Music Credits: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand used courtesy of Free Music Archive
“Carmen, Carmenlita” written by “Little Joe” Hernández, performed by Little Joe and La Familia from the album Reúnion 95,.
Jo Reed: For the National Endowment for the Arts, This is Art Works. I’m Josephine Reed.
Today a conversation with a legend—Joe De Leon Hernández, known as Little Joe—the King of Brown Sound and leader of one of the most popular Tejano groups in music history, “Little Joe y La Familia.” Little Joe has helped pioneer Tejano music, a mix of traditional Norteño, country, blues and rock styles, and is simply one of the most prominent figures in the tradition today.
Joining his cousin’s band when he was 13, Joe has been performing around the world for almost 70 years. He’s recorded 70 albums, nominated for a Grammy 11 times, and and he’s won five—the first in 1992, the last one in 2020—a testament not just to his longevity but his continuing significance in music. A self-described shy kid, Little Joe remains one of the great dynamic performers, in fact, all agree, his power as a live performer is unmatched and his concerts are cultural events. Little Joe is also known for his activism—supporting through his music, the United Farm Workers, Farm Aid, and Diabetes Educational Campaign Project. In fact, his song "Las Nubes" was adopted by the United Farm Workers as their official marching song and became an anthem for the Chicano Movement. Little Joe Hernandez has won hundreds of awards including the Texas Governor’s Award and Texas State Artist of the Year, and now he can count himself as National Heritage Fellow— nation's highest honor in folk and traditional arts. I had the pleasure of speaking with Little Joe Hernandez over the summer—and fittingly, you will occasionally hear the sounds of children in the background—here’s our conversation
Jo Reed: Well, first Little Joe Hernandez many congratulations on being named a National Heritage Fellow.
Joe Hernandez: Well thank you so very, very much. I don't know that I'm deserving but I will sure accept it.
Jo Reed: Well, listen I really want to go back to the beginning because I think your upbringing is so important to who you are now and to the music that you make. So, tell me about your parents and you're upbringing, where you were brought up.
Joe Hernandez: Well I was born and raised here in Temple where I still reside now. I was the first of my family's siblings to be born in town, and I'm 7th of 13. All of my other siblings were born out in the boondocks where my dad worked on a plantation, did sharecropping work. And in 1939 he moved to Temple and he had befriended a family here in Temple named Hernandez as well. And when he moved his family here, really homeless, so Mr. Hernandez, who became his compadre, let my dad and mom and the kids stay in his car garage which was a three wall dirt floor car garage and that's where I was born in 1940. And this is where I grew up. Of course, I've been on the road for nearly 62 years, music's taken me different parts of the world but this has been my home ever since I was born.
Jo Reed: Joe, your family has such a deep-rooted musical heritage. What music were they playing at home? Your father was a singer, wasn't he?
Joe Hernandez: Yes, he was. He wrote songs, he was a composer, he played different instruments, guitar was one of the main instruments. His mom, my grandmother Louisa [ph?] was musically schooled and she played piano and I think she even gave lessons in Mexico before they moved to Texas. So all her children, my uncles and aunts they were all musically talented. My dad's three brothers played guitar, sang and wrote songs as well. And two or three of my dad's sisters as well sang. So it was a very, very musical family.
Jo Reed: What music were you listening to when you were growing up?
Joe Hernandez: The music I heard was the music that my older brothers and sisters bought records and had brought home or my friends' family the records they bought, all the kids I grew up with were Black kids, so the music from the '40s and the '50s, the big band, the swing, the jazz. And what I heard on the radio of course in this part of Texas was really all just country and western music. There was one station where there was a morning radio program that played Spanish language music and I would get to hear because my dad would get up at 4:30 in the morning to go to work and the program would come on about that time, 4:30, five in the morning. So I'd get to listen to Mexican music for those 30 minutes. And then of course my dad and his friends, his compadres and his brothers there was always music in my home, in my dad's house. So I would get to listen to some beautiful songs that I just never forgot after all these years. And I was lucky to learn them at such an early stage and record them later in life and I have such great response and really hits for my market. And it was just guitars all over the place and like I said music into the wee hours of the night and for me it was just a really incredible time for me.
Jo Reed: . How would you define Tejano music?
