La Bamba: the movie Fiesta; Ritchie Valens; the movie La Bamba; Los Lobos.

Hello there! This is another installment in our series Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies. This week our blog features the first Hispanic rock hit La Bamba. We will first review the traditional Mexican folk song as it appears in a 1947 movie Fiesta. Next we will discuss the rock song made famous by Ritchie Valens. We will then show the song as it appeared in the biopic La Bamba. And finally we will show a cover performed by Los Lobos.

La Bamba in the film Fiesta:

The song La Bamba is a Mexican folk song that originated in the state of Veracruz. The song is an interesting blend of indigenous, Spanish and African rhythms. When performed in Mexico, it typically involves one or two harps (arpas arochas), accompanied by a couple of Hispanic guitars.

There are a great many variations of La Bamba. The melody is the same in nearly all versions, however the lyrics were often improvised and so vary considerably. The song was traditionally played at Mexican weddings. The bride and groom would perform a complicated set of coordinated dance steps, which would climax when the couple placed a ribbon on the floor and created a bow using only their feet.

Here are the lyrics to La Bamba as they appeared in the rock song popularized by Ritchie Valens.

Para bailar La Bamba
Para bailar La Bamba
Se necessita una poca de gracia
Una poca de gracia

Para mi, para ti, ay arriba, ay arriba
Ay, arriba arriba
Por ti sere, por ti sere, por ti sere

Yo no soy marinero
Yo no soy marinero, soy capitan
Soy capitan, soy capitan
Bamba, bamba
Bamba, bamba
Bamba, bamba, bam

At some point the singer states that he is a captain, not a sailor (Yo no soy marinero, soy capitan); this is appropriate to a maritime province such as Veracruz.

Poster for the 1947 MGM movie Fiesta.

To the best of our knowledge, La Bamba was first recorded by El Jarocho on Victor Records in 1939. The song became popular in the U.S. when Arthur Murray introduced it at New York’s Stork Club in 1945. The song gained further acclaim when it was included in the 1947 MGM movie Fiesta, which starred Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams. At left is a poster for the movie, that features Esther Williams.

Fiesta was the first Hollywood movie for Ricardo Montalban, who subsequently became a Latin star in Hollywood and appeared in two more films paired with Esther Williams. So here is a scene from the movie Fiesta that features two traditional Mexican folk songs, Jarabe Tapatio and La Bamba.

Here, Mario Morales (Ricardo Montalban) is playing guitar in a mariachi band. The first song that they play is Jarabe Tapatio. However, Mario is seriously pissed because someone else is dancing with his girlfriend Conchita (Cyd Charisse).

So, as soon as the band finishes with Jarabe Tapatio, Mario throws down his guitar and orders one of his mates to play La Bamba. Mario then cuts in and he and Conchita perform an energetic dance to La Bamba.

The premise of Fiesta is that Mario and Maria Morales (Esther Williams) are twin children of a famous Mexican matador. Their father is determined that his son Mario must follow in his footsteps and become a bullfighter, but Mario wants to be a composer.

However, in one of those ridiculous Hollywood plots from the 40s, Maria becomes seriously interested in bullfighting. Mario has been working without success to break in as a composer, but feels compelled to work as a matador in order to please his family.

Maria had sent one of her brother’s compositions to a famed orchestra conductor. The conductor was very impressed, and told his father that Mario had a bright future as a musician. However, his father concealed this information from Mario, in the hopes that he would continue as a bullfighter instead.

Mario discovers his father’s deception just before a major bullfight. He walks out of the ring, potentially shaming his father. In order to save the family from disgrace, Maria disguises herself as Mario and confronts the bull; however, she finds herself in grave danger. Mario intervenes, slaying the bull and saving the family’s reputation. In gratitude, their father permits Mario to become a musician.

In addition to the bogus Hollywood theatrics, the filming of Fiesta featured some genuine real-life drama. Four of the stuntmen standing in for Esther Williams in the bullfight scenes were gored, and two nearly died after they contracted infections from the dirt on the horns of the bulls. The director of photography for the film and one of the crewmen died from cholera that they contracted from eating contaminated street food.

Finally, the director wanted Esther Williams to wear a traditional Mexican matador’s costume. The shirt for that suit is supposed to lie completely flat on the matador’s chest – for anyone who remembers Esther Williams, this would not work. The Mexican tailor refused to produce a suit for Ms. Williams unless she agreed “to have her bosom surgically removed.” The producer had the suit made in Hollywood.

