Traditional Tejano

Little Joe y La Familia music and shows have been around for nearly 60 years because the group’s fearless leader loves performing his songs for the people and making them happy. His sense of humor is front and center of everything he does from being silly on stage to having fun during a phone interview.
“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.
But Little Joe’s lengthy career is more about keeping his sincere promise to his little brother — attributing any and all of his success to his brother’s belief in his talent.
“It was his idea, his wish to make me a celebrity, a hit, a star or whatever you want to call it, in music,” Hernandez told the Laughlin entertainer. “I made the promise graveside and I’m glad I never deviated and I grew and learned more about life in general and experienced life because of music. I’m glad he pointed me in that direction and wanted that for me.
“He was the real talent in the band, he never liked the spotlight. He made me vow to stay in music and take it to the top, whatever the top means,” he added. “So when he died, I just wanted to keep my promise to him. I always carried that promise with me, and doing so, it’s just enriched my life so much and I’m beginning to realize I’m content with where I’m at now.”
That contentment comes from a man who can hold an audience in the palm of his hand, take them on a musical ride through love ballads and political anthems, telling tales of migrant workers’ strife and favorite songs first recorded by his musical heroes while also making sure they laugh and have fun at the same time.
With so many years in show business tucked into his musical repertoire, Little Joe y La Familia has been one of the most popular Tex-Mex bands in the 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, recording more than 70 albums. 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.
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 and later changed to La Familia.
Little Joe y La Familia has made many stops in Laughlin over the years in different configurations including performing with the Texas Tornados a few years ago. He returns for two shows at Harrah’s Laughlin, Friday-Saturday, May 10-11, where the stage is all his and anything could happen.
“Well, you know I had such a good time the last time I was there and I’m looking forward to more of the same,” Hernandez said. “It’s hard for me to accept that one year has gone by since the last time we were in Laughlin — wow! The year just disappeared.
“I know we’re sold out, but it’s a good problem to have. I just hope people don’t make the trip from out of town and find that there aren’t any more tickets available.
“The only thing I’m not happy about is that when I do four shows, I get to get loaded four times, now I’m only doing it twice this time,” he laughed. “I told you this business is all about hard work and sacrifice. What I won’t do for my fans.”
During his whirlwind year of performing and improving, a book about Hernandez’s crazy life is in the works.
“I finally decided it was time for my life story to be told in print and I have a lady from here in Texas, Emma Gonzales, who wrote a book titled “Field Mice — Memoirs of a Migrant Child,” and it’s her autobiography. She tells the story about migrant workers seen through a child’s eye. She sent me half a script to see what I thought about it — she heard me talking on a radio interview and I was saying that history belongs to those who write about it, so that interested her. She told me about the book she was working on and sent me part of it, and I loved what she was writing about. When she was done, I endorsed it and helped promote the book as much as I could. She won two awards for it and now they’re making a movie out of it.
“Meanwhile, before all that happened, I had already decided I wanted her to write my life story,” he said. “Through the years, I’ve had lots of proposals from different people, I’d say over the last 30 years and it just never felt like it was time.
“Now I’m having fun with it and I’m having a lot of people make statements and do interviews for the book, so it’s coming along really well.
“Hopefully by this fall sometime, we’ll be done with it,” he added. “We already have some proposals for publishing and distribution and outlets — it’s just all happening.”
Of course, Hernandez is also working on his next record.
“I’m putting together some materials for a recording — and I want to do this with my little brother Rocky, who’s been out of the business for a long, long time, but people are constantly asking for him,” Hernandez said. “I’m organizing some songs for he and I to record. I already did an album the way I have intentions of doing this one. It was Recuerdos, it won me a couple of Grammys one year and a Latin Grammy, so I want to use that format.
“What happened was, I used a steel guitar, one violin, bass and guitar — no drums, no horns, no electronics — it’s kind of like campfire music and I did some of the old classics I loved as a kid and low and behold it won two Grammys,” he added. “I think it fits my brother and the idea goes real well with the songs I have for it. I’m excited about it.”
With more than 70 albums recorded, is there one that stands out for Hernandez?
“I think it would be ‘Para la Gente.’ It captured a time and energy in my lifetime. I hardly listen to my own music,” he said. “While I’m working on material, I have to listen to it, of course, but once it’s done, I very seldom go back and listen to it but this one immediately takes me back to how I was feeling about what was happening in my life and around me and it captured something really special during that time — when I changed from the Latinaires to y La Familia.
“It was during a time I was spending a lot of time in the Bay Area, and I just captured something special and I named the album Para La Gente, For the People,” Hernandez added. “This young guy who was a friend of mine from Texas did a painting for me. I told him I wanted an American Eagle with a double head and he did such an amazing piece of work. It’s just incredible. He died at the age of 20 with leukemia. That was back in the late ’60s, or ’70s, and that’s what I used for the album cover.
“That really became my logo, the two-headed eagle,” he said. “I was trying to represent double cultural music, bilingual, Mexican-American music. The whole idea just worked really, really well and I don’t know that everybody’s that lucky, that they stumble across something like that in their careers.”
There’s a lot to be said for being in the right place at the right time and sometimes a little thing called destiny is guiding the hand.
“I am more and more coming to believe that as I have been reflecting on my past working on this book,” he said. “It’s not just about ‘Little Joe,’ but who, why, where and what I am — and to come to that conclusion I had to go back and remember all the stories about how my parents got here with their parents.
“It was the revolution that ousted them, and they came to Texas,” he said. “I had to remember how and where they grew up, the hardships they had to endure and how they met and eventually moved to Temple in 1939.
“I talk about how I was born in a three-wall, dirt-floor car garage and being the seventh of 13 kids, and I’ve been trying to remember and find friends I knew as a kid long before I started in music. I don’t have many friends left at my age,” he added. “It’s an interesting story, and there are fun stories, but it’s all about our struggle. It talks about my politics, my music, my travels, my family, and my siblings, but the purpose of it, as far as I’m concerned, hopefully it encourages or inspires others to look into themselves and if nothing else learn to respect themselves.
“It has to start from within, from one’s self. We have to find that self-esteem regardless, and I know that I am a very, very lucky person to realize sometimes you make your own luck. You can’t always depend on others, and the best way to help yourself is to help others.
“I’ve come to believe my destiny is to help others, ’cause nothing gives me greater joy,” he said. “It’s such an incredible feeling to know you do something good for someone other than yourself. I think it just enriches our lives and for me, it’s so gratifying.
“I know along the way a lot of people have helped me directly and indirectly, and I’m beginning to really believe in what I was born to do and I’ve done what I’m destined to do. I’m quite happy with the way things are working out for me and I’m very aware my window time frame closes sooner or later.
“Even when I’m dead, I might not know the difference,” he joked. “While they’re embalming me, I might shout out, ‘where’s my shot of Don Julio?'”


LITTLE JOE Y LA FAMILIA

Fiesta Showroom at Harrah’s

Friday-Saturday, May 10-11 (8:30 p.m.)

See “Showtimes” for ticket info