The Number Ones

August 29, 1987

The Number Ones: Los Lobos’ “La Bamba”

Stayed at #1:

3 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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“La Bamba” was an old song by the time the 17-year-old Ritchie Valens got ahold of it. “La Bamba” came from Veracruz, the Mexican state that developed its own form of folk music over decades. Nobody knows who wrote the song, or even if a song like that can really be written by anyone. For some unknown length of time, “La Bamba” was a traditional wedding dance song in Veracruz, and it eventually spread north as various bandleaders adapted the tune. The oldest recorded version of “La Bamba” that anyone knows about is a rendition from Alvaro Hernández Ortiz, a musician who recorded under the name El Jarocho. His version of the song came out on the Victor label in 1938 or 1939 — two or three years before Ritchie Valens was born.

Valens, born Richard Steven Valenzuela, was a son of Mexican immigrants who started playing guitar as a small child in LA’s San Fernando Valley. By 15, he was in a local rock ‘n’ roll band called the Silhouettes. Eventually, he took over as that band’s leader. In 1958, around the time Valenzuela turned 16, Bob Keane, owner of the small indie label Del-Fi, signed Valenzuela as a solo act and gave the young musician a stage name that sounded less Mexican.

Ritchie Valens only had time to release two singles during his lifetime. The second of those was “Donna,” a swoony ballad that Valens wrote about his girlfriend Donna Ludwig. The song’s B-side was Valens’ version of “La Bamba,” a song that he grew up hearing at family gatherings. Working with session musicians like Carol Kaye and Earl Palmer, Valens turned “La Bamba” into a twangy, simplistic rock ‘n’ roll rave-up. In “La Bamba,” you can hear echoes of lots of things that would become running rock ‘n’ roll tropes in the years ahead, like the Latin-influenced counter-rhythms of garage rock and the overdriven pyrotechnics of surf guitar.

“Donna” became Valens’ biggest hit, peaking at #2 on Billboard‘s pre-Hot 100 singles chart. Even though it was a B-side, “La Bamba” still gained popularity on its own, getting enough airplay to rise up the Billboard charts. In February of 1959, “La Bamba” reached its peak at #22. One day later, Ritchie Valens died in the same airplane crash that killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. Valens was 17 when he died. “Donna” didn’t reach #2 until he’d been gone for weeks.

The crash that killed Ritchie Valens became a part of rock ‘n’ roll mythology, enshrined on songs like Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Twenty-eight years after the young star fell out of the sky, the playwright Luis Valdez, one of the driving forces in a new Chicano arts movement, made his cinematic debut, directing the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba. The role of Valens went to Lou Diamond Phillips, a young actor of Filipino descent. Phillips didn’t really look anything like Valens, but that ultimately didn’t hurt the movie, which tells Ritchie Valens’ short life story as an American tragedy, weaving in bits and pieces of Mexican folklore. In the movie’s version of events, Ritchie Valens first hears “La Bamba” at a Tijuana brothel, and the band playing the song is Los Lobos.

La Bamba, the film, went on to become one of the surprise hits of 1987, pulling in $54 million after opening in July. La Bamba isn’t a big-budget movie, and it doesn’t look or move like a summer blockbuster, but that’s what it was. On the year-end 1987 box office list, La Bamba is at #14, right between Dragnet and RoboCop. “La Bamba,” the song, also became one of the surprise hits of 1987. Los Lobos, a group who only incidentally overlapped with pop music, covered “La Bamba” on the film’s soundtrack and took the single all the way to #1 — a spot that Ritchie Valens never had a chance to reach on his own.

By the time they brought “La Bamba” to #1, Los Lobos had been around for 14 years. East Los Angeles teenagers David Hidalgo and Louie Pérez met when they bonded over the semi-obscure folk-rock records they loved, and they recruited some other local high school kids to from Los Lobos Del Este (De Los Angeles) — Spanish for the Wolves Of The East (Los Angeles). The band, which later became just plain Los Lobos, learned traditional songs and gigged around Los Angeles for years. They played a lot of weddings. In the absolutely essential new book Can’t Slow Down, Michaelangelo Matos’ account of the year in pop 1984, there’s a great quote from Pérez: “If you are a Chicano and you got married between 1973 and 1980, we probably played your wedding.”