Joe Hernandez: The description of Tejano depends on whom you ask. Before it was called Tejano music…. the only time I remember in the beginning that I heard “Tejano” was when I would travel to California and the radio stations would say, <speaking in Spanish>, "Here come the Tejanos with their music." And so they called it Musica Tejana because we were actually exporting music from Texas to California. But when took my music to the major labels and they coined it “Tejano music.” But before that my music I always called Musica Chicano because Mexican American music in two languages, you know? So Tejano music got an explosion from what the major labels did, they cast their nets and brought everybody in and merged it with Norteños somewhat. But, like I said it, depends on who you ask about Tejano music. My music is from the old school, because of the time and when and where I was born, it influenced my music very much so. My preference is jazz, but I'm not good at any one genre or style so I mix it. I'm happy to say that I found a mix that works for me. And that's what my show's about a little bit of everything that I heard as a kid. There's country and western, rock and roll, blues, jazz and of course the Mexican songs. I take the Mexican songs and I have a blues feel to it. So, that makes it completely different from the mariachi style and it just gives it a different flavor because that's how I feel it in the blues feel. I've been lucky that that's worked for me.
Jo Reed: Well it's so interesting, it's like a gumbo in some ways.
Joe Hernandez: <laughs> Indeed.
Jo Reed: But it's so rooted in Chicano music at the same time, I mean those roots are really deep there. Your music is also a cultural experience even as it expands the music of that culture.
Joe Hernandez: I agree, very much Chicano because that's where I come from that's surrounded by the Mexican American culture. The American culture, of course, is the country and western music, the Black influence-- the rhythm and blues, the rock and roll who everybody in the '50s wanted to be rock and rollers. But coming from my dad's family and the music I heard as a kid those songs, I just found a way to produce them just arrange them and apply those feels that some of my music you can hear the jazz. I'm not school taught so I hear the music I want to produce so I always needed someone to arrange it for me. I can't read or write music sometimes it's frustrating. But I've been fortunate to always have someone to arrange the music the way I want. I did play some guitar when I was a kid so I did learn something about music, the chords and the notes, but I fired myself when I knew that I couldn't keep up with my band, so I got me a real guitarist.
Jo Reed: <laughs> You described yourself as a very shy boy when you were young, but you were also what, 13 when you joined your cousin's band David Coronado and the Latinaires. What propelled you to do that being as shy as you were?
Joe Hernandez: Well I was drafted, there were two other kids my age and my cousin was maybe three, four years older than me. He may have been 16, 17 when he put the band together and they recruited me as a guitarist which I didn't know how to play guitar. But David was such a talented musician and he played guitar and was teaching me chords and of course my dad gave me some. Then as I got older and the Black bands that were here from Temple, they were playing rock and roll and they were playing blues and jazz. I got some lessons, so I learned a little bit more about what I was doing with the guitar. So it took a couple of years of David putting the band together. But I was really shy and was okay at rehearsals but when we had to perform in front of people -- it was really, really hard for me to get in front of an audience. But in 1955 when I got paid five dollars for playing what used to be called sock hops, which is a school dance, a high school dance, it just blew my mind that I could actually make money because I had to pick 500 pounds, a penny a pound of cotton, to make five bucks. And at that time as well in 1955 my dad was incarcerated and I had six siblings at home, so five bucks went an incredible long ways. And as shy as I was, I would sometimes throw up before getting on stage, and I didn't want to sing, I just wanted to play guitar, I wanted to be a jazz guitarist. And like I said when I found out that that was not going to happen I fired me.
Jo Reed: <laughs>
Joe Hernandez: It was really difficult for me to get in front of an audience, but necessity makes you do some incredible things, you can overcome a lot of obstacles when necessity calls. But I guess I'm still a shy person because I talk a lot maybe to disguise it but I was just, you know, necessity again. And then I got the rhythm of it and I sometimes look at the pictures of the Latinaires, the original four kids and say, "Well those were four little kids with big dreams." And of course I've been on the road for nearly 62 years I've been touring and as a kid I remember thinking, "I want to play music until I'm an old man of 35 and I'm going to have 15,000 dollars in the bank and I'm going to retire from music." Well 35 came and went a little more than twice and I'm still working on the 15,000 though.
Jo Reed: <laughs> Well, when David moved across the country you took over the band and became the lead singer, so from shy boy to front man and it became Little Joe and the Latinaires.
