this was probably the first classic guitar riff...EVER! It was before the Beatles, before Zeppelin, and this riff is still one of the most recognizable.
  • Latoya from St.ann,jamaica, OtherI think La Bamba is such a beautiful song;it is captivating.Even before I could speak spanish,and so didnt know what the song was saying, I connected with La Bamba.Ritchie Valens(R.I.P)used his voice and instruments to re-do a magical peice.La Bamba is one of those songs that will always live on;sounding new and full of vibes each time.Los Lobos also did a good job.
  • Keith from Slc, UtValens couldn't speak Spanish, and his pronunciation was so bad that the record was used in Spanish classes as an example of how to tell an American accent. We got calls when we played Los Lobos' version from people saying that the band didn't know how to sing the song!
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