By Richie Unterberger

"I've always loved variety in music," declares Trini Lopez. "I don't like to do things that other people do the same way. A lot of people go into the studio and they record a song, a big hit by Sinatra or somebody, and they do exactly the same arrangement. I think it's spinning your wheels."

    There could hardly have been more variety on Trini Lopez at PJ's, the 1963 album that launched the singer to international superstardom. Folk standards like "If I Had a Hammer," "This Land Is Your Land," and "Gotta Travel On"; the Ray Charles hits "What'd I Say" and "Unchain My Heart"; Latin traditional staples like "La Bamba"; the spirituals "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "Down By the Riverside"; show tunes from West Side Story; pop standards like "Volare"...Trini did 'em all. And like Frank Sinatra -- head of Reprise, the label that had just signed him to an eight-year deal -- he did them his way, with an infectious Latin-influenced, swinging rhythm and nonstop party ebullience, embellished by the enthusiastic live nightclub audience.

    In his mid-twenties when Trini Lopez at PJ's was released, Lopez was an overnight sensation, the album rocketing to #2 and staying on the chart for almost a year. Like many overnight sensations, however, Lopez had been plugging away at his craft for many years before landing a hit. Born to Mexican parents in Dallas, Texas in 1937, Lopez began recording in the late 1950s and issued about a dozen singles, mostly for King, before signing to Reprise. "I was going up to Cincinnati to record with a completely black band," remembers Lopez of his stint with King, a label strongest in rhythm and blues, its roster featuring James Brown, Hank Ballard, Freddy King, and Little Willie John. "I was the only Latino at the studio. I was doing my thing with my guitar, but it was camouflaged by their sound. But when I started recording on my own, with my own guys, it clicked, because I had my own complete sound."

    By the time he was signed to Reprise by Don Costa, the singer-guitarist was working at the Hollywood club PJ's with a trio that also featured drummer Mickey Jones, who had begun playing with Lopez back in Dallas. When Costa told Trini that Reprise wanted to record the album at PJ's itself, "I was kind of disappointed. I wanted to record in a studio, like everybody else. I couldn't wait to get to a studio in Hollywood and record in a nice professional studio, which I never had done at that time.

    "He said, 'No, we'd like to record you here.' I said, 'Why here?' 'Because we want to create all of the excitement that you're creating here in person on record.' I said, 'Well, that makes sense. But after this, can we go into the studio?' He said, 'Sure.'

    Costa and famed engineer Wally Heider recorded Trini Lopez at PJ's in a truck outside the club, Costa instructing Lopez to "'just do your show the way you're doing now.' They just turned the tape on. We recorded like two nights, three nights, and took the best of everything. There weren't that many microphones. One for me, for my voice; one for my guitar, for my amp. A couple for the drums, and one for the bass. And just one or two for the audience. I was sitting behind a piano on a stool, and the people were all around me. They just put like a microphone or two...they didn't even mike the people that much. But you can still hear 'em pretty good."

    The most famous song, by far, on the record is "If I Had a Hammer," a #3 single for Lopez and, according to Trini, a chart-topper in 28 countries. Its success is all the more remarkable considering that Peter, Paul & Mary had made the Top Ten with the tune (written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays of the Weavers) just a year earlier. Lopez first became aware of the number via Peter, Paul & Mary's interpretation, and recorded it "because I liked the message it had, and liked the melody. And of course, I just changed the whole thing around. I made it not only listenable, but I also made it danceable."

    In that way, Lopez also made a contribution to bringing folk music further into the pop mainstream, the combination of folk material and danceable arrangements even foreshadowing folk-rock in some respects. Indeed Marty Balin, founder of the Jefferson Airplane, has cited Lopez's arrangements of folk music with electric instruments as part of his inspiration for pursuing folk-rock. It's also interesting that Mickey Jones, after drumming on Lopez's first Reprise hits, would play drums in the Hawks, the backup band for Bob Dylan, during the April and May dates of Dylan's 1966 world tour, though Levon Helm would replace Jones when the Hawks evolved into the Band.

    "Folk music was really in; I liked the melodies, I liked the lyrics," observes Trini. "But again, I didn't do 'em the way they were being written. I did 'em my way. I changed them around for my own satisfaction, my feeling of the songs, and my beat. I bet you people that weren't too much into folk got into it more, because I brought a freshness to it. If you hear a song that sounds pretty good, but then you hear somebody really do it more modern, you say, 'You know, it's not a bad tune.'

    "The only thing I didn't change was the lyrics," he laughs. "But I changed the music completely. Everybody calls it the Trini Beat. They were dancing to my songs all over the world at discotheques. They would put the album from side A to side B, and then side B to the other side, and play it all the way through."

    It was such a successful album, in fact, that Lopez would have to wait a while to keep Reprise to its promise to let the singer record in a studio. His next album would again be recorded live at PJ's, and again result in a top-selling LP with a remarkably varied repertoire. That story is told on the More Trini Lopez at PJ's album, also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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