By Jeff Burger
I’m obviously not the only Buddy Holly fan who wonders how much he could have achieved if an Iowa airplane crash hadn’t prematurely ended his career in February 1959. He was just 22 when he died; and though he had been pursuing music professionally for only about four years, he had already produced lots of terrific original work.
But what about Ritchie Valens, who perished in the same crash? His catalog was decidedly thinner than Holly’s, but he was a mere 17 years old when he died; in fact, he’d had his first music audition just nine months earlier. So it’s probably not hyperbole to say, as do the liner notes for one Valens retrospective, that “there can be few artists in the history of popular music who died so young but left such a significant legacy and legend.” After all, he scored three significant hits during his blink-and-you-missed-it career with “Come On, Let’s Go,” a garage-rock precursor; “Donna,” a seductive ballad; and “Donna”’s flip side, the infectious “La Bamba,” all of which have been frequently covered over the years. (Valens got a songwriting credit for each of these compositions, though he based “La Bamba” on a traditional Mexican folk ballad.) In fact, his career was so hot at the time of his death that a a radioannouncer reported on the crash victims by saying, “The names in order of bigness probably would be Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly of the Crickets, and also the Big Bopper.”
As I’ve noted, Valens didn’t manage to record nearly as much music by age 17 as Holly did by age 22, but there’s still much more to his catalog than his trio of hits. And you can find his entire output on two collections, both of which come with extensive and informative liner notes and track information.
The two-disc Ritchie Valens, The Complete Releases 1958–60 (which has been available previously with a different title and cover) delivers just what the moniker promises. Among the 35 tracks are both sides of all of his Del-Fi singles plus everything from his three albums: Ritchie Valens, Ritchie, and In Concert at Pacoma Jr. High (the L.A.-area middle school he’d graduated from only a few years before his career began).
The other new release, the 36-track Rocks, digs deeper: it duplicates the better-known material from the first collection but fills the rest of the program with interesting obscurities, such as studio outtakes, recordings made at the home of producer Bob Keane, and five performances from Jan. 21, 1959, less than two weeks before Valens’s death. Also here are a radio commercial for “Donna,” with voiceover by Valens; the aforementioned radio announcement of the airplane accident; and “Lost without You” and “Now That You’ve Gone,” two post-crash songs performed by Donna Ludwig, the girlfriend who inspired Valens’s biggest hit.
The material in both collections—which, incidentally, feature a then 22-year-old Carol Kaye, the subsequently renowned session guitarist—makes a strong case for Valens’s importance. A pioneer of Chicano rock, which later gave us artists such as Freddy Fender and Carlos Santana, he incorporated south-of-the-border elements in some of his music. “Come On, Let’s Go” was one of several examples of what became known as garage rock. And his ballads—not just “Donna” but also such numbers as “Hi-Tone,” “My Darling Is Gone,” “Stay Beside Me,” and “Now You’re Gone”—reveal vulnerability and an appealing softer side.
OK, maybe the Big Bopper—who also lost his life in the 1959 airplane crash—was a flash in the pan with the novelty hit “Chantilly Lace.” But Valens? Given what he achieved in a career that lasted less than nine months, anything might have been possible.
Megg Farrell and Friends, Megg Farrell and Friends. Megg Farrell has studied jazz in France and played bluegrass around a campfire in the American South, and you can hear evidence of both experiences—not to mention her penchant for indie rock—on this tuneful and eminently playable record. Farrell oozes personality throughout the set, which incorporates six originals plus three songs associated with Emmylou Harris: Wayne Kemp’s “Feelin’ Single,” Gram Parsons’s “Ooh Las Vegas,” and Harris’s own “Tulsa Queen.” Farrell’s vocals, witty lyrics, and first-class backup outfit are a winning combination.
The Duke Robillard Band, Ear Worms. Guitarist Duke Robillard has been making music since 1967, when he founded Roomful of Blues. Since then, he has issued nearly two dozen albums and found time to tour with the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Tom Waits and record with artists ranging from Ruth Brown to Bob Dylan. But his instrumental prowess has never had a better showcase than this latest release, which features several guest vocalists. The album opens with a party-ready original called “Don’t Bother Trying to Steal Her Love” that conjures up a cross between Billy Swan and the Mavericks. Then Robillard heads off in all sorts of directions, demonstrating dazzling diversity while pleasing consistently. Highlights include an instrumental take on the traditional “Careless Love,” a reading of Dylan’s “I Am a Lonesome Hobo,” and several ventures into the world of early 1960s rock and roll: Arthur Alexander’s “Everyday I Have to Cry Some,” Brenda Lee’s “Sweet Nothin’s,” and two instrumentals, Link Wray’s “Rawhide” and the Duprees’ “You Belong to Me.”
Jimmie Vaughan, Baby, Please Come Home. The joint is jumpin’ from the first notes of this album, which finds veteran blues singer and guitarist Jimmie Vaughan fronting a hot band that includes a full horn section. The performances are stellar, and so is the material, which includes such numbers as the Lloyd Price title cut, Fats Domino’s “So Glad,” Jimmie Reed’s “Baby, What’s Wrong,” T-Bone Walker’s “I’m Still in Love with You,” and Lefty Frizzell’s “No One to Talk To (But the Blues),” which gets a particularly strong reading. Only one track, “Hold It” (an obscure James Brown single), was actually recorded in concert, but the rest of the album has a live-in-the-studio feel.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.