It was while attending school that Valenzuela was first exposed to R&B music and rock 'n' roll. In 1956 he joined a local garage band who performed at record hops in the San Fernando Valley area. During one of these performances, he was heard by Bob Keane, the president of Del-Fi Records, who offered to become his manager and signed him to a recording contract. Keane took Richard to his 'Gold Star Studios' in Hollywood, to record several songs, also shortening the singer's name from Valenzuela to Valens and adding the "t" to Richie. A session band including Earl Palmer (drums), Carol Kaye (guitar), Red Collendar (stand-up bass), Ernie Freeman (piano) and Rene Hall (guitar) played behind Valens. Their first single, the Valens original "Come On, Let's Go", reached number 42 in the USA, in late 1958, selling 750,000 copies. Following its release, Ritchie went on an 11-city U.S. tour.
When the first tour had finished, Ritchie returned to the studio to record a song he wrote for his high school sweetheart, Donna Ludwig. For the flip side of the record, he chose a song called "La Bamba", a traditional huapango song from the Vera Cruz region of eastern Mexico. (A huapango is a Mexican song consisting of nonsense verses, the meaning of the lyrics often known only to the composer.) Valens was reportedly reluctant to record the song, fearing its lyrics would not catch on with American record buyers. It was sung entirely in Spanish, and featured some quick guitar work, as well as the thick sound of the relatively new "electric" bass.
In October 1958, the single "Donna"/"La Bamba" was issued. Contrary to popular belief it was actually the ballad "Donna", that was the bigger hit, reaching number 2 on the national charts. "La Bamba", the b-side, only reached number 22 in the USA, but has proved to be the more remembered song.
In January 1959, Ritchie was booked for the now-infamous "Winter Dance Party" tour, along with Dion and the Belmonts, Buddy Holly, and J. P. Richardson (known as the "Big Bopper"). The tour was a gruelling series of one night stands that eventually brought them through the North-Central part of the United States. The tour bus developed heating problems, and Holly's drummer, Carl Bunch, came down with frostbite. When they arrived at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, they were cold and tired. After their performance on February 2nd, Buddy chartered a small plane for himself and his remaining backup musicians -- Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup -- as transportation to the tour's next gig in Moorhead, Minnesota. Jennings gave his seat up to Richardson, who was running a fever and had trouble fitting his stocky frame comfortably into the bus seats.
When Ritchie heard of Buddy's intended flight, he tried to convince Allsup to give up his seat. Tommy didn't want to but finally agreed to flip a coin to decide who would go, provided he could use The Big Bopper's new sleeping bag if he lost. The Big Bopper agreed. Allsup flipped the coin, and Ritchie called "heads". "Heads" it was. Valens won the seat...and Allsup won the rest of his life.
The three stars arrived at the airport about 12.40 a.m. and were met by their 21-year-old pilot, Roger Peterson, and Jerry Dwyer the owner of the plane. It was a little before 1 a.m. when the single engine aircraft took off in a blinding snow storm. Peterson was inexperienced and was actually not supposed to fly under conditions requiring navigation by instruments, but did not see the special advisories concerning poor visibility. Peterson probably became confused in reading the unfamiliar gyroscope and may not have realised he was descending and not ascending. Just minutes after takeoff, the plane plunged into the ground.
The wreckage was spotted at approximately 9:35 a.m. the next morning when a worried Dwyer decided to investigate, after not having heard from the airport of destination. Holly and Valens lay twenty feet from the plane while The Big Bopper was thrown forty feet away. Ritchie Valens was just 17 years old. February 3rd, 1959 would become known years later, in a song called "American Pie" by Don McClean as The Day The Music Died. Valens is interred in the San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills, California.
Valens only had about two albums worth of material in the can, as well as some lo-fi live tapes of a gig at a local junior high, before his death; undoubtedly some or many of these were demos or unfinished tracks. In the wake of his death, several further singles were issued, only two of which - "That's My Little Suzie" and "Little Girl" - were minor chart hits. Three albums - 'Ritchie Valens', 'Ritchie' and 'Ritchie Valens In Concert At Pacoima Junior High' - were released from sessions recorded for Del-Fi and at a performance for Valens' classmates.
Valens' legend grew in the years following his death, culminating in the 1987 film La Bamba, a dramatized version of Valens' brief life and stardom, filled with the usual Hollywood distortions and factual errors. His style has been copied by several artists, including Chris Montez and the Hispanic-American group Los Lobos, who supervised the film's music and recorded their own rendition of "La Bamba". Their version ironically went to number 1 in America in 1987, outperforming Valens' original chart position. Rhino Records has released several Ritchie Valens albums over the years, including "History of Ritchie Valens" (1981), "The Ritchie Valens Story" (1987), and "The Best of Ritchie Valens" (1987). In 1998, Del-Fi records issued a deluxe 3-CD, 62 track set featuring all the material from the three original albums plus some rare demos and outtakes. A 62 page booklet featured Valens' biography and rare photos.
Richie Valens was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. In August, 2016, his image was given new life when the Valens family reached licensing deals with La Bamba Cola, limited edition guitars and video games, as part of a merchandising strategy to introduce the Latino Rock 'n' Roll pioneer to young audiences.