Thursday, August 13, 2020

The Late Great Trini Lopez

Trini Lopez, the musician and singer known for such hits as "If I Had a Hammer" and "Lemon Tree," died on August 11 2020 at the age of 83. The cause was complications from COVID-19.

Trini Lopez was born Trinidad Lopez III on May 13 1937 in Dallas, Texas. His father, Trinidad Lopez II, had been a singer, dancer, and actor in his native Mexico, but earned a living as a manual labourer. He was a teenager when he married Petra Gonzalez in their hometown of  Moroleón, Guanajuato. They later moved to Dallas and would have six children, including Trinidad Lopez III. Trini Lopez grew up in the area of Dallas known as Little Mexico. He was eleven years old when his father bought him a guitar and taught him how to play it. Young Mr. Lopez began playing on street corners for a few coins. He played tradition Mexican songs, as well as songs by such artists as T-Bone Walker, Jimmy Reed, Elvis Presley, and Buddy Holly. He formed his first band, The Big Beats, when he was 15. The band played at the upscale Cipango Club in Dallas.

In 1958 Trini Lopez met Buddy Holly. Buddy Holly introduced Trini Lopez to his producer, Norman Petty. Unfortunately, both Mr. Lopez's relationship with Norman Petty, as well as his own band, were strained at the time. They released two instrumentals for Columbia Records before Trini Lopez left the band.

Trini Lopez recorded this first single, "The Right to Rock," as a solo artist for Volk Records in Dallas. The label tried to persuade Trini Lopez to change his last name in order to hide the fact that he was Mexican American, but Mr. Lopez refused to do so. It was the next year that he signed with King Records. Trini Lopez recorded around a dozen songs for King Records for the next three years including "Rock On" and "Sweet Thing," but none of them charted.

It was a few months after Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens were killed in a plane crash five miles northwest of Mason City, Iowa on February 3 1959 that The Crickets asked Trini Lopez to be their new lead singer. Mr. Lopez went to Hollywood to join The Crickets, but ultimately it did not work out.

Trini Lopez's big break came when he started playing at P.J.'s, a club frequented by many dignitaries, among them Frank Sinatra. Mr. Sinatra had Trini Lopez signed to his own label, Reprise Records. His first album on Reprise Records, Trini Lopez at PJ's, proved to be a hit, going to no. 2 on the Billboard album chart. Taken from the album was the single "If I Had a Hammer," which peaked at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. It would be followed by further hits in the Sixties, including "Kansas City" (which went to no. 23 on Billboard Hot 100), "Lemon Tree" (which went to no. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100), and "I'm Comin' Home, Cindy" (which went to no. 39 on the Billboard Hot 100. His albums did better than his singles, regularly charting throughout the Sixties. Some even broke the top twenty of the Billboard album chart, including More Trini Lopez at PJ's (which peaked at no. 11), The Latin Album (which peaked at no. 18), and The Folk Album (which peaked at no. 18).

Trini Lopez's last single to chart was "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying", which peaked at no. 113 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969. He continued to release singles until 1978. Trini Lopez continued to release albums until the Teens, with his last album, Into the Future, being released in 2011. He continued performing well into the Teens.

Trini Lopez was a talented guitarist and in 1964 designed two guitars for the Gibson Guitar Corporation. He designed the Trini Lopez Standard, a guitar for rock and roll, and the Lopez Deluxe, a guitar for jazz.

Trini Lopez also had an acting career. He made his acting debut playing himself in Marriage on the Rocks (1965). He again appeared as himself in Poppies Are Also Flowers (1966). He played Pedro Jiminez in the classic The Dirty Dozen (1967). He also appeared in The Phynx (1970) and Antonio (1973). Mr. Lopez also appeared on television, guest starring on Adam-12 and The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries and the TV movie The Reluctant Heroes. In addition to numerous variety shows and talk shows, he also appeared in his own TV special, The Trini Lopez Show, in 1969.

Trini Lopez was truly a force to be reckoned with. He blended such diverse styles as folk, blues, rockabilly and Mexican music. He provided upbeat arrangements for songs that usually aren't upbeat, such as "If I Had a Hammer." He was a virtuoso with the guitar. In addition to his talent as a guitarist and singer, Mr. Lopez also displayed talent as an actor. He shined as Pedro Jiminez in a cast full of stars in The Dirty Dozen. In the Adam-12 episode "Log 115: Gang War," he was impressive as Father Xavier Rojas. Here it must also be mentioned that Trini Lopez was a pioneer with regards to Mexican Americans in popular culture. He refused to change his name, telling the Dallas Morning News in 2017, "You know how many [Latino] artists in America that changed their name? Vikki Carr and Freddy Fender. I insisted on keeping my name Lopez. I'm proud to be a Lopez. I'm proud to be a Mexicano." At a time when images of Mexicans in American pop culture were usually stereotypes, Trini Lopez refused to be anything but himself, paving the way for other artists of Mexican descent. He was a true pioneer and an enormous talent.

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