In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover the La Bamba soundtrack, which went to No. 1 on September 12, 1987, where it stayed for two weeks.
Americans don’t always get it right the first time around. From the really big issues like slavery and Native American genocide to a tendency to overlook innovative artists and thinkers, there’s a lot for us to feel bad about. Luckily, the movies are there to help absolve some of that guilt.
That’s part of the reason crowds flock to films like Amistad and 12 Years A Slave. For as hard as they are to watch, they make us feel better. Relative to the people onscreen, we’re enlightened citizens of a highly evolved country, and, at least in our heads, the act of cringing through unpleasant scenes en route to the end credits amounts to a righting of historical wrongs. Catharsis with a side of popcorn and a Coke: What could be more American than that?
To a lesser extent, the same holds for rock documentaries like 20 Feet From Stardom, Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, and A Band Called Death—each an examination of musicians belonging to an ethnic minority who never received their due. The phenomenon also helps to explain the success of Luis Valdez’s 1987 Ritchie Valens biopic, La Bamba, as well as the massive popularity of its accompanying soundtrack.
The La Bamba soundtrack topped the Billboard 200 for two weeks in September 1987, and throughout that summer, the title track—a remake of Valens’ beloved 1958 single performed by the great East Los Angeles band Los Lobos—was all over radio and MTV. The words “la-la-la-la la Bamba” were on everyone’s tongue, even if most people had no clue what the hell they were singing.
The song also reached No. 1, surpassing Valens’ original by 21 places. While most people figure “La Bamba” was the Chicano rock ’n’ roll pioneer’s biggest hit, his lovesick ballad “Donna” actually fared better, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Donna” was still on the charts on February 2, 1959, the day Valens won a coin toss and wound up onboard a Beechcraft Bonanza that famously crashed in a field in Clear Lake, Iowa, making him, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper rock’s first major casualties.
Casting cynicism aside, if only for a second, the success of the La Bamba soundtrack was due in no small part to the sheer joyfulness of that title track. Los Lobos sticks pretty close to the source material, though aided by ’80s production, the group makes the tune—a traditional Mexican wedding song that had already received the big-screen treatment in the 1947 film Fiesta—feel bigger and brighter than Valens’ rendition. “La Bamba” is a timeless dance number that stays fun after the five-millionth listen. Musically, it works for the same reasons The Beatles’ version of “Twist And Shout” does, and the non-English vocals make it enough of a novelty to stand out but not so much of one that it gets on anyone’s nerves.
The Los Lobos video played up the good-time vibe, positioning the ever-cool Ray-Ban-rocking L.A. dudes in front of a spinning carnival ride. Even the movie clip of two planes crashing into each other—taken from a dream sequence used to demonstrate Ritchie’s fear of flying—can’t spoil the fiesta. They collide in time with the drum hit that follows the opening guitar riff, and with that, listeners are off and grooving. Even without the movie or any of the backstory, the re-recorded “La Bamba” would have been a smash.
Now back to the cynicism: The Spanish lyrics and retro sound made it virtually impossible to hear “La Bamba” without thinking about Valens’ story, which was fresh in everyone’s minds, thanks to the movie. Just 17 when he died, Valens overcame several obstacles in his short life, the first of which was his last name. This California-born son of Mexican-Indian immigrants was christened Richard Steven Valenzuela, but his manager, Bob Keane, was savvy enough to realize that moniker might not fly with mainstream audiences.
The shortened Valens surname may have helped with record sales, but it didn’t much matter to the father of one Donna Ludwig, the pretty blonde who inspired Valens’ greatest hit. As the film shows, Donna’s old man wasn’t keen on his little girl dating a Mexican-American rock ’n’ roller, and he forbade her from seeing him. In the movie, they get something of a happy ending, as Donna, played by Danielle Von Zerneck, professes her love to Lou Diamond Phillips’ Ritchie just before he leaves on the ill-fated Winter Dance Party Tour. In real life, it couldn’t have been so easy. According to Valens’ official website, Donna’s father forbid her from attending the party Valens’ family threw just before he left on the tour, and though he promised to see her when he got back, he never got the chance.
