Little Joe is living history
By Naughty Mickie

One of the greatest pleasures of being a music journalist is being able to speak with an icon and Little Joe is just that. He fronts the Tex-Mex band Little Joe y La Familia and his story is one of a living legend, as he has been in the music industry for more than 40 years. He launched Tejano music and is called the "King of the Brown Sound."

In 1953 Joe's cousin, David Coronado, invited Joe to join his band, David Coronado and the Latinaires. In 1959 Jesse,

Joe's brother, joined the band as Coronado left and the group was renamed Little Joe and the Latinaires. Unfortunately, in 1964 Jesse was killed in an automobile accident, but Joe promised to go on. He got signed and then started his own indie labels,

Buena Suerte Records (Spanish recordings), Good Luck Records (English recordings) and Leona Records. In 1970 the Latinaires were renamed La Familia.

Little Joe signed with WEA International in 1983 and then left to go independent again. Later he signed with Capitol EMI and in 1992 he won a Grammy for "Dies y Seis De Septembre" in Best Mexican-American Performance category. In 2006, he won a Grammy for "Chicanisimo" in the "Best Tejano Album" category. Little Joe has recorded more than 60 albums and was in the films "Proposition 187, A Deadly Law" and "Down For The Barrio."

Today, he lives in Temple, Texas.Little Joe y La Familia currently includes Little Joe on vocals, Guitarist Thomas Cruz, bassist

Jesus Gaitan, drummer/vocalist Jesse Lopez, conga player/vocalist Sam Jones, keyboardist Frank Cagical, John Ontiveros and Gracie Acosta on trumpet and David Trevino on saxophone.

"I come from a big family of 13, I'm number seven and my dad's side of the family, his brothers and sisters, were all musicians, played instruments and sang and all his compadres sang," Little Joe tells me. "So there was always music in my dad and mom's home. There was always a bunch of guitars laying around and pistols. I don't why my dad liked pistols. What a combination, huh? I grew up listening to the music at home. My dad wrote songs for his friends. They were corridas, ballads, some funny songs, some serious songs. That atmosphere was there, the party atmosphere, the music.

"I was born and raised til the age of 11 in a total black neighborhood, so the music I heard from the little bars around the neighborhood was music that I never heard on the radio, The airwaves weren't playing the black artists," Little Joe goes on. "So I grew up listening to that and what my dad and his friends would play and what songs they sang. On the airwaves it was all country music."

"It was natural for you to pick up a guitar and sing?" I ask.

"Yeah, and I actually did it out of necessity," responds Little Joe. "I grew up listening to all these different kinds of music and my brothers and sisters, it was during the swing era, the big band, the jazz and so I grew up listening to diverse, different genres of music.

"At age 15 my dad was incarcerated. He did 28 months out of a four year sentence for possession of four Texas Tea joints." Little Joe goes on, "My older brothers and sisters were gone and married and some in the military, so I just assumed the head of the house position. A cousin of mine actually started me a couple of years earlier, when I was 12 and 13, teaching me how to play guitar. In '55 I started playing for pay, it was just amazing what someone would pay me for doing what I liked, although I was a very, very shy kid and I still am a shy person. I try to hide it.

"I've just never really gotten over it completely, but Don Petrone and Don Julio and Jose Cuervo all helps a little bit. What an excuse, huh?" Little Joe laughs "But I got paid for doing that and it was a lot better than picking cotton for a penny a pound."

"I actually dropped out of school in seventh grade because I knew it all," admits Little Joe. "People often ask if you had to redo everything, relive your life, what would you change. I would have gotten an education, I would have gotten at least a high school education. I know that, thank God, things have gone well for me, but I could have done so much better than that if I had had a formal education."

"I really started in 1960 when I recorded under the name Little Joe and the Latinaires, but when my cousin started the band it was called David Coronado and the Latinaires and he pushed me to play guitar and front the band and that was one of the most scary times in my life, singing in front of a crowd." Little Joe clarifies, "In '59, my little brother Jesse, who died in a car accident in 1964, wanted to play bass. He was such a natural musician, I never understood how he was later teaching me how to play guitar, he could play piano, played bass and wrote songs. He died at an early age of 20 in a car accident, it was very sad.

"In '59, my cousin David left the band. He was a couple of years older and at the time it was just a four piece band- it was two saxophones, myself on guitar and a drummer, I didn't even have a bass player." He continues, "I assumed the name Little Joe. My best friend was Big Joe, there was a Big Joe and a Little Joe. I didn't weigh 85 pounds at the time. My brother came into the band, played bass, and he was really the one that really encouraged me to follow music, to make a career of it. We working in a factory where they manufactured pants and he quit his job. He said, 'I'm not going to do both, I'm going to be a musician.' So he forced my hand, I couldn't let my little brother go on his own, he forced my hand to quit my job and go at it full time. And that old cliché, the rest is history. But it was really his insistence that I pursue a career in music.

"We were having problems with the drummer once I remember and he told me, 'Joe, don't worry about these kinds of things. You go out and make a good name for yourself and you'll have musicians in line wanting to play with you.' And it seemed like he was a prophet, all the things he told me would happen came to pass," Little Joe says. "When he died and I was at his graveside, I made a vow that I would stick with it and take it to whatever heights I could. And here I am."

I ask if he has any hobbies.

