Manny Lopez was known as the
"King of the Cha Cha Cha" in the late 1950s and early '60s
in Southern California and beyond. He recorded two
albums for RCA Victor, two for Imperial Records, and two for
Indigo Records. He shared the bill and performed with
the top Latin and jazz musicians from New York and Los
Angeles of the era, such as Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez,
Machito, Rene Touzet, and George Shearing. He toured
with Tony Martin in Florida and the Caribbean and recorded
in Mexico City and Los Angeles. He coached Elvis
Presley in Spanish pronunciation for a movie and was
featured in a major film with the popular Cuban band leader
Perez Prado, of "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White" fame,
and Luis Alcaraz, known as the "Glenn Miller of Mexico."
Manny Lopez was a songwriter and musician who played the
vibes and guitar, and was a well-known and respected band
leader. Manny also owned a own popular night club in
East Los Angeles.
Manny Lopez was born in 1927 in Downey, California, a suburb of
Los Angeles. His father and mother played the guitar and
would entertain at family gatherings. His older brother
Jess "Chuy" Lopez also became a musician. Manny started
out singing and performing mostly boleros with his brother and a
friend, Mexican trio style with guitars and vocals. He was
also in a couple of other bands when he was in high school.
The first band was with Joe Matorena, known as Joe May.
(Coincidentally, Joe Maytorena was one of my high school music
teachers at Garfield High School in the late 1960s.) Manny
had no real formal training, learning music by listening to
recordings and other good musicians who were in town such as
Tony Olvera (bass), Manuel Cerecedes (piano), and Francisco
"Chico" Guerrero (vibes). He enjoyed big band music, both
American and Latin, disparate artists such as Benny Goodman,
Tommy Dorsey, Stan Kenton, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Tito
Puente, and Tito Rodriguez. He also favored vocalists such
as Frankie Laine, Tony Martin, Nat "King" Cole, and The
Modernaires. Manny started as a guitarist then took up the
vibes at the age of 20. His musical preferences were
sophisticated jazz and Latin. In 1946, Manny joined the
navy just after World War II. He was in the navy band as a
guitarist on the U.S.S. Princeton, an aircraft carrier. In
the navy band with him was a bass player by the name of Alfonso
Arias. Alfonso's father, Jose Arias, was a great and
well-known musician. Manny would work with Alfonso when
they got out of the service as well. While in the navy,
Manny spent some time in Shanghai, China. At the time he
didn't enjoy the experience because he was missing his fiancé,
Jenny. In later years, he appreciated that he got to
experience such an exotic part of the world.
When Manny got out of the navy, he formed the Manny Lopez
Quintet, which included a trumpet player, a saxophonist, a
percussionist, a female vocalist, and Manny on vibes and vocals.
In 1957 Manny was working with his band at Club Baion on
Atlantic Boulevard in East Los Angeles when a&r (artist and
repertoire) men from RCA Victor came in and liked what they
heard. In short order Manny and his quintet were recording
in Hollywood for the label. For the recordings, Manny
added three violins, a viola, a cello, two flutes, and a full
rhythm section. The first album was called "Cha-Cha-Cha If
You Please" and was credited to Manny Lopez and his Orchestra.
RCA Victor promoted Manny Lopez as the "King of the Cha Cha
Cha." Manny continued to play around the Los Angeles area
in venues such as the Capri Club on 4th and La Cienega, The
Hollywood Palladium, and the legendary Garden of Allah on Sunset
Blvd. At the Palladium Manny's band would play alongside
the biggest names in Latin music. Manny and his band,
featuring female vocalist Nita Cruz, also performed a lot in Las
Vegas during its golden age at the Flamingo Hotel. The
great Louie Prima and Keely Smith, along with other
entertainers, used to come in and catch his show. Manny
also played Lake Tahoe a lot during this time. Manny's
second RCA Victor album was called "Cha Cha Pops," which
included many American classic songs that he Latinized,
"Stairway To the Stars" and "There I Said It Again" are two
examples. Manny Lopez then signed with Lew Chudd and his
Imperial Records. My dad, Lalo Guerrero, was one of the
first artists on the label in the late 1940s. My dad
started with the Trio Imperial and then went on to record for
years as a solo artist. In later years, Fats Domino and
Ricky Nelson would record on the label. Manny recorded two
albums for Imperial Records, "Why Not Cha Cha Cha" and "Cha Cha
Cha and More." He went on to record two albums for the
Indigo label, one of which was entitled "Just For You."
