Gary James' Interview With
Trini Lopez

Trini Lopez was discovered at P.J.'s, a famous nightclub in the L.A. area in the early 1960s, by Don Costa. Costa signed him to Frank Sinatra's label, Reprise Records. Trini Lopez's first big hit was "If I Had A Hammer". Others followed, including: "I'm Coming Home, Cindy", "Michael", "Lemon Tree", "Kansas City", "America" and "La Bamba". His TV and movie appearances include The Dirty Dozen, A Poppy Is Also A Flower and Marriage On The Rocks.

It's always nice to talk to someone who is not only talented, but nice as well. And that description fits Trini Lopez.

Q - Mr. Lopez, I guess it's fair to say that you were the Ricky Martin of your time.

A - Thank-you. Thank-you. That's what people say.

Q - You actually did more than Ricky Martin. He's a singer and dancer.

A - So am I. I used to dance with six girls in Las Vegas.

Q - You're a songwriter too?

A - And a singer and all that. (laughs)

Q - You were involved in more of the creative end of the business.

A - Oh, I see what you're saying. Yeah. He's not a musician either.

Q - You were Ricky Martin and Ritchie Valens all in one.

A - (laughs) Thank-you. Thank-you.

Q - You started your career in Dallas didn't you?

A - I started my career in Dallas, yes. I was born and raised in Dallas. I started my career there when I was very young. My guitar was bigger than I was. That's how young I was.

Q - Did you have occasion to play the Carousel Club in Dallas?

A - No. Let me tell you what it was. Your talking about Jack Ruby?

Q - Yes.

A - I did work for him, but it was a place that was nicer than all the places he had. They were all kind of dives by the way. They were strip joints and all that. The nicest club he had was called The Vegas Club. No strip dancing. Strictly a nightclub. People came in and they danced to my band. It had a big bar. It was the nicest place he ever owned that that's where I used to work. I never worked those strip joints in my life.

Q - Did Jack Ruby help you secure a record deal with Reprise?

A - No. Jack Ruby never got me anything. He paid me very little. Reprise wasn't even around at that time. Sinatra bought the company in the late '50s. We're talking with Jack Ruby, '55, '56.

Q - So, Don Costa spotted you at P.J.'s and recommended you to Frank Sinatra?

A - Right. Everybody recommended me to Sinatra and Don Costa, because everybody was enjoying my music. I got a big following going on. Nino (Tempo) told Don Costa "you gotta come see this guy." And that's how Don Costa heard about me, through Nino Tempo. Then, Don Costa brought me to the attention of Frank Sinatra and Reprise Records.

Q - In the beginning of your career, did you have a record producer who wanted to change your last name? What did he want you to change it to?

A - OK, he wasn't my record producer. He was just a guy who had a little record label in Dallas. That was my first record I ever recorded by the way, on this little label called Volk Records. He heard me sing. I used to work a lot in Dallas. He said "I like you. Maybe I'll record you." I was so excited. So, I went into his office. He said "we'd like to record you but the only thing we need you to do is change your name." I looked at him and said "change my name?" He said "Yeah. Trini is OK, but Lopez has got to go." In Texas, I grew up in a very prejudiced part of the country. Dallas especially was very prejudiced. They treated us Mexicans worse than the Blacks. My father never had any money, but whenever he would make a little money he would take us to a little hamburger place like a truck stop type place to have a hamburg. They wouldn't serve us. They would tell us to leave, me and my sisters and my father and mother. And by the way, my mother and father were very light skinned. Can you imagine if they would have been dark skinned? They probably would've hit us. Then, when we would get in a bus to go to school or wherever they would tell us to sit in the back of the bus. That's how prejudiced it was in the '40s and '50s growing up in Dallas. It was really bad growing up as a kid. So, this man said "Lopez has got to go." I said "I can't do this. I'm sorry." I shook his hand and I started to walk out the door. Before I got to the door he said "Ok, ok, come back here. You can keep your name." I was so happy. We recorded one song that I wrote, the first song I ever wrote called "The Right To Rock". That song to this day is selling all over the world. Can you believe it? Well, that record made some noise in Dallas to the point where they heard it in Cincinnati, Ohio...Sid Nathan at King Records. They signed me up for four or five years. They would send me up to Cincinnati to record in the summer time when I was off school. They would put me in a propeller airplane and fly me to Cincinnati to record. They were smart. They wanted to re-vamp their publishing tunes and catalog. So, they would give me a bunch of Cowboy Copas songs. He was a big cowboy singer in the '30s and '40s. So, they wanted me to bring him up to date with his songs and make money 'cause they owned all the publishing. I did the best I could. The only good thing I did was one song called "Don't Let Your Sweet Love Die". It was number one in Dallas and an original hit for me. But, that's how I got started. I covered a song called "Since I Don't Have You" by The Skyliners. My name got to be on the charts for the first time in my life. I saw my name in Billboard and Cashbox. In those days when you covered a record, they would put your name along with the record that was the hit. But, I really didn't have anything big on King (Records). So, now three, four, five years later I am now on Reprise Records and I'm an international hit artist. They took all those singles I made for them and there was a bunch of them, and made two albums out of 'em. To this day they're selling all over the world for $50, $60, $75 a piece! All over the world on CDs now. The first one is called "Trini Lopez: The Teenage Idol" and the other one was called "The Best Of Trini Lopez" I think.