That Valens didn’t wind up with Donna is, of course, not the saddest part of this story. He died less than a year into his professional career, and given his youth and unique sound, it’s possible he would have blossomed into a much bigger star. That is, unless his Mexican-American heritage had held him back, which may well have been the case.
It’s worth noting that when La Bamba hit theaters in 1987; only a few years had passed since MTV put “Billie Jean” and “Thriller” into heavy rotation, ending the unofficial ban on black artists that had been in place since the network’s debut. Pop radio had long been more diverse, but even back in the ’50s, when Chuck Berry and Little Richard were lighting up the charts, other non-white performers could only hope to get so popular. They’d never be Elvis, no matter how incredible their music, and it wasn’t really until Michael Jackson that pop got its first global megastar who was also an ethnic minority.
By purchasing the La Bamba soundtrack or lining up for the movie, Americans were able to give Valens a second chance and congratulate themselves on living in a world where he might not have needed one. That it was an album of Valens covers didn’t seem to matter. Los Lobos recorded eight Valens tunes for the otherwise unremarkable soundtrack, which featured Marshall Crenshaw and Brian Setzer doing passable Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran impressions and some guy called Howard Huntsberry hamming it up as Jackie Wilson. To this day, when most people hear the name Ritchie Valens, they likely picture Lou Diamond Phillips and hear the voice of Los Lobos singer David Hidalgo. The movie has become the definitive portrait of Valens and his music, and even if it’s an oversimplified, romanticized telling, it’s a genuinely enjoyable film that leaves viewers smiling, tragic ending notwithstanding.
Leaving the theater in 1987, moviegoers got to feel like they’d rediscovered an artist cheated by circumstance, and when they heard Los Lobos on the radio afterward, it hammered home the idea that had Valens just come along 30 years later, he could have been huge, no questions asked.
There might actually have been some truth to this thinking. In June 1987, just weeks before the La Bamba soundtrack went to No. 1, Lisa Lisa And Cult Jam—a New York City freestyle outfit led by Lisa Velez, a singer of Puerto Rican descent—ruled the Billboard singles tally with “Head To Toe.” In October of the same year, Cult Jam struck again with “Lost In Emotion,” another chart topper. Compared to other ’80s freestyle songs, both were fairly poppy and lacking in Latin edge, but they were different enough from Debbie Gibson or Madonna to suggest Americans knew what they were buying.
Of course, neither Los Lobos nor Lisa Lisa helped Latino artists gain any real foothold on the market, and a decade later, when Ricky Martin, Shakira, and J-Lo were shaking their hips all over MTV’s TRL, their collective presence was strange enough to warrant a slew of newspaper and magazine trend pieces. Although the “Latin Explosion” was just that—a quick flash that was over nearly as soon as it began—these artists became superstars in ways Valens never did, and if they ever get Hollywood biopics, the films won’t evoke the same kinds of feelings.
If anyone deserves a big-screen reexamination of the La Bamba variety, it may be Los Lobos. For years after the film’s release, they were synonymous with Valens and his music, and while they were the obvious choice to take on tunes like “Come On, Let’s Go” and “Ooh! My Head,” they’re capable of far more than playing ’50s jukebox.
Los Lobos came up in the fertile Southern California scene that spawned fellow rootsy, punk-ish acts like X and The Blasters, and, before signing on for La Bamba, the band was a popular college-rock group with a minor hit—1984’s “Will The Wolf Survive?”—to its credit. The group followed La Bamba with the truly punk-rock move of releasing La Pistola y El Corazón, a purposefully noncommercial album of Mexican folk songs, and in the years since, Los Lobos has continued to make adventurous, genre-defying records that never land anywhere near the Top 40.
Still, at least the group is doing it on its own terms, making good on a certain “La Bamba” lyric that sailed over everyone’s heads: “Yo no soy marinero, soy capitan.” Translation: “I’m not a sailor / I’m a captain.”