EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the last story in an occasional series highlighting performers who played an interesting role in the history of entertainment in Las Vegas. The series will return for four weeks in November.
Singing star Trini Lopez is a Taurus, a dreamer. "I had big dreams -- to become famous and to make something out of myself, because I came from a very poor family," he told me recently. "I wanted to get my family out of the poverty we had."
And that he did. When he started out in show business, Lopez had a burning desire, an abundance of talent, good looks and absolutely no money.
Following that dream, Lopez went through several lean years, before signing with Frank Sinatra's Reprise Records label, and enjoying a successful recording career.
By the time he debuted in Las Vegas in March 1965, headlining at the Flamingo, Lopez was making more than $500,000 a year.
"I was born and raised in a black and Mexican ghetto," Lopez explained. "Oh yeah, so I had a lot of dreams for success. ... And that's the first thing I did -- help my parents, my brothers and sisters."
One of the highlights of his early career was appearing in Las Vegas. "Las Vegas audiences are swingers," Lopez said. "They're drinkers and swingers and they like to have a good time and party. I never had a bad audience in my career. Sometimes it may take a little longer to get them, you know. But I would get them. I'd get standing ovations. ... Everything is attitude. It's very important to always like what you're doing."
And perhaps that is one of Lopez's greatest attributes: His infectious grin when he comes onstage shows his joy of performing.
Lopez recalled his first show on the Flamingo stage: "I was real hot with my first album and my first single that came out of it called 'If I Had A Hammer' (which sold more than 5 million copies). And then 'La Bamba' came out, too. I had about six hits that came out of that album. ... So Las Vegas wanted me and an up and coming comic by the name of Bill Cosby, who was also real hot on Reprise ... and so they had him open the show for me. And it was a great engagement for four weeks."
Lopez's confidence was immediately tested by the audience's love of Cosby.
"I was in the wings waiting to go on. And as soon as he got off the stage, the audience kept saying, 'We want Bill! We want Bill!' you know," Lopez remembered. "And I said, 'Bill, go back.' And he said: 'Oh, no. It's OK.' And I said: 'No, they want you, man. Go back.' And so he went back, and then he finished his encore, and was getting ready to get off the stage, and they're still hollering for Bill again! ... This happened about four times. And he had about four encores."
Even Lopez's kid brother Jesse (an entertainer and musician in his own right) felt sympathy for him.
"The Flamingo was, you know, the very, very 'in' hotel. And so my brother Jesse says, 'Trini, Trini -- you are going to have to really work hard!' And I said: 'Yeah, I know. I know!' So finally Bill didn't have any more material to do. So he gets off and I go on, and it takes me about three minutes to get 'em. And so I finished my show, and they wouldn't let me get off the stage!"
Said John L. Scott in the Los Angeles Times (March 17, 1965): "The tall, slim, dark-eyed Mexican-American singer walked out of the wings of the Flamingo's theater-restaurant stage with a guitar, smiled at the orchestra and with a hammering beat launched into his first tune. An ear-shattering response greeted the conclusion of this initial number, and Trini Lopez, 27-year-old singing idol of American teenagers and a smashing hit in Europe, South America and Australia, had sold his 'message' to a mature, jaded Las Vegas audience, traditionally tough on new entertainers. Before the evening was over Trini ... had sophisticated listeners singing along with him, practically unprecedented in diceville."
Where did it all begin? "My father and mother were both orphans, born in Mexico, with no education," Lopez said. His father was 18 and his mother 16 when they married. They moved to Dallas without documentation. The family, which included nine children, lived in poverty. President Franklin D. Roosevelt granted amnesty to Mexicans living in the United States during World War II, and Lopez recalled his mother weeping on the day it was announced on the radio that President Roosevelt had died. "If it wasn't for him," Lopez said, "we wouldn't be here in America."
Born Trinidad Lopez III on May 15, 1937, in Dallas, Trini, as he was called, was about 9 years old when his father (also named Trinidad, a day laborer who worked three jobs to support his large family) gave the boy his first guitar.