Ritchie Valens and La Bamba:

Ritchie Valens was a pop star in the late 50s. Richard Steven Valenzuela was born in California’s San Fernando Valley in 1941. Valenzuela’s parents, emigrants from Mexico, encouraged their son’s interest in music and bought him a trumpet and drums.

However, Richard’s real love was the guitar. Although he was naturally left-handed, he learned to play the guitar the “normal” (right-handed) way. Richard initially played and sang for his high school classmates, but then branched out to play in clubs in the San Fernando Valley. Below is a publicity photo of Ritchie Valens.

Embed from Getty Images

A local record producer named Bob Keane stopped by to watch Valenzuela perform when he was told that “the Little Richard of San Fernando” was gaining a cult following. Encouraged by what he saw, Keane signed Valenzuela to his Del-Fi record label, and began to mentor him.

Keane encouraged his young protégé to adopt a name that sounded less Hispanic, and they eventually settled on Ritchie Valens. After shopping around some demo tapes, Keane and Valens recorded a number of songs at Gold Star studios in Hollywood with professional session musicians.

The first song they released was Come On, Let’s Go. It had a promising reception, reaching #42 on the Billboard pop music playlists, and establishing Mr. Valens as an upcoming artist to watch.

La Bamba was the “B” side of Ritchie Valens’ second single release. The “A” side was Donna, a song that Ritchie wrote for his girlfriend Donna Ludwig. The musicians on this session were Ritchie on lead vocals and lead guitar, Carol Kaye on rhythm guitar, Buddy Clark on bass, Rene Hall on baritone guitar, and Earl Palmer on drums.

La Bamba only made it to #22 on the Billboard Hot 100, while Donna climbed as far as #2 on the Billboard pop playlist. In any case, the combination of the two big hits propelled Valens to pop stardom.

So here is Ritchie Valens in a “live” performance of La Bamba.

There is no video of this performance, only the audio. It begins with Valens talking with some of his fans; we then hear the audio of Ritchie Valens singing La Bamba.  I believe this is just audio of Valens’ record, but with slightly different balance from the recording.

At this point in time, most Hispanic pop singers tended to conceal their ethnicity. Indeed, Richard Valenzuela initially shaded his ethnic background by adopting the name Ritchie Valens. However, the tune La Bamba clearly highlighted his Spanish roots.

And La Bamba has become a pop music classic. It is ranked #354 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and is the only tune on that list that is not in English.

With his new-found fame, Ritchie Valens became a rock ‘n roll headliner. The first challenge he needed to surmount was a serious fear of flying. When Ritchie was in junior high school, two planes collided over his school playground, and several of his classmates were killed or injured by debris from the planes. On that day, Ritchie missed school as he was attending his grandfather’s funeral; but the loss of his friends affected him deeply. Ritchie managed to overcome his phobia and to fly to Philadelphia for an appearance on American Bandstand, where he performed Come On, Let’s Go.

So in February 1959, Ritchie Valens found himself on “The Winter Dance Party Tour.” He was on the bill with Buddy Holly, Dion and the Belmonts, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Frankie Sardo.

The Midwestern tour had been beset with problems from the outset. The tour buses kept breaking down, the weather was bitterly cold, and several performers were becoming ill – drummer Carl Bunch got frostbite in his feet, and Valens and Richardson caught the flu.

After their Feb. 5, 1959 show in Clear Lake, Iowa, the musicians packed up for their next gig. Buddy Holly chartered a plane to take some of them to Fargo, North Dakota, the next stop on their tour. Waylon Jennings, one of the musicians in Buddy Holly’s band, gave up his seat to J.P Richardson who had the flu. Another of Holly’s band, Tommy Allsup, flipped a coin with Ritchie Valens for the last seat on the plane. Valens “won” the coin toss.

The plane took off from the airport in Mason City, Iowa, in poor weather. It crashed just a few minutes later, killing the pilot and all three passengers. The crash was later immortalized as “The Day The Music Died” in the 1971 song American Pie by Don McLean.

Ritchie Valens was just 17 years old and his musical career had lasted less than a year, although he had three hit songs by that time. A Hispanic pioneer in rock music, Valens made history by converting traditional Mexican folk music into a rock format.

