Trini Lopez, a music and film icon of the 1960s, died of COVID-19 complications on Tuesday. He was 83.
Lopez was born in Dallas on May 13, 1937, and spent his early years in what we now call “Uptown,” then known as “Little Mexico.”
“It was a Mexican and Black ghetto,” Lopez said of his old neighborhood in a 2006 Observer interview. “The Mexicans were killing the Blacks, and the Blacks were killing the Mexicans, and — oh, gosh — they had a cantina a half a block from my house, and I used to hear all this screaming and hollering 24 hours a day and all the drinking and the killings and the knifings.
“All of my friends that I used to run around with,” he continued, “they all ended up dead from shotgun wounds or ended up in prison.”
Dallas was then highly segregated, and Latin musicians were confined to performing only at Latin clubs, as Juanita Nañez, president of the Dallas Mexican American Historical League, told me for a 2017 D Magazine story about an exhibition that honored Lopez.
Nañez said "white only" businesses generally shunned Mexican-Americans, but the rules of segregation were hazy for Latinos. “It depended on how dark you were,” she said.
Lopez’s father, who Lopez said had been a "singer, actor and dancer,” was a stern disciplinarian, and Lopez recalled for the Observer one incident that changed his life.
“I became who I became because I was running around with the wrong crowd,” Lopez said of his father, “and he says, ‘Son, I want you to come home when I come home from work,’ on the third time that I didn't pay attention, he took his belt off and gave me a real good whipping.”
Perhaps prompted by guilt, Lopez’s father bought him a guitar the following day.
“That whipping — it changed my whole life,” Lopez said. “All of my friends were mad at me, 'cause I wouldn't go running around with them all over the place. I was practicing at home, 'cause I fell in love with the guitar right away. I fell in love with music right away, so thank God that I did that.”
Lopez formed a band in Wichita Falls as a teenager after dropping out of N. R. Crozier Tech High School to earn money to help his struggling family. He soon picked up gigs at the State Fair of Texas and at Jack Ruby’s club The Vegas Club.
The singer caught the attention of fellow Texan Buddy Holly, who recommended him to a music producer. Lopez ultimately declined to sign a record deal, as the producer urged him to white-wash his roots by adopting an Anglo-friendly stage name.
Holly wasn’t the only megastar to take Lopez under his wing. In the early '60s, Frank Sinatra signed Lopez to his record label, Reprise Records.
Lopez became a star with hits like “Lemon Tree,” and“If I Had a Hammer,” which became a No. 1 hit in 36 countries. After moving to Los Angeles, he also performed in films such as The Dirty Dozen.
Despite his early roadblocks, Lopez could claim milestones that musicians could only dream of: Sharing the stage with The Beatles and Chuck Berry, his own signature Gibson guitar, and a discography of dozens of studio albums.
“The world lost yet another legend,” Dave Grohl wrote on Tuesday.
“He not only left a beautiful musical legacy of his own, but also unknowingly helped shape the sound of the Foo Fighters from day one,” Grohl wrote on the band’s Instagram page.
Lopez also had a massive influence on local artists.
Carl Finch, the bandleader of the longstanding punk-polka outfit Brave Combo, calls Lopez an "indirect influence.“
"Trini Lopez was a symbol of what's possible within the realms of pop music," Finch says. “I looked at him as somebody that achieved some goals that I thought would be enviable.”
Despite his accolades, Lopez's legacy is often overlooked, lumped into a file among other old-time crooners.
"I mean, he should always have been a bigger deal, I've always thought," Finch says.
The Brave Combo singer says the band makes a point of reminding audiences they have immigrants to thank for the repertoires that make up the band's concert sets.
"We got a lot of support," Finch said of his pro-immigrant efforts. "But we also got a lot of hate mail ... and what's amazing is that we didn't change anything. All we were doing was just telling people where the songs came from."
Finch said he's "living" the effects of xenophobia through his audiences' reaction and through instances like that at a recent festival which removed a song from Brave Combo's set because it contained the word "immigrant," a term he was also asked not to use as it "offends" certain sectors.
"And when you think about it. ... God, was that something like what Trini Lopez went through? You know, that couldn't have been easy... it's pretty astounding."
Scott Tucker, singer of the band Aztec Milk Temple, whose great-grandfather Marcelino Marceleno was an orchestra leader in Dallas, curated the exhibition Música! Our Rhythm, Our Heart, Our Soul – A soundtrack to the Mexican-American experience in Dallas in 2017 at the Latino Cultural Center. The highlight of the exhibition was an appearance by Lopez, who was the guest of honor and keynote speaker. Lopez’s stories included highlights of a career spanning the greater part of a century.
After the exhibition, Tucker says, Lopez stuck around "and hung out with everybody" and went to dinner with Tucker and some others.
"Trini was one cool cat," Tucker says. “I had heard a lot of different stories about him over the years, so when I met and got to work with him, I really didn’t know what to expect. ... He had a big smile and larger-than-life personality, just the kind of personality you’d expect from someone who hung out with Princess Grace and The Beatles.
“His every move exuded not just cool, but also warm gratitude for a life he knew was well-lived.”
Veteran jazz musician Dennis Gonzalez was another local who was part of the exhibition honoring Latin artists and Lopez specifically.
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"I had the honor of hanging with, and interviewing, Trini Lopez onstage at the Latino Cultural Center," Gonzalez says. "In researching his life story, I was floored by the greatness of this humble, personable man. As a child, between 1963 and 1965, I remember his first two huge hits and wondering about the name Trini Lopez, and realizing that this musician, friend of Frank Sinatra, The Beatles and so many others, was Hispanic, just like me."
Lopez's success was particularly significant for Gonzalez.
"Trini was proof positive that a kid from the barrio has as much of a chance as other folks of blazing one's own trail and succeeding in that search for freedom and expression while being true to oneself," Gonzalez says. "That, to me, is Trini Lopez's legacy."