During a more than fifty-year performing and recording history, Little Joe y La Familia has become one of the top Tejano bands. Over the decades, the group has developed a unique style, imbuing its sound with norteño, country, blues, and rock-and-roll music. Established in 1959 by José María de León Hernández, the band was initially known as Little Joe and the Latinaires.
Little Joe, whose musical innovations and leadership has ensured the band’s success, was born in Temple, Texas, on October 17, 1940, to Salvador Hernández and Amelia de León Hernández. The seventh of thirteen children, Little Joe had an early affinity for music. Barely into his teens, he began to play guitar and sing with his cousin’s band, David Coronado and the Latinaires. In the late 1950s, the Latinaires caught the attention of Torero Records, which brought out their first single, the rock-inspired instrumental “Safari, Part I & II.” In approximately 1959, when Coronado left the group, Little Joe became the band’s leader and renamed it Little Joe and the Latinaires.
In the 1960s Little Joe signed recording contracts with several Tejano labels, first with Corona in San Antonio and later with Valmon in Austin and Zarape in Dallas. Little Joe also started his own label, Buena Suerte, which he used to release the band’s Spanish-language recordings, and he used Good Luck Records for English-language recordings. He also established Leona Records and entered into a distribution contract with Freddy Records of Corpus Christi.
In the mid-1960s the Latinaires began their rise to popularity with their first album, Por un amor. Soon afterwards, the band’s Amor bonito also became a hit album. Having achieved a measure of success, the Latinaires recruited Tony “Ham” Guerrero, a talented and musically-trained trumpeter, to join the band. With Guerrero’s addition, the Latinaires began to evolve, ultimately becoming one of the “best-selling” Tejano orquestas.
By 1970 the “latinismo” Little Joe had discovered while traveling and performing in the San Francisco Bay area drew him closer to his cultural roots. Moreover, Little Joe became committed to the farm workers movement led by César Chávez and the Chicano movement that had emerged across the American Southwest. Soon, Little Joe changed the band’s name to Little Joe y La Familia, reflecting his dedication to the cultural and political contributions and struggles of his community.
During the 1970s Little Joe y La Familia became the leading band of La Onda Chicana (“Chicano Wave”) period of Tejano music. La Onda Chicana was ushered in with the Chicano movement, a time during which the Tejano orquesta musical tradition reached its pinnacle by combining “once and for all the ranchero and jaitón as well as the Latin and American, into a seamless, bimusical sound.” The high admiration in which the band was held drew top musicians to its ranks. Among them were Joe Gallardo, Luis Gazca, Joe “Mad Dog” Velásquez, Joe Medina, and Gilbert Sedeño.
In 1972, strengthened by the addition of these musicians and a growing musical sophistication, Little Joe y La Familia recorded the album Para la gente (For the people), which became a huge success in the Tejano community. Para la gente, which was filled with lush arrangements, also embodied the Chicano self-identity espoused by the Chicano movement. “Las nubes,” “Qué culpa tengo,” “La traicionera,” and “El disco,” some of the most popular songs on the album, were a synthesis of the best of the ranchero and jaitón traditions, outpacing what other Tejano bands had previously accomplished. “Las nubes” in particular remains a beloved and well-regarded artistic effort in code-switching between English and Spanish (Spanglish) in La Onda Chicana tradition. Little Joe referred to the code-switching as a capirotada or “ensalada de música” (a musical salad).
By the early twenty-first century Little Joe y La Familia had amassed a large following across the state and nation. The band’s performances drew audiences from 38,000 to 50,000 for concerts at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the Houston Astrodome, and Fiesta Broadway. In addition to its regular performance schedule, the group appeared at major festivals in Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico, and Texas. As of 2015 the band continued to perform in a variety of venues.
The Smithsonian Institute and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts have hosted the band during National Hispanic Heritage Week. In 1997 Little Joe received the Governors Award from the Texas branch of NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) for his contributions to the legacy of Texas music. He received the Smithsonian’s Lifetime Legend Award in 2001. Little Joe y La Familia was recognized with a 1991 Grammy for Best Mexican-American Album for Diez y Seis de Septiembre and a 2008 Tejano Album of the Year Grammy for Before the Next Teardrop Falls. The band also received other Grammy nominations in 1988, 1993, 1999, and 2003. Their Recuerdos (2010) won a Best Tejano Album Grammy in 2011.