"Listen to this, Stephen," Lopez said to me. "The first guitar my dad gave me was an old Gibson guitar. He went to a pawnshop and bought me this $12 guitar. And that started my career."
Lopez worked the club circuit in the Southwest before making a name for himself in 1962 with an appearance at the nightspot PJ's in Hollywood. He was paid $200 a week. Record producer and musical arranger Don Costa heard him play and took tapes to Sinatra, who was starting his own record label for Warner Brothers.
Lopez's breakthrough LP was "Trini Lopez Live at PJ's," released in 1963.
"I knew Sinatra for 38 years," Lopez said. "He was like my father. Frank Sinatra was my 'dad.' He treated me like his son. He gave me the best advice about singing, about this and that. ... He was a very sensitive man, very astute, one of the sharpest men that I ever met in my life."
After the release of "Trini Lopez at PJ's," suddenly the singer was hot. Lopez scored more than a dozen top pop chart singles, and 10 contemporary adult hits. His later hit recordings include "Michael," "Lemon Tree," "I'm Coming Home, Cindy," "Sally Was a Good Old Girl," "Gonna Get Along Without Ya' Now" and "The Bramble Bush."
During his lengthy career, Lopez has recorded some 30 albums, appeared at most major clubs, and was featured on numerous television talk and variety shows including "The Ed Sullivan Show." He also did acting stints on television and in films, his most important role as Pedro Jiminez in 1967's "The Dirty Dozen," with Lee Marvin.
Lopez has returned to Las Vegas frequently throughout his career. He has worked at the MGM Grand with Shecky Greene and at the Landmark. He performed at the Riviera in November 1967, and again in 1968, when comedian Sammy Shore made his Las Vegas debut.
"He's a friend," Lopez said of Shore. "They didn't want him to work with me because he wasn't a name. ... When I wanted him to open the show for me, the agents and everybody at the hotel ... said, 'Hey, you need somebody to help you draw people.' And I said, 'Well, this guy's really good,' you know. So they finally gave in and he opened the show for me, and he was great! And we worked together I don't know how many years at Reno, Lake Tahoe. And one night when he was with me at the Landmark, Elvis came to see me."
Presley also was impressed by Shore and the comedian worked with him as well.
"Elvis used to come see me, and I'd go and see his shows," Lopez recalled. "And then we'd go and hang out at the top of the International (now Las Vegas Hilton) in the presidential suite. We used to party till all hours of the morning."
"Every time we'd get together, he'd always talk about one thing," Lopez added. "He'd never talk about music. He never would talk about girls. ... He'd talk about religion. He loved religion. Elvis was very religious."
Lopez now finds it difficult to correlate the spiritual aspects of Presley with the troubles Presley had in his life.
But Lopez saw many other stars while in Las Vegas.
"I would go over to Caesars Palace to watch Ike and Tina Turner, Little Richard, Fats Domino -- all these people were great," Lopez remembered.
His friendship with the late Bobby Darin was close, too, and Lopez would fill in for the entertainer when needed. "He would get sick, and I would take over for him. I would do three, four, five nights, which was two shows a night -- that was typical policy at the hotels. And I would take over for him. He would send a beautiful gift to show his appreciation, you know. He was another Taurus."
In 1972, Lopez headlined at the Desert Inn with comedian Jack E. Leonard as his opening act, and in 1973 for four weeks with comedienne Joan Rivers.
Lopez has left a lasting impression in show business as a consummate entertainer. But his legacy also includes his two Gibson signature designed guitars. When production (1964-1971) ceased, the Trini Lopez Standard and the Lopez Deluxe guitars became valuable among collectors. (In a recent New York Artists' Auction, one of Lopez's designer guitars brought in $84,000.)
Today, Lopez still performs, and recently he released a new CD.
He is proud of his contribution to music, as well as his heritage and achieving his dream of helping his family. In 2002, he was inducted into the Las Vegas Casino Legends Hall of Fame. And the following year he was honored with induction into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame.