From our Archives (2014)

Jose Maria Hernandez “Little Joe,” as we all know him–was born Oct. 17, 1940, to Salvador “La Cotorra” Hernandez and Amelia De Leon Hernandez in a 3-wall dirt floor car garage in Temple Texas. You cannot get more Central Texas than that, and that’s where Little Joe still lives today. “I didn’t let the Klan chase me out,” he says, laughing with a big smile.

By A. Govea


Jose Maria Hernandez “Little Joe,” as we all know him–was born Oct. 17, 1940, to Salvador “La Cotorra” Hernandez and Amelia De Leon Hernandez in a 3-wall dirt floor car garage in Temple Texas. You cannot get more Central Texas than that, and that’s where Little Joe still lives today. “I didn’t let the Klan chase me out,” he says, laughing with a big smile.

Little Joe grew up in a predominately African-American neighborhood in a city that yielded both pleasant and bad experiences in the 1940s and ’50s, he recalled. There in Temple in those days, if you were less than “lily white” of skin, it bound you to experience racism at some level, especially if you grew up poor. Little Joe fondly recalls his cotton-chopping (hoeing weeds) and cotton-picking days on the West Texas Plains, particularly around Lubbock and Plainview and the smaller towns. He doesn’t remember those times as a personal hardship, but as a rite of passage that most poor people, especially his family and friends, had to go through.

Before we get to the Grammy Award-winning Little Joe, let’s talk about how it all started, with some Q&A:


Govea: “Why did you get into music, and what were your first goals?”

Joe: “One word survival. In 1954, they sentenced my dad to four years in prison for possession of marijuana (four joints). That is a year per joint. Luckily, if you can call it that, he got out in 28 months. “I was the seventh of 13 children and the oldest at home. I was always around music with my family. There was (it seemed) always a fiesta going on. My grandmother, who came to this country during the Mexican Revolution, was a professionally trained pianist. As for (my other) musical influences, it was the music of Jose Alfredo Jimenez and the music that was played in my neighborhood, which was predominately black, which may have been Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and jazz and radio was widely C&W.”


Govea: “How did you get the nickname ‘Little Joe’?”

Joe: “When I was a kid, I may be weighed a hundred pounds, and I had a friend named Joe, who was a kind of big guy; so, he was ‘Big Joe” and I became ‘Little Joe.’ But it (also) worked musically because there was Little Richard, Little Anthony, and so forth. So, ‘Little Joe’ just fit.”


When Joe described his upbringing as a cotton-picker, poor music in the home, it could have been the biography of most in our community back then, as it was for this writer and our editor, who was also in attendance at this interview. Little Joe’s first guitar cost $150, which was not quite a million dollars, but it seemed liked it to him. Luckily, his father had a “compadre,” who was a plumber. What does that have to do with a $150 guitar? Well, the plumber lent Little Joe the money, and he could pay it off at 50 cents an hour digging ditches for the lending plumber. That guitar now must be worth a lot more than $150, and Joe still owns it. He took that guitar and joined his cousin’s band, originally named David Coronado and the Latinaires, not as the front man, but just a member. Little Joe said he did not want to be a singer, as he was very shy. But when his cousin left for greener solo fields on tour, the band became Little Joe and the Latinaires. Little Joe was still shy, but there was a family to help support.


Govea: “So, how was the money?”

Joe: “Our first paying gig paid us $22.50. That was $5 each, plus $2.50 for gas, as the gig was out a town.”

Not exactly rock star money! But hey, Little Joe said, “getting paid to do something you love to do is a monumental achievement. It certainly beat picking cotton all day.”  


Govea: “Did you have a money goal back then?”

Joe, amid his laughter: “Back then my goal was to make and save $15,000 and retire at the ripe old age of 35. Well, 35 has come and gone twice over, and I still have not achieved been able to retire.


Fast forward to 2014, Little Joe is now a Tejano music icon. Call him the King of the Brown Sound. He won a 1991 Grammy for Best Mexican American Album and since then, three Latino Grammys’ for Best Tejano Album of the Year. Joe has also appeared in movies, such as Las Pastorellas with Paul Rodriguez, Linda Ronstadt, Cheech Marin, Freddie Fender and Flaco Jimenez; he also appeared in Rangers and Down for the Barrio, plus many TV specials. Little Joe has performed with many other singing stars and legends such as Willie Nelson.


