Graded on a Curve:
Trini Lopez,
The Rare Reprise Singles

Singer and guitarist Trini Lopez was one of the first Latin pop crossover artists, emerging in the early 1960s with his success persisting deep into the decade. Along with his hits, Lopez’s reputation largely rests on a pair of big-selling live albums that effectively kick-started his career. Omnivore Recordings’ new CD The Rare Reprise Singles illuminates the man’s abilities in the studio across 24 non-LP A- and B-sides. Trading performance verve for varying degrees of finesse, the disc spotlights Lopez’s considerable skills as an interpreter of songs and offers a few solid examples of his own writing. It’s available now.

Timeliness alert: those looking for non-overplayed Christmas songs to soundtrack their holiday soirees are in luck with The Rare Reprise Singles, as it includes Lopez’s 1968 45, “El Niño Del Tambor (The Little Drummer Boy)” b/w “Noche De Paz (Silent Night) / Let There Be Peace.” a double-dose of yuletide vibes that’s enjoyable if not a mindblower. Lopez had the voice for this material, and his singing in Spanish adds appeal, so it’s not at all bad as far as Christmas tunes go.

Contemporary relevance alert: The Rare Reprise Singles opens with “A-Me-Ri-Ca,” its lyrics written by that great man of the 20th century musical theater Stephen Sondheim, who passed from cardiovascular disease at age 91 on November 26 of this year, just a few days ago as of this writing. Lopez died from complications from Covid-19 at age 83 in August of 2020.

Furthermore, “A-Me-Ri-Ca” was written in collaboration with Leonard Bernstein for the 1957 Broadway play West Side Story, which was adapted into a film in 1963 (surely the impetus for Lopez’s song, which was released the same year) directed by Robert Wise, and with a fresh adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg (with a screenplay by Tony Kushner) due in theaters this Friday, December 10.

Time spent with The Rare Reprise Singles renders Lopez’s connection to matters of the moment unsurprising. As the tracks unwind, the artist’s obvious comfort level with his material magnifies a sincere willingness to roll with the rapid-fire style changes as the ’60s progressed. Not everything works, but there’s never a sense of desperation.

That Lopez hit the jackpot in landing a long-term contract with the fledgling and artist-friendly record label of Frank Sinatra is worthy of note. But credit where it is due: it was Lopez’s stage show that got him signed, and that’s essentially what’s heard on his first two albums, Trini Lopez at PJ’s and More Trini Lopez at PJ’s (both 1963), which helped solidify his deftness at folk-pop but also included early R&R, R&B, soul and as mentioned, Broadway show tunes.

Notably, “A-Me-Ri-Ca” is the only studio version of a song from either of the two live LPs heard here. Instead, there’s the sophisto R&B (a la Drifters-Ben E. King-Sam Cooke) of “Let it Be Known” (a Nino Tempo tune), the sweet jangle pop of “I Lost My Love for You” (a Lopez original), and the Latin R&R of “My Felicidad” (a Spanish language cover of “Little Miss Happiness” by The Five Emprees).

Yes, a few dives into the string-laden mainstream emphasize that Lopez was a frequent visitor to the Adult Contemporary Chart throughout his run with Reprise, but that’s not to suggest these forays are negligible. “Pretty Little Girl” really highlights his strengths as a mid-’60s pop crooner, for one example, as “Regresa A Mi” brings more of the Latin flair.

However, the mainstream pop impulse works best when the tempo is increased and Lopez’s guitar-based approach is retained alongside the strings and horns, as during the terrific “Up to Now,” which climbed no higher than #123 on the US pop chart in ’66; I concur with the assessment of Gene Sculatti in his CD booklet liner essay that it should’ve been a whole lot bigger. But the disc’s best strings are heard later in the sequence during “Love Song,” a Randy Newman composition produced by Bob Gaudio of The Four Seasons. Best strings runner up is “Something Tells Me,” again an upbeat situation.

But The Rare Reprise Singles is loaded with twists, rolling from the “Lemon Tree”-esque “The Bramble Bush” into “The Ballad of The Dirty Dozen,” which Lopez co-wrote for and sang in the film in which he also had an acting role. It’s one of three film songs on the disc, the best being the Bacharach and David-penned “Made in Paris,” its strength deriving from lively rhythms, mid-track string sweep, and the retention of Lopez’s guitar.

When he plays his axe (Lopez designed two guitars for Gibson) there always a trace of Texas (he was born in Dallas), even when the pendulum swings decidedly toward pop. In fact, I’ll observe that had Lopez ended up on a label like Smash rather than Reprise, it’s not difficult to imagine him honing a sound nearer to Bobby Fuller (there is a shared connection to the work of Buddy Holly).

One of the best aspects of The Rare Reprise Singles is how some of its best moments are found deeper in the track order, like a fantastic cover of Four Jacks and a Jill’s “Master Jack” that radiates Orbison-like fumes, a downright nifty version of The Vogues’ “Five O’Clock World,” the late ’60’s message pop of “Trying to Get It Together,” its highly dated but quite likeable flip side “Mexican Medicine Man,” which brings to mind The Turtles circa Battle of the Bands, at least until it starts wafting an Elvis-like aroma, and the lyrically strange groover (hey, it was the ’60s) “Su-Kal-De-Don.”

Penultimate track “There Was a Crooked Man,” the last of Lopez’s film songs, and the Boudleaux Bryant-penned “Let’s Think About Livin’,” are both country-ish numbers reinforcing Lopez’s adaptability, wrapping up the set in strong fashion. Taking into consideration that these non-LP sides are previously uncollected, The Rare Reprise Singles is an impressive undertaking indeed.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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