I was excited when I found out my next assignment was to interview Bob from the world-famous La Bamba movie. I was very curious to find out how the real-life older brother of the rock ‘n’ roll legend Ritchie Valen’s was doing and see what kind of life he lived. As I pulled up to his residence in Watsonville, CA, I was surprised when I had to take a dirt road to get to his mobile home that looked similar to the one he shared with Rosie in the movie. Once I parked, I saw the 75-year-old Bob standing there with a Mohawk. We began talking and he told me how his home, along with most of his belongings, were lost in a fire and about his recent battle with cancer. I quickly realized that his life story had more struggles than triumphs.
As we sat down inside his one-bedroom mobile home he began to tell me how his life had taken a turn for the worse at 14 when his parents separated. “I moved in with my mom while Ritchie went with my dad. One day I told my mom that I wanted to go with my dad and Ritchie and that’s when my aunt told me ‘Why do you want to go with him if he’s not even your real father.’ I asked my mom if that was true and she just told me that we would talk about it later.” Still in disbelief of what his aunt told him, he went to see his dad and asked him if it was true. “He told me that he got together with my mom when I was 2 years old but as far as he was concerned I was his son. It devastated me to find out the man I was calling father all my life wasn’t my real father but I loved him as if he was.”
Bob was also starting high school at San Fernando High. “I went from a middle school that had 47 kids to a high school that had over 2,000 kids. I used to go to school wearing Levi’s and cowboy boots and I found myself getting into fights everyday with the kids who wore khaki pants and Pendletons.” Wanting to avoid fighting every day, Bob decided it was best if he stopped going to school. He rode the bus all the way to the school gates but from there he walked to the trestle where all the hobos and homeless used to hangout. “I would give them money, and they used to buy me alcohol. I would be there all day until the school buses came back.” Eventually he was caught for ditching and was taken to the vice principal’s office. “My punishment for ditching was going to be three swats with a wooden paddle. The VP told me to bend over the desk, and once he gave me the first swat I knew that I wasn’t going to let him give me anymore.” Bob got into a scuffle with him and got away by hitting the VP with an inkwell. “He called the cops on me, and I got arrested. I had been to court before, so when my court date came I thought they were going to give me another slap on the wrist.” This time though, the judge suggested making Bob a ‘ward of the court’ and to his surprise his mother agreed. Bob spent three weeks in juvenile hall while he waited for an opening at Rancho San Antonio’s Boys Home. Bob had no idea how long he was going to be there for; all he knew was that most of the kids were there until they turned eighteen.
Almost three years had passed and Bob hadn’t received notice of his release date or even a visit from a family member. “I was in there for three years when I got the news that my dad had passed away.” Bob was given permission to attend his stepdad’s funeral and that was the first time he would see his my mom and brother Ritchie. The funeral took place on Thursday, January 31st, 1957. That same day a Douglas DC-7 and a Northrop F-89 Scorpion collided in mid air and debris from the wreck fell into the schoolyard of Pacoima Junior High School killing three students and injuring seventy-four others. That was the same school that Ritchie attended but he was not there that day due to his father’s funeral.
After the funeral, Bob spent a few more months at Rancho San Antonio before he was allowed to go back home. “Once I came home, I found out that I had two new sisters. I assumed that my mom had an affair and by having me sent away to the boys home she wouldn’t have to explain anything to me.’ Wanting to get back on the right path, Bob had gone to register for school. On his way home, the president of the Galloping Goose M.C.’s pulled up next to Bob and offered him a ride home on his motorcycle. That was Bob’s first time on a motorcycle and the day he fell in love with riding. “He was a close friend of the family and his girlfriend was living with us at the time. Two months after giving me a ride home, he came by the house an asked if I wanted his motorcycle. I told him I did but that I had no money to buy it.” The Galloping Goose president didn’t want money for the bike; he wanted Bob to do a task for him. He asked the seventeen-year-old Bob to keep a Union member from attending a meeting and the bike would be his.