Joe: “In the ’80s, Willie put on benefit shows titled Farm Aid, fundraisers for farmers. I volunteered to perform, and that led to meeting many artists like Willie, of course, but also Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, the Texas Tornados, to name a few. Included was also Ray Price, already a dear friend, who passed late last year.” (December 2013)

The accolades for Little Joe have been many and continue to this day. But I wanted to ask another long nagging question of mine.  


Govea: “You have been called the ‘Tejano Frank Sinatra.’ What do you think about that?”

Joe: “That is really too much praise. It took me a while to really appreciate Frank’s talent. But clearly, he was a very one-of-a-kind performer and vocalist. But as for the comparison, I will take it. Who would not want that?!”


I was ready to end the interview, but happily found that Little Joe had more to say. The interview turned to the current social and political climate in our country.


Govea: “So what’s on your mind?”

Joe: “Los Cabrones in Missouri.”


His answer started a discussion of the growing divide between the haves and have-nots. Joe talked about his lifelong stand on many community issues and support for leaders and groups, such as Cesar Chavez and his farm workers’ union, La Raza Unida, to name a few. I told Joe about having listened to him speak at rallies in Lubbock, where I grew up, during the “hey days” of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement. Little Joe said he feels extremely disappointed that many of the battles already won are now issues being contested again. From his point of view, the Republican Party has many members Tea Party types who are truly racists and liars and greedy. 


Joe. “I do not want to be labeled a reverse Ted Nugent, but if you look at party platforms and policies, you will find out for yourself. This is La Verda.”


Joe said he’s concern for the children coming over the border and the misguided or grandstanding polices of Gov. Rick Perry concerning the immigration issues.

Summarizing Joe’s views: He’s convinced that those protesters carrying “We Want Our Country Back” signs and stickers really say that they want our society to go back to the way people were treated before they signed the Civil Rights Bill into law.

Little Joe said that he’s proud of his own family now being multi-cultural and multi-ethnic. Early in our interview, Little Joe said: “I appreciate all music. It is like a good meal, if prepared correctly, it is all good. I would add that people used to say America is a big melting pot, now I think it would be more correct to say “America is like a tossed salad, all the ingredients have value and add to “El Sabor” de America.


When I originally ended the article, I wrote Joe has a mass of loyal fans statewide. That was a grave understatement. In fact, Little Joe has fans all over the US and internationally. He has toured cities in Japan, Italy, Spain and others. So having said Joe has fans statewide is like saying Mexico has a few Mexicans.

 Little Joe has played for crowds over 70,000 at Houston’s Reliant Stadium, home of the Houston Texans and at outdoor festivals to crowds of over 500,000. Truly Joe has been responsible for keeping the Onda Tejana alive both in the US and abroad. His influence is still felt by all current and up and comers. After 50 years and 50 albums he is still the “King of The Brown Sound.” In addition, he performed at the Inaugural Ball for our last great Democratic Governor the late Ann Richards, inaugural festivals for Bill Clinton, many National Convention and Balls. And to prove you cannot label Little Joe just a Tejano Band, he has also performed at the famous LA’s House of Blues. 

But for most of us we still turn out to hear our favorites Las Nubes,Prieta Linda and so many others which most times makes even the fair weather Chicano fan scream AYA, AYA And so it was for me and a large vocal crowd at Billy Bob’s on an August Saturday Night. Little Joe came out, which has become a standard salute to all our troops with a heartfelt rendition of America the Beautiful. He also revealed his support for Wendy Davis after taking off jacket to reveal a Wendy T-shirt perhaps he did the same for our former governor the late Ann Richards many hope it is a good sign. It happily impressed me to see how he continues to cut a cross demographic age group with people in their 20s to senior citizens that have followed him his entire career, some showing up in scooters and wheelchairs. And so the beat goes on, he has a new release titled Evolution that is filled with all your favorites, In addition, you can now have Little Joe Salsa which comes in several flavors which I can say is Muy Bueno. To find out more about both and see our interview visit us at In conclusion, we all will have to agree that Joe kept his graveside promise to his younger brother Jessie a former band member that was killed in an automobile accident in 1964  “I promise you I will take our music to the Top!” And so he did and we are all richer for it. 


Update Joe has continued a 50 year plus career and in 2019 Released another album titled Better Than Ever, you can also buy his book titled No Lllore, Chingon!                    

One Response

  1. Much respect for Little Joe, candid, humble, respected and his likelihood in music, amazes me. He is not ashamed to have been poor like the rest of us, "en las picas" and this Tejano reach stardom in the Tejano World. I am proud to say, you are a role model for the Raza, hard worker, excellent musician, proud of his heritage, never forgot where he came from. Thank You. Viva Little Joe.

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