Trini Lopez: Little Mexico’s Greatest Export

by Paula Bosse

 

trini-lopez-photo_bw

by Paula Bosse

Trini Lopez has sold millions of records. MILLIONS. He was born in Dallas in 1937 and grew up in the Little Mexico area of town. He started his career when he was a teenager at Crozier Tech High School, singing and playing guitar in a popular combo. He played at dozens of school dances and parties, and, with a steady and faithful following, he was much in demand at countless venues around town, including a regular spot at Club Vegas (Oak Lawn & Lemmon), one of the many clubs in the city run by Jack Ruby.

trini-lopez_jack-ruby_zoppi_dmn_121956Tony Zoppi’s column,DMN Dec. 19, 195 (click for larger image)

trini-rubyHa! (From Gary James’ really great interview w/ Trini — see link at end.)

He also appeared on local TV (on a couple of shows hosted by a pre-Peppermint Jerry Haynes).

trini-lopez_jerry-haynes_dmn_082956(DMN, Aug. 29, 1956)

(DMN, Sept. 5, 1958)

Trini’s first single was “The Right to Rock” — the first song he ever wrote — recorded in 1958 on a small Dallas label called Volk (did anyone else ever record for this label?).

trini_volk_billboard_062358(Billboard, June 23, 1958)

It’s a great little rockabilly number, but it didn’t really make any waves outside of Dallas (although it’s since found new life in the cult-y world of vintage rockabilly reissues).

volk-label

Trini then recorded a few singles for King, but those went nowhere as well, and Trini and his combo continued to play small clubs in and around DFW, wondering when the big break was going to come.

trini-lopez_jimmys-club_dmn_011159(DMN, Jan. 11, 1959)

After a gig in Wichita Falls, Trini met fellow-Texan Buddy Holly who had been impressed by the young singer’s performance and encouraged him to contact his producer, Norman Petty, about recording some tracks at Petty’s studio in New Mexico. Trini jumped at the chance, but, unfortunately, the time in the studio at Clovis turned out to be a career low-point (see below for a link to the Gary James interview in which Trini gives a bitter and scathing account of that whole experience). Trini returned to Dallas and immediately fired his band and started a new one, determined that he would succeed, despite the prevailing (spoken and unspoken) racism he was continuing to run up against in the music business.

A few months after Buddy Holly’s death, the Crickets contacted Trini and asked him to travel to Los Angeles to discuss the possibility of becoming their new lead singer. Trini, seeing this as the big break he’d been waiting for, disbanded the combo and set out to the West Coast alone. The “audition” never really materialized, and Trini was stuck in California with no money and no prospects. He played a few small clubs and then settled into PJ’s for an extended and very successful engagement. It was there, in 1963, that the “big break” finally happened: he was discovered by producer Don Costa, who recommended that Frank Sinatra sign him to Reprise Records. Next thing you know, Trini had recorded his debut album, “Trini Lopez at PJ’s,” and the first single, “If I Had a Hammer,” was a huge smash hit, selling millions of copies and reaching #1 in 38 countries. Trini Lopez became an international star.

trini-lopez_photo_bw

At the beginning of 1964, he was booked for a series of shows in Paris where he shared the bill with The Beatles, just as they were about to hit big in the US (their Ed Sullivan appearance was less than a month away). Beatlemania was in full force in Europe, but Trini was also getting his share of attention. (Check out a great performance on French television during this Paris engagement, where he has the absolute best, most engaged audience a performer could ever hope to have — watch it here.)

trini-lopez_beatles_1964

And, the rest, as they say, is history.

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A couple of interesting things, Dallas-wise. My Trini Lopez knowledge is fairly scant, but having read a lot about him over the past couple of days, the one thing that keeps coming back when he talks about the Little Mexico section of town (invariably referred to by him as a “ghetto”) is how violent a place it was. He also recounts the deep and dehumanizing racial prejudice he and other Mexican-Americans experienced living in Dallas. When he left for Los Angeles in 1959/1960, he left for good. He came back regularly to visit his family (I remember having him pointed out to me by my parents in a restaurant once), but I’m not sure he would have ever wanted to live here again.

trini-lopez_wilonsky_052906From an interview by Robert Wilonsky (Dallas Observer, May 29, 2006)

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Below are a few random interviews and tidbits.

trini-lopez_dmn_071264(DMN, July 12, 1964)

trini-lopez_dmn_071264b(DMN, July 12, 1964)

(According to Trini, the person who suggested he change he name was John F. Sheffield who owned Volk Records. Sheffield was okay with “Trini,” but he insisted the “Lopez” had to go. He suggested “Roper.” Trini refused and threatened to walk. Sheffield relented.)

trini-lopez_earl-wilson_july-1965a(Click for larger image – continues below.)

trini-lopez_earl-wilson_july_1965bEarl Wilson’s syndicated column. (July 1965)

trini-lopez_op-ed_dmn_112681Op-ed by Trini Lopez. Click for larger view. (DMN, Nov. 26, 1981)

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Full Dallas Observer interview by Robert Wilonsky is here.

There are a lot of garbled accounts of Trini Lopez’s career scattered across the internet. One that seems mostly right is here.

The essential  interview with Trini by Gary James I’ve mentioned a couple of times above, is here. I think the interview is from 2002. His memories of growing up in Dallas are interesting, unvarnished, and well worth reading. He also talks about the racial prejudice he met with when attempting to record with Norman Petty and the resulting mutiny of his band in Clovis which led to their being fired by Trini immediately upon their return to Dallas.

Trini Lopez is still performing! His official website is here.

Discovering Trini and his music has been surprisingly fun! Thanks, Trini! Check out this great, infectiously joyful performance of “La Bamba” with Jose Feliciano at a music festival in San Antonio in 1974. (Trini was performing “La Bamba” when he was still in Dallas, before Ritchie Valens had a hit with it — when Valens’ version hit the airwaves, Trini was crushed that someone had beaten him to recording it. He may not have recorded it first, but he had the bigger hit with it a few years later.)

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Copyright © 2014 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

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