"I really don't have any hobbies to speak of. I enjoy cutting the grass and pulling weeds in my yard. I don't get into planting or anything, that's why I have the worst looking yard in my neighborhood," laughs Little Joe. "That's something I enjoy. I do some community work and there's always requests for me to be in one place or another for fund raising events.

"There are so many causes and so much need, but any time that I can help with organizations that work with children for education, education period," he goes on. "I wish that I could devote more time working for children, I'm a sucker for that. I guess my favorite cause would be advocating education and there's such a need, so many causes. I think it doesn't help if I don't do anything, so if I do something just maybe it will make a little difference."

I return to music by prodding Little Joe to share his creative process.

"Mostly it just happens," Little Joe states. "I hear a melody and I have a little story to go with it and different things inspire me to write. I remember the first time in London, I was in town on a double-decker bus and we got off the bus and I'm standing there in front of Cheers, the pub, I looked at Robin and I had a feeling all over delivering a melody and lyrics, 'I see people everywhere,' just lyrics to part of a song, 'I feel the magic in the air, but my heart is still with you. People chase here and there on the crowded avenue, but my heart is still with you.' I came home and later on the rest of the song appeared to me.

"In most cases, some songs just happen real quick." Little Joe explains, "When I was told I was a grandfather I was watching the news, 23 years ago, and I always wanted to write a song for my dad and I got a real wonderful feeling. After watching the news it was 10 at night and I went to the table in the kitchen and I wrote a song for my dad, 'Always My Hero.' It came in less than an hour, I left it there and the next morning I checked it out, it was a song. I don't record them, I figure if they're real they'll be there the next day.

"I just recorded a couple of songs I wrote maybe 10, 12 years ago. They were just sitting there and I had the right album to record them on," share Little Joe. "A couple of weeks ago I went to the studio with something in mind, directions for an album. I've been doing this Freddy Fender tribute and headlining a show with different artists and we all sing with Charlie Rich's band, which was the band for Freddy Fender. They suggested I do 'Before the Next Teardrop Falls,' I have never sung that song and when I did it just really touched me. So I came home and I thought about it and went into the studio and recorded it in my style, my rendition of it. It just steered me away from what I had in mind for the album and I'm doing something totally different from what I had in mind, so the songs that I had not recorded were perfect for it. That's how it works for me, it's not like I plan everything, but I always have some kind of idea, some direction."

I wondered to what Little Joe attributes his staying power.

"I would love to think that it's partial talent," laughs Little Joe. "It's not only that, I'd like to think that's what it is. I've come to realize that people either like you or they don't. Talent plays a big part in the artistry, but I know a lot of my friends with so much more talent than I could ever have and other singers, how do you decide? But I think it's all about feeling. If people feel what you do, if you express your soul, which is what I think music is, and it connects with people. There's artists who have hits, but it's the song, not the artist. Then there's artists people like regardless of what they sing. A good example of that is my younger brother Rocky who a lot of times sings out of tune, but who cares, they love him. They just feel him, they love him.

"And I really do love people. They feed me a lot of energy. And hard work, perseverance of course and a lot of sacrifice. A combination of all that gives you staying power. And like I said, necessity." Little Joe goes on, "When my dad went to jail, I had to throw up behind stage and then get up on stage and sing. When you make a dollar for a hundred pounds of cotton and you can make two dollars singing a couple of songs a night. It's necessity, it's not so much the money, it's that I have a pulpit from where I can address some issues that fortunately people allow me to speak my mind on different issues that need to be spoken

about. It's not political, it's just awareness."

I remark that he might consider himself a role model.

"As long as they don't know the real Joe," Little Joe laughs "No, not at all, I don't think of myself as such, but I think if we can not just talk about things, but do things, lead by example. I'm not being a goody-goody person, but I think we all have our instincts that are capable to know right from wrong and we all make choices. I think that if we try to keep a fair and balanced outlook in life, how would other people feel if this was happening to them. And things that are done to me, I say, well, revenge, payback, brings me to their level. If anything you've got to try to get to the level of people who do good.

"We have the capacity to know right and wrong and I think if we just try to do right most of the time, I don't know if that's being a good role model or not." Little Joe continues, "I believe in the natural laws of nature, you can't plant tomatoes and expect apples, you know, you can't do bad and expect good to come out of it. It's just like ripple, it has an affect."

Little Joe is looking over more film scripts.

"I'm not an actor, but these guys insist that I can do the part. It's very educational and it's a lot of fun," says Little Joe. "I see movies in a different light now. Where they position the cameras, how they do the editing, the lighting, the people that are around when the scene is being acted out. The fun thing that I've done is we shoot the scene in English then we turn right around and do it in Spanish."

One of the scripts he is reviewing revolves around current immigration issues and is cast with popular Mexican movie stars.

"I don't worry about my performance because it's not a challenge in the sense that I have to be so good because I'm not that. I just do the best I can. But here being that it's all Mexican actors it's a challenge just to stand next to them and interact with them," states Little Joe.

I ask if he can get over being starstruck.

"One thing that softens the blow for me a little bit is that they know of Little Joe, so I'm hoping that works in my favor and they're not expecting some superstar. I'm just like a make-believe singer, wannabe," Little Joe says.

Little Joe certainly isn't a wannabe-- he's part of music history.

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