A primal source of Hispanic- and
folk-rock, Trini Lopez still has a hammer and a song to sing at the Rrazz Room
on July 1.
By Jud Cost
Dan” Ramirez and I used to lug orange crates full of vinyl from the back
of his pickup truck to play mobile music for Silicon
Valley office parties, weddings and graduations back in the early
’80s, it was all about getting warm bodies onto the dance floor. Along with
Lionel Richie, Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor, “La Bamba” was always
a sure thing in a region with a large Latino population.
wasn’t the 1959 version by Rock And Roll Hall of Fame idol Ritchie Valens that
we played. It was always the one by Trini Lopez, cut at the 1964 height of
those pulsating “go-go” albums by Johnny Rivers, whose beautifully
engineered artificial crowd noise replicated a Sunset Strip disco in the
background. Lopez’s debut album for Frank Sinatra’s fledgling Reprise label was
a “live” session, as well. He also had a San Francisco Bay Area hit
with a hypnotic, minor-key classic called “What Have I Got Of My
Own,” featuring some studio cat on drums (possibly Hal Blaine) creating
Elvin Jones-style, rolling thunder behind the singer. .
The only time I
saw Trini Lopez play live, he performed impromptu
versions of his early hits “Lemon Tree” and “If I Had A
Hammer” outdoors at the tiny Van Nuys airport in L.A.’s
San Fernando Valley. Lopez was part of the
celebrity entourage of Democratic presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey,
trying to ignite support in the thoroughly depressing aftershock of the
assassination of Senator Bobby Kennedy, in the summer of 1968.
later, Lopez is back wearing a black straw hat and shaking hands with most of
the Rrazz Room’s patrons as he arrives, including an old pal dressed in a
leopard-skin leotard who owns a body-building company. Supported by a seasoned
quintet of guitar, piano, bass, drums and conga, Lopez kicks things off with
workmanlike versions of “Jump, Jive And Wail” and Bobby Troup’s
“Route 66.” The enthusiastic gathering of less than 100 for a Sunday
matinee at the intimate San Francisco
club feels like a convention of retired real estate salesmen and their wives.
out that she’d seen him long ago at San
Carlos’ Circle Star Theatre. Lopez reminisces about
the days when he was discovered at a Hollywood club called PJ’s, before he
eases into a medley, sung entirely in Spanish, of “Perfidia,”
“Amor,” “Besame Mucho” and “Cuando Caliente El
Sol.” Although the pipes aren’t quite up to the falsetto parts of a
stand-alone version of “Malagueña Salerosa,” it’s a nice attempt.
these songs I learned from my Dad, sitting out on the back porch, which is
funny because we didn’t even have a back porch,” the Texas-born troubadour
quips. At times, the show takes on the vibe of a lounge act at a Nevada
Stateline casino, back in the heyday of Frank, Dino and Sammy. “I remember
the first time I ever met Frank Sinatra,” Lopez says. “I was so thrilled.
The first thing he ever said to me was: ‘Get out of the way, kid.'”
jazz standard “Midnight Sun” his best shot, Lopez reveals the origin
of his given name. “My parents named their kids after places they’d
visited, so I was called Trinidad. And if you
think that’s funny, I’ve got brothers named ‘El Paso’
and ‘Long Beach.’
It’s good for me they decided to visit Trinidad.
They’d originally planned to go to the Virgin Islands,
instead.” He revisits the early days of the American folk-music boom with
an old campfire classic “Michael Row The Boat Ashore.”
Lopez begins to
wrap up his 90-minute set with a medley of his hits, including “Lemon
Tree,” “I’m Comin’ Home, Cindy” and an especially appealing
version of “America”
from West Side Story. “And now,
here it is, my big hit, a number one in 38 different countries,” he says.
“If I Had A Hammer,” with the drummer tapping a cymbal after the
“If I had a bell” line, still sounds fresh, after all these years.
I ask Lopez in
the lobby afterwards why he didn’t play “What Have I Got Of My Own,”
and he replies, “I’ve got too many hits to play ’em all.” And he’s
probably right. Like “Disco Dan,” he had the good sense to finish off
his set with a “sure thing” reading of “La Bamba.” As a
lowly “marinero,” who am I to question the ship’s