Joe Hernandez: Indeed. Yes. Well David actually had me playing the guitar as well as singing "Well your dad, your aunts, everybody in your family sings, so you should be singing too." They encouraged me and I started singing. I loved singing, I just couldn't do it in front of an audience. And in 1959 David got the call and he moved to Walla Walla, Washington and joined with Frank Zappa. Because he was really an advanced musician. So there were three kids. Then there were three, drums, saxophone and guitars. And I would sing Lloyd Price's songs "Just Because," "Stagger Lee" and all those rock and roll tunes. But I would always revert back to the songs that I heard as a kid from my dad and other songs that other groups were recording. I would do things my way and they worked. And I've got awful timing, but nobody said anything, so <laughs> I just continued doing what I was going off beat, off tempo, but in tune. And, you know, Josephine I've learned something after all these years-- I'm 83 and I started when I was 13 that would make it what, 70 years, after 70 years I've realized that one: I'm very blessed, I'm a very lucky person, very fortunate to have been born into the family that I was born into. But if people like you they accept you not just musically but your ideas, they just accept you. And you know that there's a lot of one-hit artists they have a big hit and then they disappear because the song was a hit, not the artist. I'd like to think that I've been around because people like-- I think more importantly they feel what I do because that's what music is to me, it's our soul, it's who we are, it's our spirit and we all have a soul and a spirit and that connects, music connects that. It's an incredible art, it's the only art that makes a little nine, ten month baby move and shake around or a 90 year old person want to still get up and dance and the music moves, it touches the soul. Of course there's sculptors and writers and painters and it's all beautiful great art, but music it's the feel and I believe that I've been able to share that feeling, that soul with the audience and they supply the energy that drives me. It's incredible to see young and old people, men and women in the audience crying with happiness, with sorrow, with memories of, I guess, people in their lives. It's so moving that sometimes it brings me to tears while I'm singing as well. It's just magic and when I'm in that realm and as the band is, everybody's just in a circle and I feel so free of everything. And I believe that I convey that to the audience that it's just such an incredible freedom to be alive and to be sharing. And it's so contagious, you see two, 3,000 people in a room and that feeling is there It's just magic, I have no other way of expressing it.
Jo Reed: I think Magic is a good word for the music you make….The band became “Little Joe and the Latinaires…” and your brother Jesse joined the band.
Yes, after David left there were three and my brother Jesse was such a great talent. He played bass, self taught, played piano and guitar, self taught, he was younger than I, three years younger than I. I was working at a factory and got him a job there and then one day he says, "I'm not doing both day work and music. I'm going to do music." And he shocked me, I said, "You can't quit." We already had the band going. He says, "Oh yes, I can." So he actually forced my hand to quit my job and really get down to business booking the band. But he always encouraged me , but he foresaw something for me that I didn't have that vision. So of course when Jesse died in a car accident, he was 20 years, at his gravesite I just promised that I would stay with it and I would take the music, that I would go to the top with it. And of course different strokes for different folks, what is the top, you know? But when I did a concert in San Antonio a couple of nights with the San Antonio Symphony my band and a mariachi group, it's like 122 pieces when the show would come to a finale and the dancers would come out and then the band, the mariachi and the orchestra. It was the 54th anniversary of my brother's death and I told the story and everybody just broke down along with me, everybody was crying. But even when I won the first Grammy it was a tribute to Jesse and one my older brothers told me, "No Joe, that's the highest award you can get from your peers. You filled your promise." But for me when I did those shows with the symphony because I love the symphony and I thought this is the pinnacle, and I thought of Jesse and I thought, "You know what Jesse, I'm getting to the top." And he's always with me.
Jo Reed: Yeah, which must feel both a loss but at the same time a comfort that he's always with you. Well Joe a big change occurred when you moved to the Bay Area, this is back in 1970 I think. Why did you make that move to California and what did you discover out there culturally, musically, politically?
Joe Hernandez: Well again, Jesse always wanted to go to California when we were kids and I finally went to California in probably '66. I started touring to California late '60s, early '70s andI went to hang around the Bay Area where it was all happening. Los Angeles as well, but the music scene in San Francisco and the Bay Area was incredible, musicians from all over the world converging there and all kinds of music. But the Latin thing was really heavy. It was before Carlos Santana or Malo, I went to some of their rehearsals and that scene was just breaking out. But the Latin jazz was so heavy in the scene. I have a friend from Houston, a jazz player, Luis Gasca who been working with a lot of those groups and he was able to get me booked on some of those shows that I opened up for different artists, the jazz salsa, it was just incredible. And then the farm workers' movement, a friend Jim Castle was producing, fundraising concerts for La Causa for Cesar and they asked me if I would be part of that. An,d of course, me, coming from the fields I of course, that's me. I always say, "I'm a cotton picker and do music on the side." But I got involved and just started learning more about myself, about my roots, about who my family and my culture, my heritage. Of course the political side of it was there as well, all the marching and protests and everything that was happening the Chicano movement. And I had already gotten a feel for it from the civil rights because it seemed like I always had Black kids in the band and got to sleep in a lot of parks where we were refused rooms in the hotels, the motels and the restaurants. So to me that was all part of my bringing up, all the segregation and discrimination, racism. It was funny because music kind of got me through those things, I knew I was allowed in places and services that others weren't because of the music. So when I got to California that was the key. Not only did I want to change the music or improve on it, I wanted to change the name “Latinaires” to “La Familia” and I did. It took me quite a while to settle on that name, but then I thought, "We're all family.” And it has such a deep meaning especially-- for everyone, but La Cultura Americana, La Familia, La Familia es todo.
