Thirty years after Pacoima rocker Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash at age 17, the strains of his lively hits filled a Mission Hills park Saturday as a group of family members and friends celebrated his approval for a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
For two years, members of the group had gone public with their memories of the young star, asking Los Angeles City Council members and congressmen for support in securing the honor for the Latino musician.
At Saturday's picnic, the mood was nostalgic as about 150 people gathered to listen to Valens' tunes and to see old friends.
Valens, a Pacoima native who attended San Fernando High School, started as an obscure guitar player in the San Fernando Valley but shot to fame in 18 months with the 1958 and 1959 hits "Come On, Let's Go," "Donna" and a rock 'n' roll version of the Latino folk song "La Bamba." He became a legend soon after when he died in an Iowa plane crash along with Buddy Holly and J. P. (The Big Bopper) Richardson.
'We Felt Cheated'
"When Ritchie died, we felt cheated," said Gil Rocha, who, as the young leader of a Mexican combo called the Silhouettes, gave Valens his first chance to play. "He was our hometown hero."
Rocha said he never forgot Valens and two years ago he organized the Ritchie Valens Recognition Committee to make sure that Hollywood didn't either. The committee lobbied the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, which selects entertainers for the Walk of Fame. By organizing a dance in the American Legion Hall in San Fernando--the first place Valens played--the committee raised the $3,500 cost of installing the star.
"I said, 'I'm gonna do one more thing for Ritchie,' and I think the other people who knew him just felt the same way," Rocha said.
On Saturday, as a woman singer belted rhythm and blues and members of Valens' large family talked with friends on picnic blankets laid out in the sun, stories flew about the high school kid who changed his name from Richard Valenzuela.
"He threw that cigarette butt, and you should have seen the girls behind him jump for it," Valens' aunt, Ernestine Reyes, 52, said with a laugh.
"Whenever I wanted him to play a song, he'd play it," said Rosie Morales, Valens' sister-in-law.
Perhaps the most lively story came from Chick Armendariz, who described his link to Valens as "doing a lot of cruisin' around together."
Armendariz said one night after Valens played at the Rainbow Rollerskating Rink in Van Nuys, Armendariz brought Valens and a group of friends home. Valens played a few soft bars on his guitar and before long, Armendariz said, the whole group was banging away on pots and pans.
When Armendariz's parents came out of their room to tell the group to quiet down, Armendariz said Valens laughed and suggested that they dance instead. Armendariz said they took him up on the idea.
"Ritchie always liked everybody to enjoy life," said Emma Franco, who sang with the Silhouettes. "He would have loved this, all his friends getting together just having a good time."
Valens' star will be officially dedicated May 11, 1990, at 6727 Hollywood Blvd., a Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman said.