Tejano Talent

Anyone who has ever been to a Little Joe y La Familia show knows it’s not about whether an audiences speaks Spanish or not, it’s all about hanging onto your hat because it’s going to be a roller coaster ride of music, laughs and a whole lot of fun. You can’t help but be entertained by a guy who’s been on the road longer than many of his audience members have been on the planet.
With over 50 years in show business, Little Joe y La Familia has been one of the most popular Tex-Mex bands in the music industry. And “Little Joe” himself has been described as the “King of the Brown Sound”—a musical pioneer who helped define “Tejano” music, that mix of traditional Mexican “norteño” music with American country, blues and rock styles with more than 70 albums recorded. Even with three Grammy wins under his belt, he’s still under the radar in mainstream music. To his fans, however, Little Joe continues to loom large.
“Little Joe,” a.k.a. Jose Maria DeLeon Hernandez, has recorded since the late 1950s, both with national record companies and his own independent labels.
In the ’90s, Little Joe y La Familia earned three Grammy nominations and one Grammy award (for Dies y Seis De Septiembre) in the Best Mexican-American Performance category. He received his third Grammy for performing as part of a tribute project to Freddy Fender called Before the Next Teardrop Falls.
Hernandez got his start at 13 when his cousin, David Coronado, recruited him to play guitar for his Latinaires. The Latinaires eventually became known as Little Joe and the Latinaires. Today, he is usually joined by his band La Familia.
Talking to Hernandez on the phone for an interview is also a roller coaster ride of silliness. He’s a seasoned warrior when it comes to the road and the places he has played, so he has a lifetime of stories and experiences. His sense of humor is at the center of all of it and it is prevalent in all of his shows, too. But it seems as if life is going well for the veteran performer.
“I’m not all that well, I’m sober, what can I say? It’s always a good night when it’s a rough one. That’s the whole fun of it. If it’s not rough, it’s not fun. I tell you what, at my age, having fun, that’s my only option. In my contract rider what am I going to do, go from tequila to Ben Gay? I’m looking forward to Laughlin being a very rough couple of nights,” he said with a laugh.
Little Joe y La Familia has played several times in Laughlin in different configurations depending on the venue. Last time Hernandez performed here with the Texas Tornados, but this time at Harrah’s Laughlin, Friday and Saturday, May 11-12, the stage is all his and anything could happen.
“I’m excited about it, I’m always excited about seeing old friends and trying to make new ones. It doesn’t happen all the time, but I try,” he said. “Playing the casinos, it’s always the same salad, the same mix, but I have the opportunity, I can vary the show and play some of the beautiful classic standards that I don’t get to play at other rowdy concerts. I know what the audience wants. I mean, I’ve had to figure that out along the way. Sometimes it leans to more country, sometimes a little more rock and roll-ish, or sometimes more Mexican-ish, or whatever. I try to see where the audience leads me but it is fun all the time you know. I can be comfortable in any setting, but I really appreciate the show I’m expecting to do there at Harrah’s Laughlin. It’s a more mature audience, so my not-funny jokes, they get ’em and they laugh at them because they’re not funny and that’s OK with me,” he laughs.
“How many musicians am I bringing with me and which wife, or who’s wife? I can’t guarantee because they know I don’t pay well, if at all,” he said, laughing again. “I’ll have a seven-piece group with me.”
Hernandez just finished an album to a mariachi who’s music he’s recorded many times.
“I did a live recording in El Paso at the Plaza Theater and this is a tribute to José Alfredo Jiménez. He is my all-time favorite musical icon and we spent a most unforgettable evening meeting him in person. He invited my entourage and myself to his apartment with his mariachis and we spent a special evening with him after a show.
“I’ve recorded so many of his songs, such beautiful songs,” he added. “I recorded them in different genres and styles like rock and roll or salsa. They’re so beautiful and easy to work with. It was such a blessing and the band did a beautiful job on it. Of course, I rehearsed them to death, but they’re great kids and they came across just beautiful.