Jo Reed: Well, you go back to Texas and to Temple, the place you were raised. Why did you decide to return to Texas, bring your family back from California to Texas?
Joe Hernandez: Well, I'm a country boy, I need my space. As a matter of fact ,Josephine across from my office is open fields, there's corn and there's cotton planted there, they alternate it every year. And that's what I'm looking at and then I'm home on the cotton fields. But I missed that and I just didn't want my kids to grow up in that environment in a big city. I thought, it's more important that my kids grow up in a less insane place I guess. So,here I am.
Jo Reed: We talked about your music being this incredibly rich gumbo of certainly Latinisimo but with echoes of jazz, blues, country, R&B. And as we said this language that you really expanded. But with record companies and to distribute your music, was there pressure on you to go mainstream and go commercial and sort of step back from the Chicano roots of your music?
Joe Hernandez: I had an opportunity I guess to give that a shot or a couple or three opportunities, but to change my music and to go with a major label. Capitol Records offered me a contract but I read the first paragraph where they were going to own and control and, you know, and I had just started my first record company, Buena Suerte, in 1968, and I thought, no, that's not what I want to do. I had an opportunity with my dear friend Huey Meaux who made a lot of groups happen. Again, I had just started my company, and the company wasn't just for me but it was for all the bands, my friends here in Texas that had no outlet because back then, all the Spanish language music was imported from South America or Mexico. We had no record companies in Texas to record us, to record Mexican language music. And I know and understand, this is a specialized market, and it's not mainstream, but the numbers are there, you know? But for me starting my own record company, my own record label, which meant getting the music together, taking it to the band, rehearsing it, recording it, then manufacturing, and then distributing and promoting, I did all that. I had learned how to do that, and owning it, and everything would go well, till it come to collect and, whoops, people bought the product but didn't pay me. That was a learning experience as well. But again, still today it's like I had to promote a lot of my shows in California-- like the Hollywood Palladium-- I had to promote that myself, but I had my records being played in the number one Cali station in LA so it was easy for me to promote my shows. I had three, four records at a time on the top 10. It was just really happening. But it's a specialized market. The big agencies don't understand a quinceanera or baptismal party. They don't know how to book those shows, and they don't-- you know, and I understand that. So I've always stayed independent even when I joined the major labels. There was a great experience and great friendships, but they didn't really know or understand the market. They had no idea the major labels --the numbers that could be sold-- the Latin side of the major labels-- and I worked with them and then decided to stay independent as I have been. It's just worked for me. Like I said, not knowing exactly what I'm doing but having a gut feeling and not afraid to run with it ,has paid off for me.
Jo Reed: You are a multilinguist musically, as we said. And in terms of actual language, the songs move easily from English to Spanish, although most of your songs are in Spanish. I wonder, how do you decide when you write a song which language you're going to sing it in?
Joe Hernandez: I actually write the songs in English and translate to Spanish or vice versa. And, of course, because of the market and not being mainstream, most of my recordings, I guess 75 percent are in Spanish if not 80 percent because in the old days radio was so different, you'd show up at a radio station with your record, and they'd interview you and spin the record. Well, corporate took over, that's not how it works now. And now it's global. I've written the songs in English and then translate it, or I've written half English, half Spanish. I find it quite easy translating. And I'm happy to see people that don't speak Spanish but when they hear a song they sing it, you know? We cannot let languages get in the way of the soul, the feeling, and the music.
Jo Reed: Well, speaking of the soul, the feeling, and the music, you've collaborated with many artists and musicians, often in support of something and promoting cross-cultural understandings. Can you just share what some of the most meaningful collaborations have been for you?
Joe Hernandez: Surely, and I owe Willie so much, I did probably a dozen of his Farm Aids mates with him and--
Jo Reed: Willie Nelson.
Joe Hernandez: Yes, Willie Nelson.
Joe Hernandez: Yes. Willie Nelson. I had so much fun, and Willie knows that I'm shy, and I remember when we first started collaborating, at one point, he says, “Joe, you just do the best you can and the hell with the rest, I mean what else can you do? Don't worry.” So then that was good advice, and I think about it sometimes when I have to take on something that it's kind of a first time or something that I'm nervous about doing. I say”, well, I'll just do my best and what the hell?” That's what Willie said.