In 1980, Los Lobos got a flukey gig opening for John Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols band Public Image Ltd. at LA’s Olympic Auditorium, and the audience booed them brutally. After that experience, the band got interested in LA’s punk scene, and they struck up a relationship with the Blasters, a local roots-rock band who came out of punk rock. Thanks in part to the Blasters, Los Lobos signed with the punk label Slash. Soon afterward, the Blasters’ saxophonist Steve Berlin left that band and joined Los Lobos, becoming the sole Lobo blanco.

In all their years gigging around, Los Lobos had mastered a crazy range of sounds — blues-rock, cumbia, country, norteño, old-school R&B. That fluidity, as well as the killer songs of Pérez and Hidalgo, won the critics over. Los Lobos’ 1984 album How Will The Wolf Survive? got great reviews, and it brought the band some slight mainstream visibility. The album’s title track made it to #78 on the Hot 100. Two years later, past Number Ones artist Paul Simon used Los Lobos as his backing band on “All Around The World Or The Myth Of Fingerprints,” the final track from his hit 1986 album Graceland. (Simon pissed Los Lobos off mightily when he didn’t give them a songwriting credit.)

When he was planning out La Bamba, Luis Valdez decided that he didn’t want to use the original Ritchie Valens recordings. Instead, he wanted new versions of those old songs, and the Valenzuela family pushed for Valdez to use Los Lobos. So Los Lobos came in and covered eight Ritchie Valens songs for the La Bamba soundtrack. (Valdez cast ’80s musicians as the ’50s icons who play small parts in La Bamba, so the other songs on the soundtrack are things like Marshall Crenshaw doing Buddy Holly’s “Crying, Hoping, Waiting” and the Stray Cats’ Brian Setzer doing Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.” There’s also a new version of “Who Do You Love” from Bo Diddley, and the film has a score from Los Lobos’ fellow Chicano rocker Carlos Santana, a man who will eventually appear in this column.) All the members of Los Lobos recorded their parts on separate tracks, which made it easier for Valdez and his editors to make Lou Diamond Phillips’ lip-syncing look good.

La Bamba is a terribly sad movie, and it ends with the wrenching scenes of Valens’ family members learning about his death. But for the end credits, Valdez runs back the scene of Phillips-as-Valens playing “La Bamba,” and it ends the film on an up note, making it feel less like a dirge and more like a celebration. That decision probably helped turn Los Lobos’ version of “La Bamba” into a hit. But then again, it’s also a great band playing a great song, so maybe that’s why it hit.

Los Lobos probably understood “La Bamba” better than Ritchie Valens did. Valens didn’t speak Spanish at home as a kid, and even though he knew “La Bamba,” he didn’t have a deep history with the song. Los Lobos, meanwhile, had presumably played the song at tons of weddings. Los Lobos actually sound a bit like an exceptionally good wedding band on their version of “La Bamba.” They bring a casual authority to it. The La Bamba soundtrack is clearly a contract gig for Los Lobos, and it doesn’t give them a chance to show all that they can do. But their professionalism has a power of its own. Los Lobos were capable of more than funky, catchy good-time music, but they weren’t above it, either.

Los Lobos’ version of “La Bamba” is faithful to Valens’ original, but it’s warmer and less urgent. David Hidalgo’s voice doesn’t explode the way Valens’ did. Instead, Hidalgo delivers the song with an offhand ease. The riff remains sticky and restless, and guitarist Cesar Rosas plays the hell out of the solo. Los Lobos work in little touches, like the accordion, that tie “La Bamba” back to its folk-song origins. As the song ends, they give it a full-on acoustic-folk coda, a lovely little touch. I’ve always liked how the acoustic-folk bit is faster than the rock ‘n’ roll one.

The video for “La Bamba” is full of clips from the movie, but it’s also got footage of Los Lobos playing the song at a carnival, with Lou Diamond Phillips joining them to sing the end of it. During that coda, we see Los Lobos playing the song on acoustic instruments as stagehands break down the stage, the audience long gone. Lou Diamond Phillips sits rapt, watching them.

