When Lou Diamond Phillips was cast as rock ‘n’ roller Ritchie Valens in 1987 Valens biopic La Bamba, there was one glaring problem: the young actor had no professional musical experience. Cast in his first major role and aged just 24, the eager-to-impress Phillips immediately set to nailing every detail of the Chicano rock legend – including his musical prowess.
Phillips’ vocal parts in La Bamba would ultimately be dubbed over by Los Lobos vocalist David Hidalgo, a more convincing mimic of Ritchie Valens’ singing voice. Phillips’ preparation for the film, though, had seen him obsessively memorise songs and practice guitar until his hands bled, an intense dedication that would eventually lead him into an award-winning musical theatre career.
Casting a rock ‘n’ roll star
Born in Los Angeles into a Mexican family, Ritchie Valens (birth name Richard Steven Valenzuela) incorporated elements of Spanish guitar into his music, a style which became known as Chicano rock. After enjoying big hits with his singles La Bamba and Donna, Valens seemed set to enjoy further success when, on February 3, 1959, he was killed in a plane crash, along with Buddy Holly and J.P. ‘Big Bopper’ Richardson. Valens was just 17.
This tragedy was later dubbed The Day the Music Died, after singer-songwriter Don McLean referred to it as such in his 1971 song American Pie. This helped keep Valens’ legacy alive, and by the 80s there was sufficient interest in his tragic legend for work to commence on a movie about his life.
When writer-director Luis Valdez began work on a Valens biopic in the mid-80s, one of his first major challenges was finding the right actor to portray the Mexican-American musician. During a difficult casting process in which more than 500 actors were considered, Valdez took an interest in a then-unknown performer named Lou Diamond Phillips.
“Oh God, now I gotta play Ritchie”
The Texas-raised Phillips unlike Valens had no Mexican heritage, yet his looks and skin tone – Phillips is of Filipino and Cherokee descent – would see him cast in Latino roles throughout his career. Director Valdez originally wanted to cast Phillips in La Bamba as Ritchie’s brother Bob (a role ultimately taken by Esai Morales), but it was soon decided that Phillips would be more suited to the lead role.
“The night that I switched from Bob to Ritchie, I remember walking down Pico Boulevard and going, ‘Oh God, now I gotta play Ritchie’,” Phillips recalls. “And I thought, ‘Oh, I am Ritchie. An unknown kid from the sticks with a big dream to become an actor in film and television. I thought, ‘This is me translated through the lens of the 50s and rock ‘n’ roll as opposed to movies.'”
To prepare for the role, Phillips gained weight, adding 15 pounds to better resemble Valens; he educated himself in Mexican-American culture; he even joined marches and hunger strikes with civil rights activist Cesar Chavez. However, there was a major difference between Phillips and Valens that Phillips would struggle to overcome: the fact that he was not musical.
Dubbed by Los Lobos
Determined to make his performance authentic, Phillips dedicated himself to learning the guitar for La Bamba. Having never played the instrument before, Phillips’ hours of practice left him with bloody and calloused fingers. In the final movie, we never hear the actor playing, his chords having been dubbed over, but what you see is always Phillips‘ own guitar work.
The vocal demands of La Bamba, on the other hand, proved an insurmountable challenge for Phillips. In a 1987 interview, Phillips told the New York Times that he only ever sang in the shower, and poorly at that. In reality, Phillips did have some musical theatre training, and according to others he had a strong voice. (“Lou Diamond Phillips, now he could sing“, musician Jimmy King would later remark, referring to times Phillips would perform at the Subway Lounge in Jackson, Mississippi in subsequent years.)
Being able to convincingly mimic Valens’ singing voice was another matter. To prepare for the role, Phillips listened over and over again to Valens’ songs, to the point where he would “wake up in the middle of the night singing La Bamba”. While it was planned that Phillips would sing and play the guitar himself in one scene (where Valens phones his girlfriend to sing her the song Donna), the actor’s voice was ultimately thought to sound out of place.
And so Phillips’ singing voice in the scene, as in the rest of the movie, would be dubbed over by that of Los Lobos vocalist David Hidalgo. Hand-picked for the position by Ritchie Valens’ family, Los Lobos would provide all the music for La Bamba, while Hidalgo would sing all the vocal parts for Phillips to lip sync to. (The band can be seen briefly in the film, in the scene where Valens arrives in Mexico.)
“I know the family sees Ritchie when they look up there”
While the family didn’t have a say in Phillips’ casting, they still built a strong bond with the actor during the filming process, even nicknaming him ‘Ritchie.’ When Phillips was filming the scene in which Valens departs on his fatal flight, Valens’ younger sister Connie burst into tears and begged him not to leave, as she relived her family’s trauma.
“I know it’s an accurate portrayal on that screen,” Phillips later said with pride. ”I know the family sees Ritchie when they look up there.” Audiences responded positively, too: La Bamba was a box office triumph, grossing $54.2 million on a $6.5 million budget. On top of that, Los Lobos had their biggest hit ever when they released the title track as a single.
Phillips took this success in his stride, and enjoyed further movie hits, most famously appearing alongside Emilio Estevez and Kiefer Sutherland in 1988 western Young Guns and its 1990 sequel Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory. For the latter, Phillips would finally make his singing voice heard: you can hear him providing backing vocals on Jon Bon Jovi’s featured track Justice in the Barrel.
Winning a Tony Award
Since La Bamba, Phillips has worked extensively in theatre, and while he may not have shown off his own vocals in his breakout movie he has done so in stage productions of The King and I, which won him a Tony Award in 1996, and Camelot. Phillips also sang in a guest role on Netflix comedy The Ranch.
To this day, Phillips credits the role of Ritchie Valens for getting him his start in showbusiness. The actor remarked on the film’s 30th anniversary, “this was the turning point, I was an unknown kid from Texas, I caught lightning in a bottle, this is my Cinderella story… I would not have a career if it were not for La Bamba.”