Born to Mexican immigrant parents, the singer and actor proudly kept his last name on his way to becoming a star.
Trini López grew up in poverty in Dallas to undocumented parents, but rose as a singer and Hollywood actor in an era in which discrimination to Latinos was pervasive. The voice behind hit songs such as “If I Had a Hammer” and “Lemon Tree” died Tuesday in a Palm Spring hospital from COVID-19 complications. He was 83 years old.
López was 11 years old when his father bought him a $12 guitar “he couldn’t afford”—partly because he felt guilty after spanking him for hanging with the wrong kids. López Sr., himself a singer from Guanajuato, taught Trini how to play and sing songs in Spanish. As a teenager, Trini was already playing for money on street corners, and at age 15 had already formed his first band, The Big Beats, performing regularly at The Vegas Club, a Dallas nightclub owned by Jack Ruby.
By age 18, López had written and recorded his first song in Dallas, called “The Right to Rock.” According to the singer, the producer wanted him to change his last name to “anything but Lopez,” but the singer refused as he was proud of his heritage and “devastated by the situation.” He was heading out the door when the producer finally gave up.
“People don’t really remember that Latinos were treated the same way by the Jim Crow laws,” filmmaker P. David Ebersole, who is finishing a documentary on the singer titled My Name Is López, said in a recent interview. “They had to sit in the back of the bus with the blacks. They weren’t allowed to stay in hotel rooms.”
Discovered by Frank Sinatra
López eventually headed to Hollywood, where he secured a steady gig at the nightclub PJ’s, where he started getting an audience. That’s where Frank Sinatra discovered him and signed him to his label, Reprise Records. His first album, Trini López at PJ’s was recorded live at the nightclub, and became an international hit with his Latin-flavored versions of folk songs “If I Had a Hammer,” “This Land is Your Land,” and “Lemon Tree.”
In 1963, López headed to the Olympia Theater in Paris. He was told he would share the bill with a band he had never heard of: The Beatles. Some nights, he would open for them, and on other nights, it was The Beatles opening for López.
Trini became such a sensation in his native Dallas, that teenage girls would gather at the airport to welcome the singer home.
“I remember being so young, and my older sisters going to Love Field to see him when he had landed,” Dallas fan Martina López (no relation) told The Americano.
The Rat Pack and Hollywood Films
López was one of a handful of Mexican-Americans in Hollywood films. Sinatra opened that door, too. He made him a member of the infamous “Rat Pack,” which included 60’s megastars Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, and Peter Lawford and put him in his movies.
His most notorious role was that of Pedro Jiménez in the classic 1967 World War II film The Dirty Dozen, among a star-studded cast that included Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, and Telly Savalas.
In 1964, his popularity led Gibson Guitars to ask him to design a guitar, and Lopez ended up designing two models: the Trini Lopez Standard and the Lopez Deluxe. Both are now collector items, and count Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters and Nirvana as one of their biggest fans. The singer took to Twitter to pay him tribute, writing “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 López signature guitar.”
Making Music Until the End
López was still recording and performing in the years leading up to his death. In April he had released “Here I Am,” a tribute to his parents and fans that included the line, “I’ll keep on singing until the heavens call for me.”
His music partner Joe Chavira said they had just finished recording a song, “If By Now,” before he got sick. The single was meant to raise money for food banks during COVID-19.
“And here he is, dying of something he was trying to fight,” Chavira said.