“I just wanted to do a little something special for this recording. What a blessing — the reception and the acceptance of it has been really great and I was totally unprepared, not the recording of the material itself, but after rehearsing for the sound check and for the recording people, then I had Flaco Jiménez as my guest artist, so I had to rehearse him as well and sound check with him. It was a long, long day and I forgot to eat, and real close to show time I was so tired I couldn’t believe it,” he added.
“We still had the live recording to do, I thought this was going to be more like a dead recording. So I slipped away and got on the bus and I really couldn’t nap or anything like that. It was real nice and dark and cool, so I just laid there about 45 minutes, just motionless, and I came back to life.
“I went to the dressing room to collect the clothes I was going to wear for the show. There was a little bottle…it wasn’t all that small…with some friends and they had little glasses, and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me, little glasses?’ It just tastes better out of the bottle. Don Julio gave me a lift and I had so much fun.”
Recording the album that evening went off without a hitch.
“It was such a wonderful evening and of course, the audience and their energy always is the cherry on the cake,” Hernandez said. “It turned out really, really well and I’m very happy with it to the point to where I may do a third live recording, but this time with a symphony or orchestra from El Paso, San Antonio or Big Spring. I thought, I’m close to the end game here so I want to do something special and I want to record it and film it. That’s what I’ve done and what I’m looking forward to doing.
“That’s the magic of music. Once it kicks off, it really is magic. I’ve been on stage with a stomachache, toothache, headache, heartache, and once it takes off, it’s just incredible,” he said. “People have asked, ‘What does it do or what’s music to you?’ It’s the only art in the world that’s not a sculpture, not a form, not a painting, but there’s nothing like music to touch the soul.
“A 10-month-old baby will clap its hands when they hear music or they start jumping up and down. A 98-year-old person will shuffle the feet and it just reaches the soul. It’s just an incredible feeling.”
Because Hernandez has been a singer, songwriter, performer and producer for most of his life, he has earned more than the lion’s share of awards and recognition. So which one means the most to him?
“After over half a century, there’s hundreds of awards, citations, accolades I’ve collected from everywhere I’ve been to,” he said. “There is a handwritten certificate from Cesar Chavez I have hanging on the wall here. He addressed it to me y La Familia, and signed it.
“I have a happy birthday letter for one of my birthdays from President Obama and, of course, I’m extremely honored about that, and I’m proud of all of it. But the Cesar Chavez certificate really, really touched me because it’s on just a piece of cardboard. It’s like the man was, just simple, down to earth and I’ve never been so honored to know someone and to be as close as I was able to be with Cesar. To this day, I think of him and his voice is so clear in my head.
“Through the years I stay in touch with the farm workers, with his family, and make myself available to assist them any way I can with the struggle because a sad struggle never ends,” he added. “It’s unfortunate but that’s the way of the world, and it will always be that way, the haves and the have-nots. Short story, long. I’m really really proud of that recognition from Cesar.”
Is the word retirement in Hernandez’s vocabulary?
“If I’m lucky, I’ll be doing something, somewhere, sometime and it will be turning off a switch and I’ll be gone, turn off the lights, the party’s over.
“Music’s what brought me here to this point in life,” he added. “Making people happy is more gratifying than I could explain. For the time there’s air, I see them, men and women, cry tears of joy and sadness, whatever the song reminds them of, and for me, that’s so gratifying.
“I keep saying I’m so lucky and fortunate, yet it takes some discipline, sacrifice and a lot of hard work. I was born poor, a minority and uneducated — strike three, you’re out,” Hernandez said. “The music has broken down a lot of racial barriers. I was born at a time that discrimination was rampant, especially where I still live. I was born and raised here in Temple, Texas, and the music has given me the opportunity to speak to issues like that. One of my older brothers made me aware of politics and the necessity of getting involved and trying to do something to make the world better.”


LITTLE JOE Y LA FAMILIA

The Fiesta Showroom within Harrah’s

Friday-Saturday, May 11-12 (8 p.m.)

See “Showtimes” for tickets