In the late '50s, Manny toured with popular singer Tony Martin,
along with seven musicians and two female dancers. They
played in Miami, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and Havana,
Cuba. They were performing in Havana, while Fidel Castro
was still up in the mountains fighting his revolution.
There were bombings of police stations and government buildings,
but Manny felt safe because there was a lot of security at the
hotel in which they were staying. Hours after Manny left
Cuba, Castro took over Havana and the rest in history. In
1956, Manny Lopez and his Orchestra appeared in a major motion
picture released by Columbia Pictures called "Cha Cha Cha Boom."
Also appearing were Perez Prado and Luis Alcaraz, whose
orchestras perform in the movie. About a third of the way
into the film when the main character arrives at a nightclub in
Havana, Manny welcomes the audience and
then he and his orchestra perform a couple of songs for the
dancers, who demonstrate the current state of the art cha cha
cha moves. In
1962, Manny was asked to coach Elvis Presley on how to play and
sing the song "Guadalajara" in Spanish for his film "Fun In
Acapulco." Manny says Elvis was a nice guy and was
dedicated to learning the song. Manny is on the cover of
the DVD of the movie to the left of Elvis. Francisco
"Chico" Guerrero is on the right.
In 1973, Manny bought a
night club on Atlantic Boulevard in East Los Angeles, which he
christened simply the Manny Lopez Club. It was a very
popular venue which featured the Manny Lopez Orchestra.
The great pianist Eddie Cano of the instrumental "Taste of
Honey" fame often played his club as did Gil Quesada, who played
trumpet, bass, and piano. One night when Manny couldn't
play the club, he asked his friend Tito Puente if he would cover
for a night. Tito Puente, who was at the height of his
fame and popularity, gave Manny a great price and brought his
whole orchestra to play the Manny Lopez Club. The
musicians couldn't all fit on the stage, so some had to play on
the dance floor. The place was packed with people waiting
outside the door, unable to get in because of fire department
codes. Manny sold his club in 1983 to take care of his
wife, who was diagnosed with cancer. She had it for
seventeen years before she succumbed to the disease. Manny
and his wife, Jenny had five boys and a girl. His son
Steve often played bass with Manny and Manny Jr. played in
teenage rock bands, but never went professional as a musician.
Manny and his wife had lived in Montebello, California in East
Los Angeles since they were first married.
In 1994, after his wife's passing, Manny moved to Palm Springs,
California, in the desert one hundred miles east of Los Angeles.
There he played in country clubs, hotels, and restaurants into
the 2000s. He also played events for the Stroke Recovery
Center and the Heart Association. In 1994, recording
artist and jazz vocalist Mark Winkler immortalized Manny when he
wrote a song about his experiences in L.A. in the 50s as a
child. In his song "Everybody Cha Cha" from his "Tales
From Hollywood" CD, Winkler wrote about hearing Manny at the
Garden of Allah and watching his older siblings dance to the hot
Latin sounds of the Manny Lopez Quintet." As of this
writing, Manny is still in Palm Springs, but is retired from
performing. His recordings are available on line.
and type in his name in the artist box for
one such site that has most of his recordings.
is based on an audio taped interview by Mark Guerrero with
Manny Lopez on November 18, 2009.
mp3 Sound Bytes
Below are three
Manny Lopez Orchestra recordings from the late 50s/early 60s,
representing his musical diversity; a cha cha cha, an American
pop song, and a tropical (salsa).