‘He really did change the world’: the incredible story of musician Trini Lopez

In the 1950s and 60s, nearly every singer of Latin descent who pined to become a star in the US or UK had to eradicate any trace of ethnicity from their name. Thus, Richard Valenzuela became Ritchie Valens, Domingo Samudio morphed into Sam the Sham, Baldemar Huerta reimagined himself as Freddy Fender, and Florencia Cardona simply became Vikki Carr. In the most extreme example, a five-man Chicano band led by Rudy Martinez wound up hiding under the anonymous moniker Question Mark and The Mysterians before releasing their garage-rock classic 96 Tears.

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Given all that, the choices Trini Lopez made about his moniker back then seem especially principled and brave. “Trini said to the world, ‘This is my heritage. I’m Mexican and there’s no reason I should have to erase that,’” said P David Ebersole, co-director of the new documentary My Name Is Lopez. “He was willing to walk out on a record deal if they wouldn’t use his real name. Back then, that was phenomenal.”

While that decision, along with his music, made Trini Lopez a revered figure in Latin cultures around the world, today he is little remembered by the majority of music fans. In fact, even most of those who do recall his hits from the early to mid-60s are unaware of the trends Lopez anticipated or the innovations he helped forge.

Lopez, who died of Covid in 2020 at age 83, was instrumental in the creation of folk-rock, having electrified, and sped-up, acoustic ballads a year before Dylan plugged-in. He was also key to the formation of Latin-rock, as one of the first Latin stars to score hits by injecting the hoots and trills of traditional Mexican music into rockabilly. More, he anticipated a trend in live albums as career-defining works by issuing his million-selling collection Live at PJ’s in 1963, years before conical concert recordings by The Allman Brothers, The Who and Peter Frampton. More, he was the only Latin member of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, and the first with a name like Lopez to headline Las Vegas. As a musician, he had the rare honor of being asked by the Gibson Guitar company to consult on the design of two signature instruments, both of which have become collectors’ items prized by stars like Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters and Noel Gallagher of Oasis. In the film, Grohl points to his ruby-red Lopez Gibson before announcing, “This is the sound of the Foo Fighters.”

So, why is so little of his legacy acknowledged or remembered? “Trini outlived his fame,” said Ebersole. “He was white hot in his moment but music changed in the 70s and 80s and a lot of the artists of his time became outmoded.”

More, “Trini got stuck in what he did well,” said the film’s other director, Todd Hughes. “He never had that reinvention.”

At the same time, Lopez made a miraculous transformation from the impoverished environment of his youth. His parents, who met and married as teenagers in the poor town of Moroleon, Mexico, came to Texas as illegal immigrants seeking a better life. Settling in the “Little Mexico” ghetto of Dallas, they struggled to raise six kids in an area ruled by Black and Mexican gangs. To keep Lopez from getting involved, his father, an aspiring musician himself, bought the boy a $12 guitar from a pawn shop. Guided by his dad, Lopez learned traditional Mexican folk songs like El Rancho Grande and Cielito Lindo, whose fluid melodies and broad cadences would inform his later work. But he struggled at school, hobbled by the long hours he had to spend picking beets and potatoes in local fields to help support his family.

Still, Ebersole said, “it would be hard to call his childhood unhappy. He had a beautiful family situation. They all took care of each other. And his parents had a great belief in their boy’s star quality.”

By 10, Lopez led his first combo; by high school he was playing Dallas nightclubs. Following a performance one night, he was introduced to a fellow Texan who had already made it big: Buddy Holly. “Buddy was the first one who didn’t look down on him as a Mexican,” said Lopez’s longtime companion, Oralee Walker, in the film.

In fact, Holly introduced Lopez to his producer, Norman Petty, who landed his band a deal with Columbia Records. But there were serious caveats: he couldn’t use his own name and he could no longer lead the band as singer. In a move that proved characteristic, Lopez politely thanked Petty for the opportunity before bowing out. “Trini always had an attitude of gratitude and respect,” Hughes said.

It helped that he soon got his own deal with the Dallas-based Volk Records. Again, however, they told him to hide his heritage. But, this time when Lopez politely declined, the company caved, allowing him to record a song in 1958 whose key lyrics expressed his faith in his talent and his identity – “I’ve got the right to rock.” After hearing that recording, King Records, then home to artists from James Brown to Little Willie John, signed Lopez but the songs he cut for the label never ignited. A fresh opportunity grew out of a historic tragedy.

