The Number Twos: Ritchie Valens – “Donna”

17 Jan

“Donna” by Richie Valens hit #2 on February 23, 1959.

Ah, yes. The other Richie Valens song. It’s easy (for me at least) to forget just how young Richie Valens was when he perished in a plane crash on The Day the Music Died. On February 3, 1959, Valens, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper were killed when their plane crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa. Valens eventually won a coin toss with guitarist Tommy Allsup, a member of Holly’s band, for a spot on the plane.

Valens was all of 17 years old, two months shy of his 18th birthday. He released just three singles in his short career. “La Bamba,” which would go on to be his signature song, was released as the B side to “Donna” and would only reach #22. It would hit #1 almost 30 years later when covered by Los Lobos for the Ritchie Valens biopic of the same name starring Lou Diamond Philips in 1987.

“Donna” was thus Valens’ biggest hit, at #3, when Valens died in February 1959, and moved up one more spot after the tragedy.

“Donna” is a teenage love ballad, refreshingly for once actually sung by a teen, to Valens’ high-school sweetheart, Donna Ludwig.

The song is affecting, far more so than its immediate predecessor at #2, teenage love ballad “16 Candles” by The Crests which thanks to its proximity and similar subject matter provides a natural comparison. While the Crests presumably still hold the favor of their sweetheart, Valens pines for his lost love, the titular Donna, who wanders where she has gone, and what he’ll do by himself, all alone, now.

Valens’ voice doesn’t have nearly the sheer strength of Johnny Maestro’s (of the Crests), but the combination of the sweeter, reedier voice, and bare instrumentation makes the tenor of the lyrics come through much stronger.

The “Oh Donna”s, four of which both start and end the song are my favorite part, where Valens’ holds out the “oh” for just the perfect amount of time, about two seconds a piece, so simply, but conveying his feelings of love and longing towards Donna in just those two works, before any other lyrics arrive.

Rating: 7.5 – Valens’ yearning comes off as heartfelt, bringing me into the song emotionally.

What was #1? Lloyd Price – “Stagger Lee”

Was #2 better than #1? Yes.

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