To some, Trini Lopez is just a name on two of Gibson’s coolest signature guitars. Dave Grohl, Noel Gallagher, The Edge and Andy Bell all love their Gibson Trini Lopez models.
But Trinidad Lopez III, the man, is more than just a name. One of the first Latino stars in the U.S, Texan-born Lopez remains a master guitarist and showman, a Gibson signature co-designer, TV host, movie star, a friend of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, The Beatles, a protégé of Frank Sinatra…
“It’s been an amazing journey”, Lopez laughs, at the seasoned age of 74. Lopez is still playing and is sharp as a tack. His 65th album, Into The Future, is out in July 2011, featuring his own takes on Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Midnight Sun,” “Route 66” and more.
It’s a good time to ask Trini a little more about the man behind the name…
When did you get your first guitar?
At 12 years old, and the truth is this. My father gave me a whipping one-day because I was running around with the wrong gangs in the ghetto neighborhood I was born in Dallas. It was a black and Mexican ghetto, a tough place. He told me to always be home when he returned from work, and the third time I failed to obey him he gave me a whipping with his belt. He felt bad the next day and to make it up to me he stopped at a pawnshop on the way home and bought this guitar for $12, a black Gibson acoustic. I can’t remember the model, but it had such a great big sound. Ironic, isn’t it? Little did I know then that I’d one day be asked to design my own Gibson guitars. The fact that I did that for one of the biggest guitar companies ever is still amazing to me.
As a young guitarist, what did you start playing?
I was listening to Elvis in the 1950s, of course, plus Fats Domino, Little Richard, B.B. King, John ‘Guitar’ Watson, Gatemouth Brown, Junior Walker. By 15 or so, I knew that if I just played Mexican music I wasn’t going to go anywhere. I was playing in high schools, at weddings, fiestas, but I always played commercial music, the famous songs of the day.
After a few years, you met Buddy Holly, resulting in a fascinating story key to your eventual success.
Yes, Buddy was one of the first artists to help me. It was because of him I came to Hollywood, indirectly. I was working in a little nightclub in Wichita Falls, Texas. One night Buddy was promotiong “Peggy Sue” at the local radio station. The disc jockey there, Snuff Garrett, was a fan of mine and Snuff brought Buddy to see my show. Buddy said he wanted me to meet his record producer, Norman Petty. Norman recorded all of Buddy’s great hits, “That’ll Be The Day,” all those songs. And we recorded a bit together.
Six months later, Buddy sadly died in that plane crash. But The Crickets remembered me and asked me to go out to Hollywood and take over from Buddy, to go on the road.
But you and The Crickets didn’t work out. Why?
It wasn’t anything musical. I’ll tell you what it was. They were partying all the time! Texas people, they love to drink. I was with them for two weeks, but they had girls coming in and out of this real nice house overlooking Hollywood. And they had money, because they all co-wrote with Buddy. Ultimately, they were not in a hurry to get going, but I was. I only had $200 in my pocket when I went to L.A. and in that two weeks it was gone. It was bad because, as my family was poor, I had told them I would send money as soon as I started earning. It just didn’t work out.
So you split from The Crickets opportunity and went on your own?
Yes. I auditioned for a nightclub in Beverly Hills, just me and my guitar, and I got a booking for two weeks. And I stayed there playing every week for a year. Amazing. And that’s when a lot of the ‘new’ Hollywood people would come and see me, Nancy Sinatra, Connie Stevens…
“I kept hearing about this place called P.J.’s, the place where the high echelon of Hollywood stars were going, Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman. I wanted to work there!
I got booked for three months at P.J.’s and stayed a year and a half. And it was there I met Frank Sinatra. After only three or four shows he offered me a recording contract with Reprise Records. I was 24, but a young 24. I came from a poor family, I was very insecure and timid, but by the grace of God I got the deal and had hits.
How do you recall “If I Had A Hammer”, your first major hit?
Well, that was the big breakthrough. That one was on [Sinatra’s] Reprise Records, so it was distributed all over the country. It eventually went to #1 in 38 countries in eight months or so. My God, I was amazed.
You then became one of America’s first Latino stars: was that a thing of pride or something of a burden?
Both. Pride of course, but it was a burden, with America then being very prejudiced towards Latinos. Richie Valens started the Latino breakthrough, I guess, but he also sadly died. And Richie Valens [born Ricardo Reyes] even changed his name.
I’m very proud I didn’t change my name. When I recorded my first record, “The Right To Rock,” aged 18, the first thing the studio wanted me to do was change my name. They said Trini was nice, but Lopez had to go. I said no. I was proud of my heritage, always will be, and I even started walking out the door.
This guy with a big cigar in his mouth shouted, “come back, come back”. And eventually he told me I could keep my name. Jennifer Lopez may be a big star in America now, but this is long after I broke through.
How did the original Gibson Trini Lopez signature guitars (’64-’71) come about?
“I was playing a club in Chicago when Gibson approached me. I nearly fell off my chair. I always liked Gibson guitars. At that point, I was playing a Gibson Barney Kessel. He was an amazing jazz player, and a star to me because he’d backed Julie London on the hit “Cry Me A River.” I gave Gibson all the ideas I liked - the diamond fret-markers, the diamond f-holes, the headstock, buttons here-and-there to make it easier for me to switch from rhythm to lead.
“For the Standard, I suggested they needed something a little more rock’n’roll. But the Deluxe was my favorite; I’ve always liked a full-bodied guitar. Did you know that Les Paul and I are the ones that have sold the most [signature] Gibson guitars in the world?”
And those guitars live on: Dave Grohl’s signature “Inspired By” DG-335 is an update of the Trini Lopez Standard, itself a modification of the ES-335…
“Yes it is, and I was surprised. But many younger players like my guitar. Maroon 5’s guitarist plays my guitar, The Edge plays my guitar, Paul McCartney’s guitarist plays my guitar, Dave Grohl, Lyndsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac played my guitar, Sting’s guitar player plays my guitar. The Edge auctioned his Trini Lopez for $280,000. It’s amazing.
“I guess they’re not only fans of me as an artist, but they love the guitar. I’m not Dave Grohl’s biggest fan of course [laughs] but I’m definitely a fan. I’m just glad that people remember me.”