Robert Bush 10 a.m., Nov. 21
1958: The Day Ritchie Valens Played Clairemont High's Opening
1958: Fifty-three years ago, rock and roll originator Ritchie Valens had two hits on the charts, "La Bamba" and "Donna," when a longtime local DJ, the late Harry "Happy Hare" Martin, persuaded him to perform at the 1958 opening of Clairemont High School. "It's the first time they ever opened a school and almost tore it down, all in the same day," Hare told reporters at the time.
“The Principal called and asked me to do something for the new kids,” Martin told me in a March 2008 interview. “I was full of myself in those days. I said ‘Sure’ and got on the phone…I took it for granted that he [Valens] knew me, and I asked him about coming down to San Diego to sing for the new school. No mention of money. He immediately said yes, no doubt thinking that anyone this audacious must be important.”
“There was no opposition from the school, all were thrilled that I could get someone with two or three songs on the Hit Parade.”
When Hare picked up Valens at the airport, the 17 year-old rising rock star emerged from the plane with his guitar slung around his neck and carrying a small amp. Hare and Valens arrived at the school shortly after the closing bell rang, with the KCBQ DJ driving his white car festooned with blue "Happy Hare-Mobile" signs up to the dirt and clay lot that was still being prepped for pavement.
“At the school, all of the students were in the yard, because they were still painting the new auditorium. Ritchie didn’t seem to mind." Students were already cheering when Hare took the mike to introduce Valens, prompting Hare to announce "No applause, just throw money if you get really excited."
"He sang two songs that I recall, ‘Donna’ and ‘La Bamba,’ and some other newer songs, all on the red clay, in the broiling sun, for the better part of an hour.” Local newspapers at the time reported the performance as a four-song set.
“Many kids broke into impromptu dancing, and that egged Ritchie on. Him playing, and them dancing and celebrating, [it was] a musical fiesta. A South L.A. Latino kid, connecting with 2,000 young Anglos…it was historic. No autographs or pictures…things were more structured in those days.”
Valens was literally on the brink of superstardom as he flew back to L.A. that evening. “If it had been a couple of months later,” says Hare, “I would have had to put him up in an expensive hotel and paid him a lot of bucks. But, that day, he was just a simple kid wanting to help.”
Among the students in the audience that day were several members of the local teen band the Aladdins, who would be inspired to become one of the most popular and prolific local school dance bands of the era.
When Clairemont High opened in 1958, it consisted mostly of transfers from Mission Bay High School, Kearny Mesa High School, and Marston Junior High. There was no freshman or senior class of 1958.
The book (and later film) Fast Times at Ridgemont High stemmed from author Cameron Crowe's undercover research at Clairemont High during the 1978-79 school year. Notable musical alumni include members of the band Pierce the Veil (whose full-length Selfish Machines includes a track called "Fast Times At Clairemont High"), jazz drummer Randy Bush (class of 1974), and guitarist Jennifer Batten (class of 1976), who toured with Michael Jackson, Jeff Beck, and others.
A few months after the Clairemont High appearance, Ritchie Valens perished in the same February 1959 plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper.