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30 Years Ago: The ‘La Bamba’ Soundtrack Puts Los Lobos Atop the Charts

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On June 30, 1987, Slash/Warner Bros. released the soundtrack to the film La Bamba, a biopic about Ritchie Valens, a Chicano rock pioneer who died in the same 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. Naturally, the soundtrack spotlighted music of that era, albeit with a modern spin. Bo Diddley even re-recorded his seminal 1956 hit “Who Do You Love?” with producer Willie Dixon, a noted bluesman in his own right. However, La Bamba itself gave several musicians the chance to portray famous icons—and then reprise these roles on the soundtrack.

Actor/musician Howard Huntsberry, who was in the early ’80s R&B group Klique, played Jackie Wilson in the movie, and contributed a soulful cover of “Lonely Teardrops.” As Buddy Holly, Marshall Crenshaw turned in a faithful version of “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” (a song that’s remained a setlist staple for him), while Stray Cats strutter Brian Setzer, portraying Eddie Cochran, did an equally faithful retro take on “Summertime Blues.”

The main star of the La Bamba soundtrack, however, was the critically beloved Los Angeles rock band Los Lobos, who covered a string of Valens classics: the swinging blues-rocker “Come On Let’s Go,” hotrodding “Ooh! My Head,” and slow dances such as “We Belong Together” and “Donna.” The band also did a cover of the movie’s titular song, which is a rock ‘n’ roll-based spin on a traditional Mexican song from the late ’30s.

The La Bamba soundtrack was technically Los Lobos’ second album of 1987: The T Bone Burnett co-produced By the Light of the Moon, which also featured session contributions from Anton Fier and Mitchell Froom, had been released earlier in the year. However, multi-instrumentalist/lyricist Louie Perez told Songfacts in 2012 that Los Lobos recorded the songs for La Bamba at the personal request of Valens’ mom and sisters.

“By then we had picked up a little speed,” he recalls. “We had a couple of critically acclaimed records, and we had a couple songs that were played on the radio, but no big hit. So for us, it was doing it for them and for the legacy of this young Chicano kid who really pioneered. I mean, how bold was it back then in 1959 to take a Mexican song and make it into a rock tune, rock arrangement, and sing it in Spanish? That was pretty damn brave. For it to become a hit back then was unprecedented.”

Watch Los Lobos Perform “La Bamba” at the Grammys

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“La Bamba,” which Valens took into the Top 40 in 1958, also unexpectedly became a massive hit for Los Lobos in summer of 1987 after it was released as a single. The tune—which was produced by Froom and saxophonist Steve Berlin—hit No. 1 for three weeks on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in late August and into September, and also topped the charts in Canada, France, Australia, Ireland and the U.K. “When it became a hit, it was like, ‘Wow, what happened there?'” Perez recalled to Songfacts. “We had just finished our own record, and that one came out in like May. And then ‘La Bamba’ was released about a month and a half later and that thing just went crazy—no one expected that.”

The La Bamba soundtrack also hit No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 for two weeks in September 1987. This is one reason why Los Lobos was suddenly everywhere in 1987—for example, later in the year, the band opened for U2 on several stops of the band’s The Joshua Tree tour. However, the group was left in a disconcerting place once the song’s popularity waned.

“We’d gotten to the top of the charts and pretended, to a certain extent, that we were a big deal — when the truth of the matter was, our success with ‘La Bamba’ was 100 percent tied to the success of the movie,” saxophonist Steve Berlin told the blog Something Else! in 2013. “So, when the movie the died down, which inevitably it does, we were in a funny place. We were back where we started, but we refused to acknowledge it. We were touring at a scale that we couldn’t support — with multiple buses and a lighting guy. Stuff that just wasn’t really useful, for what we do.”

Los Lobos reacted to the success of both “La Bamba” and the accompanying soundtrack by doing something unexpected: releasing 1988’s La Pistola y El Corazón. “We put out a record of traditional Mexican music with a couple of original songs on it that we wrote, something we’d always wanted to do,” Perez told Songfacts. “I remember after that record was released, journalists from all over were writing how Los Lobos committed commercial suicide, and I think to some degree it was true; we threw this wrench in this machine and brought it back to what we were all about.”

Watch Los Lobos Perform “Come On, Let’s Go”

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“Commercial suicide” is a strong phrase: Although La Pistola y El Corazón only reached No. 179 on the Billboard Top 200 upon release, it won the 1990 Grammy for Best Mexican/Mexican-American Album. It’s more precise to say the members of Los Lobos were left trying to reclaim their collective identity, and remember the creative environment under which they worked best. This wasn’t an easy task, and such readjustments plagued the band for years to come. The aftermath of “La Bamba” was still on Perez’s mind in 1990, when he talked to the Los Angeles Times upon the release of the band’s then-newest LP, The Neighborhood.

“It felt great when [Warner Bros. Records president] Lenny Waronker told us, ‘Don’t worry about the ‘La Bamba’ thing. . . . Get back to what you guys are about,'” he said. “And it’s not that we ever thought of trying to make ‘La Bamba II.’ That would have been ridiculous. But there’s no doubt that during the course of writing the songs for this album there was this thing looming over you…the thought that you have to live up to the commercial success that we had with ‘La Bamba.'”

Listen to Los Lobos Play “Ooh! My Head”

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Adds Berlin, speaking to Something Else! in 2013: “The process of making [The Neighborhood] was, again, something that wasn’t really us. It had taken a really long time, and we sort of went against a lot of our instincts in terms of how it was put together. We had recorded the songs many times, over and over and over again, so by the time the record came out, we were really tired of playing those songs. None of that was really necessary, at all.”

Los Lobos seemingly has reconciled its conflicting emotions about “La Bamba,” and even still plays it live when the occasion is right. “There was a time when we didn’t totally enjoy bringing this one out at concerts,” vocalist David Hidalgo told The Telegraph in 2015. “But, in the big picture, ‘La Bamba’ has been a good thing for the band. It depends on the gig now, although it’s a lot more fun to play when there are kids in the audience.”

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