Obituary: Trini Lopez, US singer and star of The Dirty Dozen
Trini Lopez, a singer and guitarist who gained fame for his versions of Lemon Tree and If I Had a Hammer in the 1960s and took his talents to Hollywood, has died at the age of 83.
Lopez crossed over into acting, appearing in the World War II drama The Dirty Dozen and the comedy The Phynx. He also designed guitars that became a favourite of Dave Grohl and other rock stars.
Mentored by Buddy Holly and Frank Sinatra, Lopez became an international star while performing in English and Spanish. Unlike Mexican American singers such as Ritchie Valens, Lopez rejected advice to change his name and openly embraced his Mexican American heritage despite warnings it would hurt his career. “I insisted on keeping my name Lopez,” he said in 2017. “I’m proud to be a Lopez. I’m proud to be a Mexicano.”
Born Trinidad Lopez III to immigrants from Guanajuato, Mexico, Lopez grew up in Dallas’ poor Little Mexico neighborhood. The family’s dire economic situation forced Lopez to drop out of high school and work.
His life changed after his father bought him a $12 black Gibson acoustic guitar from a pawn shop. His father taught him how to play, which led the young Lopez to perform at Dallas nightclubs that didn’t allow Mexican American patrons.
Buddy Holly saw Lopez at a small nightclub in Wichita Falls, Texas, and introduced him to Norman Petty, his record producer in Clovis, New Mexico. Holly died in a plane crash six months later, and Lopez briefly replaced him as lead singer of The Crickets.
Lopez moved to Southern California and got a regular gig at P.J.’s Night Club in West Hollywood. Sinatra saw him perform and offered him a contract with his new record label, Reprise, where Lopez got his first major hit with If I Had A Hammer. It went to No. 1 in nearly 40 countries.
They became friends and were spotted together regularly in social circles in Las Vegas and Palm Springs, California. Lopez received a Grammy nomination for best new artist of 1963 and by early 1964 he was so in demand that he and The Beatles were co-headliners during an 18-day engagement at the Olympia Theatre in Paris. It was just before the British band would travel to the US, appear on The Ed Sullivan Show and upend the careers of Lopez and countless others.
Trini recalled: “When we finished doing the shows, the last night we were there, reporters came to my dressing room. My dressing room was next to theirs and they said ‘Mr Lopez, The Beatles are leaving tomorrow for New York. Do you think they’ll be a hit?’ I said ‘I don’t think so.”’
Lopez was rarely on the charts after the 1960s, but his line of Gibson Trini Lopez guitars released from 1964 to 1971 unexpectedly influenced a generation of younger guitarists, including Grohl, the Edge and Noel Gallagher.
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