On the day of the meeting, Bob and his cousin paid the Union member a visit. “I walked up to the guy when he was getting off of work and I hit him once with a pair of brass knuckles. He fell to the floor and I took off with my cousin. The guy never made the meeting and the next day I went to pick up the bike.” Bob had never ridden a bike before then and sure enough he dumped it and left half his knuckles on the pavement.
Bob and his family moved to San Fernando Valley were his mother had bought a house. It was there that his younger brother Ritchie started playing in a garage band called The Silhouettes. “My mom started falling behind on the mortgage but she still used one of her welfare checks to rent the veterans hall, so Ritchie’s band could play their first gig. It was there that a guy named Bob Keane saw my brother play. Two days later, he came by the house and offered Ritchie a recording contract.” They signed a formal contract in May of 1958 and by July of that same year had released Ritchie’s first single called ‘Come On, Let’s Go’. “Three months after signing with him, he bought my mom a house in Pacoima.”
Ritchie released two more hit singles ‘Donna’ and ‘La Bamba’ and decided to quit school to start traveling the country performing his hits. He even made two appearances on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. “The last time I saw Ritchie we got into a little confrontation because I was supposed to buy my mom a dress but I didn’t. That conflict ended quick but when they took Ritchie back to the airport, I didn’t go with them.” Ritchie went on to travel to the upper Midwest to perform at The Winter Dance Tour along side Buddy Holly, Dion and the Belmonts, as well as J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. The tour bus that they were traveling on broke down in Clear Lake, Iowa, on February 2nd, 1959 in almost zero degree weather and Buddy Holly ended up leasing a four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza plane to take them to their next tour stop. Shortly after midnight, the plane crashed during a snowstorm, only a mile away from the airport. The pilot of the plane along with Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Bob’s younger brother Ritchie Valens died. “I was working underneath my car when I got the news that Ritchie had died. I jumped in my car and drove to see my mom. Half way there it died on me and I ran the rest of the way. When I got there I saw my mom and she had just heard the news about my brother.” That day went to be known as “The Day the Music Died” and Don McLean immortalized the day in a song called “American Pie.”
“After I left my mothers house I went to a levy. I was sitting out there waiting to wake up from a bad dream because I couldn’t believe it.” Bob was twenty-one years old at the time and he became angry at the world and started drinking heavily. “I used to drink all day and I used to tear the house down. I also got a little abusive with Rosie (his girlfriend at the time).”
In 1962, Bob and his family went up to Watsonville, CA., where they were going to have a memorial dance for Ritchie. They stayed up there for a few days before going back to Pacoima. “A year later my mom said ‘I can’t live in this house anymore. There are to many memories of Ritchie.’ She ended up liking that town of Watsonville and found a place there.”
Bob was still in San Fernando with Rosie. “The last six years with her were hell. One day I got off the couch, got on my bike and went to her job and told her that I was leaving. I drove up to Watsonville.” While there, he stopped by a detox center he was previously admitted at to visit some friends. “When I was there, they offered me a job as a substance abuse counselor. I thought to myself ‘I can’t pull this off’ but I took the job anyways.”
“At the detox center I was running a methadone program and I had twenty beds for addicts and twenty beds for alcoholics.” It was there that Bob met his future wife Joanie who had admitted her ex-husband. “While he was in the program, they had to talk thru me. I started talking to Joanie everyday and she used to invite me over her house but I never went.” Eventually they got together and after five years together they had their first daughter.
Three years ago Bob found out he had prostate cancer. He ended up doing forty-two radiation therapies in forty-two days. After the treatment, depression had set in. “I had no ambition or motivation to do anything. The doctor told me to drink a lot of water to wash everything out of my system. A few months passed by and I started to feel a lot better. When I went back for testing, most of my cancer cells were gone.”
Currently Bob is supporting the non-profit organization called Grind Out Hunger. “My daughter Bly works at Second Harvest, which helps feed the needy. To show your support log on to: GrindOutHunger.org and help out a good cause.