Q - Back to the guy who wanted you to change your name. What did he want you to change it to?

A - He said "anything. Roper is fine."

Q - Trini Roper just doesn't make it.

A - (laughs) That "z" in Lopez helps doesn't it?

Q - It's better than Roper. For you to get up and start to walk out was a pretty bold move on your part wasn't it?

A - Yes, it was. I've always been very proud of my heritage. I'm very proud to be a Mexicano. I'm very proud to be a Latino in this country. I'm very proud to be Hispanic.

Q - You dropped out of high school in your senior year. Did you ever get your G.E.D.?

A - They wanted to give me an honorary diploma after I became famous all over the world. I said "No Thanks." I said "If I would have earned it, I would do it." They were trying to be nice to me, but I said no thank you. I don't regret not getting a diploma because I've learned so much about life. I think I've learned more traveling all over the world than working one more year to graduate from high school. In my sophomore year I was named Most Likely To Succeed.

Q - They got that right.

A - To me, that was worth it. I got started singing in school, you know, when I was a kid, grammar school and then in high school I used to close all the assemblies, all the big shows. I used to tear up the whole auditorium full of kids. I was a hero. I was in the marching band, the ROTC band. I played all the proms and the parties. So, I was real popular with my music. I never went to proms. I always played at proms. When you're dedicated like I am, you have to give up a lot of things. You have to sacrifice if you want to be somebody. You have to work hard. The guys wanted me to go play ball and I said "I can't. I gotta rehearse." They said "C'mon Trini. Leave that guitar there. C'mon and play baseball with us." They would get mad at me 'cause I'd be busy rehearsing and I couldn't be with them.

Q - You knew Buddy Holly didn't you?

A - He was the first person to try and help me with my career, yeah.

Q - What kind of a guy was Buddy Holly?

A - Buddy Holly was a very nice, down to earth person. That's why I liked him. That's why I liked Elvis. I love people who are down to earth. I don't like conceited people. I don't like affected people. Buddy saw me at a nightclub in a little town called Wichita Falls, Texas. It's about two hours from Dallas. I used to work at NCO bases. It was a disc jockey that introduced me to him. His name was Snuff Garrett. Snuff became a big producer himself. So, he was working in a little radio station and he brought Buddy to hear me. Buddy said "Man, you gotta record." I said "I've done a couple of records, but nothing happened." He said "Well, you gotta meet my producer. Can you come to Clovis, New Mexico?" That place could've been on the moon for all I knew. I didn't know anything about New Mexico. I only traveled around Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana and that was it, in those days with my band. I said "Yeah, I can get there." He said "Great. Here's the number. Here's the address. You come and see me. I want to recommend you to my producer." That gentleman was a famous record producer who turned out to be redneck, unfortunately for me.

Q - You're talking about Norman Petty?

A - That's right.

Q - I've never heard anyone say anything like that before about Norman Petty.

A - He was with me. Listen to this: I get there and I have six guys in the band. I was the leader and the lead singer. It was my equipment. My station wagon. I was like the manager. It was my uniforms. I was in business at a very young age. I get there and Norman conspired with my band. The guys in the band were all Anglo. They were all white Anglos. The reason for that is because I wanted to have the most commercial sound I could possibly have in my career. I always had Anglo people working for me. They new Rock 'n' Roll much more than a lot of the Latin kids did. Me and Ritchie Valens had something going that God gave us. We got the commercialism going. Not everybody could do that. There's only a few of us around that did that, especially in the '50s. I recognized Rock 'n' Roll at a very young age. Would you believe they wouldn't let me sing? They all conspired against me. The guys were all jealous of me anyway 'cause the girls used to like me very much...the white girls. They didn't let me sing, so we did nothing but instrumentals. I couldn't believe it. I cried myself to sleep for two weeks while we were recording. We stayed at a little motel about a block or two away from Clovis, a little town. We went back to Dallas and I had to take them all back to their homes like I was a taxi driver. I should've left them in Clovis, to be honest with you. But, I was afraid to come back to Dallas by myself. It was a good day trip. A good 24 to 28 hour trip. I dismantled the whole group and I had to start all over again. The last guy I dropped off was my bass player. I said "Earl, I'm going to say bye to you. I'll never be seeing you again." He said "What are you talking about?" I said "I'm gonna have to start another band." He said "Trini, what are you talking about? We're gonna get a record deal on this thing!" I said "Yeah", but they wanted to call themselves some name of a group and no more Trini Lopez and His Combo. While I was there, they woke me up one morning before we started recording and said "We need to talk to you." It was eight in the morning. I used to get up at noon and one o'clock in those days. I just about do the same thing now. They were all around my bed. They said "We gotta talk to you." I said "What's the matter? Did somebody get hurt?" They said "No. We've been talking. We decided not to let you sing. We're all gonna sing." I said "You guys don't know how to sing." I knew they didn't know how to sing. They said "Well, we're gonna sing and you're not gonna be the leader any more. We're all gonna be the leaders. We're gonna go commune." I said "Commune? What does that mean?" I didn't know what that meant in those days. I was 18...19.