Valens’ career inspired later artists such as Santana, Los Lobos and Los Lonely Boys. In 2001, Ritchie Valens was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

La Bamba in the film La Bamba:

The movie La Bamba was a 1987 picture that followed the life and career of Ritchie Valens. The film was written and directed by Luis Valdez. It was the breakout film for young actor Lou Diamond Phillips. Phillips is the son of a Caucasian father and a Filipina mother; however, he can easily pass as Hispanic, and in fact played Hispanic roles in several films.

Perhaps Lou Diamond Phillips’ most famous part was in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver. Here, he played a high school student of an inspirational teacher played by Edward James Olmos. This picture was nominated for an Academy Award, and Phillips was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Poster for the 1987 film La Bamba.

The very young Mr. Phillips does a creditable job in the relatively simple and sweet film La Bamba. That movie depicts Ritchie Valens in a complicated relationship with his half-brother Bob Morales (played by Esai Morales). The movie dwells on the competition between the two siblings, and Bob’s jealousy over Ritchie’s success; at the same time, it shows the pair bonding during various road trips. At left we show the movie poster for the film La Bamba.

La Bamba presents Valens being “discovered” by record producer Bob Keane, then being groomed by Keane as a performer. It also shows Keane helping Ritchie overcome his fear of flying. The movie is quite believable in showing the dramatic changes in Ritchie’s life that occur when he becomes famous.

It was a gutsy move for Valens to choose a traditional Mexican folk song, which emphasized his Hispanic heritage rather than hiding it. As an interesting twist, Ritchie Valens’ family did not speak Spanish, they spoke only English in their home. Thus, Valens took some time mastering the Spanish words in the tune.

Here is Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens “singing” La Bamba, in the movie of the same name.

The final scene of the movie shows a line of cars driving into the San Fernando Mission Cemetery for Valens’ funeral.

On the La Bamba film, the East L.A. rock group Los Lobos performed the songs. So here, Lou Diamond Phillips is lip-synching to the vocals of Los Lobos lead singer David Hidalgo. By the way, Mr. Hidalgo’s vocals are eerily similar to those of Ritchie Valens – occasionally, when I hear La Bamba on the radio, I am hard-pressed to tell whether I am listening to Valens or Hidalgo.

Los Lobos and La Bamba:

Los Lobos (“The Wolves”) is a band from East L.A. They originally formed in 1973 when high school classmates David Hidalgo and Louie Perez began to write songs. They recruited more of their school mates to their band, practiced together and began to tape some of their music.

Originally, the group played covers of Top 40 hits. However, they began to incorporate versions of traditional Mexican songs that they had learned as children. For the next several years, the group attempted to build up a fan base.

Since they were all employed at other jobs, most of their recording was initially done on nights and weekends. And many of their gigs were performances at weddings. Here is a photo of Los Lobos. David Hidalgo is in the center, while Cesar Rosas is at far left.

Embed from Getty Images

It was not until 1987 that Los Lobos really hit the big time. By that time, their lineup was complete, with David Hidalgo on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Louie Perez on drums, Cesar Rosas on lead guitar, Conrad Lozano on bass, and Steve Berlin on keyboards. Apart from Berlin, who joined the group in 1984, all other members had been with the group since 1974.

When the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba was being filmed, Los Lobos recorded covers of several Valens hits that were used in the movie soundtrack. This included the title track for the film.

When their version of La Bamba was released, it shot up to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles. By that time Los Lobos were an extremely tight combo. Their music was an eclectic blend of
rock and roll, Tex-Mex, country, zydeco, folk, R&B, blues, brown-eyed soul, and traditional music such as cumbia, boleros and norteños.

Here is Los Lobos in a live performance of La Bamba.

Los Lobos is performing in Watsonville, CA. I really enjoy this band. David Hidalgo does a great job in channeling Ritchie Valens; Hidalgo sounds just like Valens.

Lead guitarist Cesar Rosas, with his trademark black shades, his goatee and his left-handed playing style, turns in some epic electric guitar licks on this Mexican folksong. I also love to see the audience boogying away to this tune.

Once they became famous, Los Lobos made good use of their stardom. They have toured with headliners such as U2, the Grateful Dead and Neil Young. In 2011, Los Lobos received a Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. And the band has been nominated (unsuccessfully, thus far) for induction into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

So, we send all best wishes to the members of Los Lobos – we hope that you remain “hungry like the wolf.”

Source Material:

Wikipedia, La Bamba (song)
Wikipedia, Ritchie Valens
Wikipedia, Fiesta (1947 film)
Wikipedia, La Bamba (film)
Wikipedia, Los Lobos

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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