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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Trini Lopez--An appreciation

"If I Had a Hammer"

He made the Top 10 only once, yet Trini Lopez’s hitmaking career, which peaked in 1963 with the No. 3 single “If I Had a Hammer,” was so significant that when he died Tuesday from complications of COVID-19, he was the subject of a nearly-finished memoir and documentary.

In fact, none other than Dave Grohl posted a surprising tribute via the Foo Fighters Instagram.

“Today the world sadly lost yet another legend, Trini Lopez,” posted Grohl.

“Trini not only left a beautiful musical legacy of his own, but also unknowingly helped shape the sound of the Foo Fighters from day one. Every album we have ever made, from the first to the latest, was recorded with my red 1967 Trini Lopez signature guitar. It is the sound of our band, and my most prized possession from the day I bought it in 1992. Thank you, Trini for all of your contributions. You will be missed by many, remembered by all.”

The Lopez guitar, and the rest of Lopez’s legacy, largely emanates from the success of “If I Had a Hammer,” a socially conscious song written in 1949 by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, who recorded it with their legendary folk music quartet The Weavers and released it as “The Hammer Song” the following year. It became a No. 10 pop hit in 1962 for Peter, Paul and Mary, and was then immortalized by Lopez’s distinctly energized version.

He followed it with other folk-inflected hits, most notably “Lemon Tree,” which reached No. 20 in 1965 and was his second-biggest single. His Gibson Trini Lopez signature guitar line was manufactured from 1964 to 1971, and is now prized by collectors. His musical stardom also led to acting work, his most memorable credit being the star-studded 1967 war film The Dirty Dozen.

But it was his pre-folk rock role in 1960s pop music and his ethnic heritage that remain the foundation for his enduring respect among those who followed, not to mention his loyal fan base.

Born in Dallas, Lopez was 83 when he died in Palm Springs, California, where he resided. On Facebook, entertainment journalist Bruce Fessier, formerly with Palm Springs daily The Desert Sun, pointed out that while Ritchie Valens is generally considered the first Latino rock star, Lopez was actually performing Valens’ signature hit “La Bamba” in Texas well ahead of him.

“The Byrds are generally credited with taking folk music ‘electric’ and turning the songs of Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan into rock music,” wrote Fessier. “But Trini turned Seeger’s ‘If I Had A Hammer’ into a major hit with his signature Gibson electric guitar and then went on to become America’s biggest international Latino music star.”

Fessier further noted that Lopez “crossed all genres” musically.

“Buddy Holly was impressed with him in Dallas and his producer, Norman Petty, got Trini signed to Columbia Records before Dylan. From there, he recorded on the same King label in Cincinnati as R&B great James Brown. He performed all kinds of music, but, when he sat in at Coachella Valley nightclubs, he loved to sing standards and then whip out his famous electric guitar and shred on a rocker like ‘Kansas City.’”

Fessier surmises that it was because Lopez “couldn’t be pegged to a single genre and—let’s be honest--that he didn’t fit the white Anglo-Saxon image of a ’60s rocker,” that he is not recognized as the American rock pioneer he truly was.

“Trini was one of the most under-appreciated singer-musicians in American history,” said Fessier. “He was Frank Sinatra’s most successful recording artist on Sinatra’s label, Reprise Records in the mid-’60s. He traveled and acted with Sinatra in Marriage on the Rocks. He co-headlined with the Beatles in a long engagement at the Olympia Theatre in Paris just before the Beatles invaded America. He hung out with Elvis Presley in Las Vegas and prayed with him.”

None of this is lost on Lopez’s fellow Texan Billy F Gibbons of ZZ Top.

Trini Lopez

Trini Lopez and Billy F Gibbons (Photo: Gilligan Gibbons)

“The passing of Trini Lopez is a profound loss to the music community and to his fellow Texans,” Gibbons said in a statement.

“His career in music and film bridged generations and ethnic divides most emphatically. It was a real privilege to share a stage with him in Palm Springs just last year when we were invited to participate in the filming of the Ebersole Hughes Company’s forthcoming Trini Lopez documentary. He regaled us with fascinating tales of parties in Las Vegas during the town’s heyday and, to be fair, he did his part in making it the entertainment mecca it remains today.”

“At his heart, he was a rocker and his adaptation of folk songs into the idiom was truly innovative,” Gibbons further noted, and sure enough, Lopez’ first single, in 1958, was “The Right to Rock,” and second, in 1959, was “Rock On.”

"The Right to Rock"

“He was the link between rock ’n’ roll and the Rat Pack,” said veteran music publicist Bob Merlis, by email. “He was signed to Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label which had, until that time, been a bastion of traditional pop. Despite the fact that he was well-groomed and wore suits on stage, Trini was a real rocker with all the energy associated with the genre, and most assuredly, not a middle of the road hack doing the obligatory ‘rock’ number ‘for the kids.’”

Rather, Lopez was of “the kids,” continued Merlis, “and that’s why his particular skew on the folk canon embodied by ‘If I Had A Hammer’ and ‘Lemon Tree’ proved to be such big hits. He wasn’t a square making believe he was hip: He was hip, and his success underscored rock ’n’ roll ecumenicism. He was the son of Mexican immigrants whose success juxtaposed him with the biggest stars of his era, and his version of ‘America’ from West Side Story could have been his family’s personal anthem.”

Lopez was also a Palm Springs neighbor.

“He was a truly warm individual,” said Merlis. “He wasn’t all ‘show biz,’ just an amiable guy who lived around the corner who happened to change the course of music history--where his place is assured. I’m so glad to have gotten to know him.”

Lopez sang in English and Spanish, and unlike other Mexican American performers, refused to change his name to benefit his prospects for mainstream success.

“I insisted on keeping my name Lopez,” he told The Dallas Morning News. “I’m proud to be a Lopez. I’m proud to be a Mexicano.”

Palm Springs filmmakers P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes have now followed their acclaimed documentary House of Cardin with My Name is Lopez.

“It is a true celebration of this great man, as an entertainer and as a trailblazer, who was born in Dallas to illegal immigrants, fought his way out of the ghetto with a guitar and became an international American star,” says Ebersole.

“Right now, we are so happy we have the movie sitting in our computer because we truly want Trini’s memory to continue to burn bright. Above all else, he was a gentleman--a kind and thoughtful person who cared deeply about other people. That’s what made him such a great performer: He wanted you to have a good time.”

Ebersole and Hughes were aiming to finish My Name is Lopez for early 2021 release.

“With his passing, we are seeing what we can do to speed it up so everyone can see it soon,” concludes Ebersole.



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