In February of 1959, a plane carrying Buddy Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper crashed, killing a whole swath of the era’s pop talent in an instant. Later, Holly’s producer, Snuff Garrett, asked Lopez to become the new front man of the late star’s band, the Crickets. Upon arriving in LA to join them, however, he found the other members had far more interest in partying than music. Since Lopez needed money to send back to his parents, he bowed out of the group to seek work as a solo performer in the nightclubs of Beverly Hills.

Trini Lopez
Trini Lopez. ‘He always had an attitude of gratitude and respect.’ Photograph: Dezo Hoffman/Rex/Shutterstock

After a year spent building his reputation as a live act, Lopez was awarded a regular gig at the hot club PJ’s, where stars like Steve McQueen and Frank Sinatra hung out. The buzz on Lopez’s shows there inspired Sinatra to send his producer, Don Costa, to sign him to his label, Reprise. At the time, the imprint was burdened with stars well past their sales prime, including Dean Martin and Sammy Davis. With Lopez, Reprise got a rising star whose sound straddled two of the most popular genres of the day – folk and rockabilly. A third element, Latin music, awarded his sound a whiff of the “exotic.” Recognizing the excitement Lopez was stirring at PJ’s, Costa had the idea to record his debut album in the club with his core trio. For an immersive effect, he placed a microphone on the floor to capture the sound of the audience dancing and clapping along.

The result, Live at PJ’s, soared to No 2 on the Billboard album chart. Its material emphasized Lopez’s lineage by opening with America from West Side Story, (even if it did conflate his Mexican background with the characters’ Puerto Rican identity). The set also featured Cielito Lindo and a take on La Bamba, which Valens had turned into a pop smash five years earlier. Even so, Lopez’s version wound up outselling it internationally. Likewise, two socially-conscious songs on the album had already been hits for Peter Paul and Mary: If I Had a Hammer and Lemon Tree. But Lopez’s more rhythmic take on the former reached No 3 (compared to the folk trio’s 10), while his version of the latter broke Billboard’s Top Ten (besting PP&M’s recording which stalled at 35).

Dylan must have been impressed by Lopez’s new folk-rock sound because he later hired his drummer, Mickey Jones, for his band.

In 1964, Lopez became the only artist ever asked by Gibson to help design two new guitar models at the same time. The first, based on a fat-bodied jazz guitar, has become a collector’s item. The second, a thinner-bodied Trini Standard, returned to production in the ’90s after Grohl loudly touted it. ZZ Top front man and fellow Texan Billy Gibbons calls it “a very fine instrument. Most players of that guitar favor the low string action, the balanced feel of the body and the beefy neck,” he wrote in an email.

Despite earning such cred among the rock cognoscenti, Lopez’s role in the Rat Pack made him uncool to rock fans for decades. Not that Lopez minded. He idolized Sinatra. At the same time, his relationship with Sinatra was complex. His mentor always made sure to emphasize his superior role and, in 1968, he wound up derailing Lopez’s budding acting career. That year, Lopez landed a plum role in The Dirty Dozen, a movie bound to become a major hit. When production ran months over, however, Sinatra told Lopez to quit so he could go back into the studio to earn more money for Reprise. “Frank ruined Trini’s movie career,” Hughes said.

The stars of The Dirty Dozen: Ralph Meeker, Trini Lopez, Clint Walker, Richard Jaeckel, Robert Phillips And Jim Brown
The stars of The Dirty Dozen: Ralph Meeker, Trini Lopez, Clint Walker, Richard Jaeckel, Robert Phillips and Jim Brown. Photograph: ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

Even so, he continued to soar on TV, appearing on all the big variety shows and even hosting his own series in 1969. The documentary features many clips of his time on TV. Some are uncomfortable to watch. To stoke laughs, Lopez often relies on Mexican stereotypes making fun of the food and the water. But, said Ebersole, “that was his survival technique. He would make fun of himself before they could make fun of him. He used charm as a weapon.”

In fact, whenever Lopez talks in the film about the racism he faced, he shows no rancor. His longtime companion Walker, who was interviewed extensively for the film, expresses it for him. According to the directors, Lopez never wanted to say anything negative in public during his lifetime. Only after he died, when Walker felt free to speak, did the film-makers have access to a fuller picture of the man.

According to the directors, Lopez’s death came as a surprise. Though he was in good health for his age, he needed a minor operation in the summer of 2020. After leaving the hospital, he began to feel ill and, so, went back in. Ten days later he died, suggesting that he may have picked up a virulent strain of Covid during his earlier stay. To honor the legacy Lopez left behind, the directors hope their film educates people about his many accomplishments. “Just saying, ‘no, I won’t change my name,’ created ripples in the culture that have led us to where we are today,” said Hughes. “He really did change the world.”

  • My Name Is Lopez will be available to rent digitally in the US on 26 April and in the UK at a later date