Thirty-three years after the music died in an Iowa blizzard, another Valens has signed a record deal--with the same promoter.
Ernie Valens, cousin of famed rock 'n' roller Ritchie Valens, recently signed a three-album contract with Bob Keane, the president of Del-Fi Records in Hollywood, who helped navigate Ritchie to the top of the charts with such hits as "La Bamba" and "Donna" in the late 1950s. Ritchie Valens was 18 when he, Buddy Holly and J.P. (The Big Bopper) Richardson were killed in a 1959 plane crash on the way back from a concert. In Don McLean's popular 1971 song, "American Pie," McLean called the accident "the day the music died."
At first, Keane said he was reluctant to listen to Ernie, 23, and his San Fernando band--Valenz--assuming it was a no-talent unit exploiting Ritchie's legacy. But when Salvador Guitarez, its guitarist, submitted tapes to Keane in November, he quickly opened up negotiations.
"I was surprised," said Keane, 68. "Ernie's a real good singer. This fellow is a little more polished than Ritchie, but his voice has a little bit of Ritchie's sound in him. He's got the same humble, laid-back attitude."
For Ernie Valens, the deal establishes a new, special link to his famous cousin. Ernie lives in the same San Fernando home where Ritchie Valens lived during the height of his career. For inspiration, Ernie said he frequently visits Ritchie's grave in San Fernando.
"He gave me the momentum to be a musician, and I feel like I knew him even though I never did," Valens said.
The band was originally formed by Valens in 1989 to support the campaign to get a star for his cousin on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which succeeded in 1990.
After playing a few concerts in Texas and Iowa, Valens said he began to realize he could succeed on his own. He rejects any suggestion that he is merely trying to capitalize on his cousin's reputation.
"There was only one Ritchie," he said. "I just want to be myself, and hopefully people will appreciate me in the same way they enjoyed Ritchie."
Keane said the new Valens presents a harder rock 'n' roll sound.
Within three months, Keane said, he will release the band's first album, a tribute to Ritchie Valens, featuring his hits, plus some Led Zeppelin and Eddie Cochran tunes. In concert, the band also plays some of its own tunes and music of Santana, Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
"We've gotten criticism from pure Ritchie Valens fans who are critical of us doing other stuff," Guitarez said.
This month, the band will record "The Road Rolls On," its first compilation of original material written by Valens, Guitarez and his son, lead guitarist Jason Gutierrez. The album is expected to be released this summer. Keane said he will press 5,000 copies.
In the meantime, the band--which also includes Jake Smith on bass and Noel Neuenkirk on drums--hopes to line up more local gigs. Last weekend, Valenz performed at L.G.T. Vegas in Mission Hills. Previously, it performed at the Country Club in Reseda and at high schools in San Fernando and Pacoima.