Q - What year was that?

A - Late '58.

Q - OK, go on.

A - I said "What does commune mean?" They said "It means community property. Everybody's gonna make the same amount of money. Everybody's gonna sing. You're not gonna be the manager anymore". I said "But I've been booking you guys all over the place. If it wasn't for me, you guys wouldn't be making any money." They said "Well, that's what we're gonna do." I came back, got rid of the band and got another band.

Q - And then what happened?

A - Ironically, six, seven months later I'm in Lubbock Texas, Buddy Holly's hometown and I get a phone call from Snuff Garrett. I'm appearing at the Millionaire's Club in Lubbock. I was making $800 a week by myself. That didn't include the band. I said "Snuff, how did you find me?" He said "I called your home and they told me where you were. Guess who wants you to come to Hollywood and take over Buddy's place?" This is three, four months after he died. I said "Who?" He said "The Crickets." I said "Are you putting me on?" He said "No. They want you to come and be their lead singer and take over Buddy's place." I didn't even think they liked me. Obviously they did. When we were rehearsing, when we first got there, they heard me sing and they liked me. I got to Hollywood and nothing materialized. The boys were drinking every night. Partying every night. Girls all over the place. They had a hill top place overlooking Hollywood. They had money from their royalties, you see. So, they weren't in a hurry to get going.

Q - Didn't The Beatles open for you at one point?

A - What happened was, we got booked into the Olympic Theatre, right before they came to America. We were there for a whole month in Paris. Two shows a night, three on Saturday. I used to steal the show from them every night! The French newspapers would say "Bravo Trini Lopez! Who are The Beatles?" Can you believe that? They didn't have much of an act. They used to just stand there and shake their heads with the hair. The girls loved that hair. We were there in January '64 for a whole month. In fact, 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." I whispered 'cause I didn't want them to hear me. They said "Why not?" I said "Because in America there's a group I like much better than these guys called The Beach Boys." And I really liked 'em much better. Little did I know...(laughs) Unbelievable. But, it was a great experience being with them.

Q - Did you meet Brian Epstein?

A - No. I never did. I used to see him walking around, but he was very quiet. He's the kind of guy who would walk in and nobody would notice. He had that kind of personality. If somebody like Frank Sinatra walks into a room, there's electricity. But Brian Epstein was just a quiet guy. Very Unassuming. Of course, he wasn't anybody in particular in those days. He became a hero later with The Beatles. But, it was quite a gig there for a whole month.

Q - Did The Beatles' invasion stop your career?

A - I think it stopped everybody's, not just me. Even Elvis. Elvis was upset with The Beatles too. They were tearing into our territory. They were just tearing it up, record sales, tours and so on. But, I wish everyone well. They didn't last very long. I don't think they lasted seven years...eight years.

Q - They toured for three years, 'til 1966 and kept recording 'til 1970. We're still talking about them, so I'd say they did last. They're still popular.

A - Yeah. Sure. You're right. They were a phenomenon.

Q - Where did you get the nickname "Mr. La Bamba"? Doesn't that name fit Ritchie Valens more than you?

A - No. No. No. Me too.

Q - Did you sing the song before he did?

A - Oh, yeah. I used to sing it in Dallas. I was about two or three years older than Ritchie. In fact, when I heard it on the radio, I got real upset because I said "Oh no, somebody beat me to it." That was my bread and butter song, even when I was a kid. I used to tear 'em up with "La Bamba". It was meant to be that that song came to be my song world-wide, which is much bigger world-wide than Ritchie Valens by the way in popularity on record. My record "La Bamba" is an international song. I made it an international hit. Anywhere you go, they know Trini Lopez "La Bamba".

© Gary James. All rights reserved.