Jo Reed: But Joe, 70 albums, 5 Grammy Awards, and yet to a person they swear none of that holds a candle to what happens when you perform live, that you are one of the great, great performers, and what happens is also this amazingly rich cultural celebration. So not bad for a shy kid. But I wonder, do you do something to prepare yourself before you go on stage?
Joe Hernandez: Oh, it's called agave.
Jo Reed: I think I've heard of that.
Joe Hernandez: And the more the better.
Jo Reed: It seems to work brilliantly for you.
Joe Hernandez: Yes, I used to-- well, I still do, I mean I have to warm up more so than I did before. I had problems with my vocal cords, so I learned to prepare in terms of warming up my vocal cords. But, I'm still the shy cotton picker no matter what, that's who I am. So I have a little bit of shyness to deal with, but it's easier because no matter how I screw up, it's like” wait a minute, he's a Grammy winner”, I feel that's kind of like a shield to get through. But once it kicks off, the magic happens, and the response of the people. And I've proven that by playing like a show with Willie in somewhere north of Boston, a Farm Aid, where they wouldn't have known who Little Joe is who know, the acceptance, nobody knew who Little Joe is, so that gives me confidence. To me that's proof that it's about the music, that it's about the soul. And so I play my Spanish songs in bilingual, and people that had never heard or experienced Little Joe just dive right into it. The Farm Aids, you know, I mean you're talking about a lot of people out there, and for me to just whoop them up, and I would almost always open with the National Anthem. And Poodie, Willie's stage manager, he said “That damn Little Joe, he figured out how to get a standing ovation every time.” Well, every time we got onto the-- it started with the National Anthem, people stand up. (laughter)
Jo Reed: Well, Joe, you have had 11 nominations and won 5 Grammy awards, the first in 1992 and the last one in 2010. That is a long career trajectory. And you were the first Tejano artist to win a Grammy. What was the experience of winning a Grammy like for you, and did you go to the awards ceremony, and what was it like being there? Just what was the whole thing like?
Joe Hernandez: It was something that, like I said, I never expected but I guess that was my brother Jesse's vision. And the first album, the first Grammy was actually under best Mexican American performance, that was before Tejano. So I didn't change my music, the industry changed-- they didn't change the music but changed the title of it, but it was the best Mexican American performance. It was in New York. Vikki Carr and I were sitting together, and she got her Grammy first,. And I go up next and I get my Grammy, and of course I dedicated it to my brother's memory. It was just an incredible experience in that sense, but you know, Josephine, it's a thing with me, it takes time for things to sink in my hard-head brain, and I just didn't get excited about it till weeks later. And this NEA award it's like, oh, okay, and I understand the meaning of it and, you know, it takes just a little while for me to, whoa, wow, this is the greatest recognition I could ever get from the arts. So I'm excited, I'm grateful. I'm thankful that I would be chosen to be given such recognition. I appreciate each and every award of all kinds, and I have hundreds of them. And I appreciate them all, and I have to say equally because a recognition is a recognition. But this is on behalf of my little brother or for my little brother because I really feel that I fulfilled my promise to him.
Jo Reed: More than, I would say.
Joe Hernandez: I've gotten more than I deserve, and I'm totally grateful.
Jo Reed: And I am grateful that you-- A-- gave me your time today, but more importantly that you've given so much to all of us for so long. And that you received a National Heritage Award. Thank you.
Joe Hernandez: That I'm still trying to process. How did that happen? But however it did, I'm totally grateful.
Jo Reed: Thank you. Joe. I really appreciate it.
Joe Hernandez: Oh, Gracias, Josephine, and thank you for being patient and listening.
Jo Reed: Oh, no. Are you kidding?
Joe Hernandez: And this is good for me too because I'm always looking forward and not a whole lot of time for reflecting. So this is actually good for me. I feel good after you let me just brag about myself.
Jo Reed: Well, it was wonderful to be on the opposite end of it. Thank you
That was Tejano legend Little Joe Hernandez. Little Joe will join the other 2023 National Heritage Fellows on Thursday September 28 and Friday Sept 29 in Washington DC and you can too. That’s when the NEA will honor the most recent class of heritage fellows; and, since it’s the first in-person Heritage Fellowship events since 2019, we’re bringing them together with the 2020, 21, and 22 fellows for a celebration that explores the legacy and impact of this lifetime honor.
For information about how you can join the events taking place-- which will also be available through a live webcast--, go to arts.gov/heritage.
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get your podcasts, leave us a rating and tell your friends! I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.