The popularity of “La Bamba” had everything to do with the movie, but the song eventually took on a life of its own. As a kid in the late ’80s, I heard “La Bamba” everywhere, and I don’t think I knew anything about the movie. Covers of old songs like “Lean On Me” and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” did well on the 1987 charts, and “La Bamba” fits in with that trend. But there’s more to it. Los Lobos don’t attempt to modernize “La Bamba” for ’80s audiences. They don’t cram in synth noises or big drums. They just play the song with grace and maybe with gravity.

Another important thing about “La Bamba”: It’s the first all-Spanish song ever to hit #1 in the United States. There had been #1 singles in Italian, French, Japanese, and German, but there’d never been a Spanish one. That means that “La Bamba” works as a long-overdue acknowledgment of Latin influence on pop music, something that had been important to the development of rock ‘n’ roll and its offshoots from the very beginning. “La Bamba” hit #1 around the same time that Latin freestyle was having its pop moment, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence, even though Los Lobos never had anything to do with freestyle. “La Bamba” becoming a massive hit suggests that maybe American pop was finally opening itself up to some sounds that had long been closed off from its upper ranks. It also works as a nice corrective to the quasi-Spanish bullshit that Madonna was doing on “Who’s That Girl,” the #1 single just before “La Bamba.”

Los Lobos were not exactly on the pop radar before “La Bamba.” Earlier in 1987, the band had released By The Light Of The Moon; the album and its singles had not charted. After “La Bamba,” another Los Lobos song from the film’s soundtrack, their version of Ritchie Valens’ “Come On, Let’s Go,” reached #21. It was the last Los Lobos single to chart on the Hot 100. The band followed the La Bamba soundtrack with La Pistola Y El Corazón, an album of traditional folk music that worked as an announcement that Los Lobos were not chasing any more hits.

That decision worked out fine. Los Lobos have spent the decades after “La Bamba” as a cultishly beloved, hard-touring institution, which is probably what they would’ve become even if “La Bamba” had never blown up. They’ve kept recording, cranking out a handful of classic albums. (As I write this, their most recent LP is the 2019 Christmas record Llego Navidad. I doubt it’ll be their last.) For a while, a couple of Los Lobos members also played in Los Super Seven, a supergroup that also featured Freddy Fender, another guy who once had a #1 single that was (partially) sung in Spanish. Los Lobos have had a few further intersections with the mainstream, but they’ve been odd little tributaries in their career — the score for the stomp-ass 1995 Robert Rodriguez action movie Desperado, the theme song for the Disney Channel kids’ show Handy Manny.

In the summer of 2000, I worked the door at the Knitting Factory, a New York nightclub. That summer, the club’s owners had blown a ton of money booking a jazz festival at venues around town. (It wasn’t really a jazz festival; the big shows were things like the Roots and Al Green and Ratdog.) The festival was apparently a financial disaster, and my paychecks kept bouncing all summer. One of the big headliners was a free Los Lobos show in the plaza underneath the World Trade Center.

I handed out fliers for that show, but I didn’t get to see it, since I was working at the club that evening. Later that night, though, David Hidalgo showed up at the club by himself, just to see the Art Ensemble Of Chicago or whatever we had in the main room that night. Hidalgo was extremely gracious to those of us who were working that disaster of a festival, and the mere fact that he was there has always impressed me. Most people who have made #1 singles, after all, don’t finish a show and then decide they’re going out, by themselves, to check out the abstract jazz show that the bookers have going on elsewhere in town.

Los Lobos will not appear in this column again. It seems to me that they’re probably fine with that.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “La Bamba” cover that art-punk weirdos Half Japanese released in 1987:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 1987 Sesame Street bit where Emilio Delgado sings an acoustic-folk version of “La Bamba” and turns it into a barnyard-animal singalong:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 1988, “Weird Al” Yankovic parodied “La Bamba,” naturally turning it into a food-themed song called “Lasagna.” Here it is:

(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the slightly awkward reggaeton version of “La Bamba” that Wyclef Jean released in 2004:

(As lead artist, Wyclef Jean’s highest-charting single is 1997’s “Gone Till November,” which peaked at #7. It’s a 10. As a guest rapper, Wyclef will eventually appear in this column.)

THE 10S: Debbie Gibson’s bittersweet bubblegum banger “Only In My Dreams” peaked at #4 behind “La Bamba.” It makes my world come tumbling down, and it’s a 10.

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