King Of The Brown Sound: The Music And Social Movements Of Little Joe

Little Joe during a performance at the 1991 Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio. - AL RENDON
Al Rendon
Little Joe during a performance at the 1991 Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio.

In 1969, on the phone for a routine promo interview, Tejano singer Little Joe sparked the coincidence that would align him with the Chicano cultural movement.

Chatting about an upcoming concert on a San Jose radio station, the DJ asked Joe about his thoughts on the work of César Chávez and the United Farm Workers. "They asked if I agreed with some people who thought he was communist," says Joe, speaking with the Current. "It pissed me off. I remember telling him that people talk because they have mouths and they like to shoot them off. Then I said I was a supporter of César Chávez."

Joe hung up briskly, returning to his sound check for the impending gig. But an incoming call intruded again. "I thought it was the DJ from the radio station," says Joe, "so I went back to the phone and answered, 'yeah, what now?'"

But it wasn't the DJ. Not even close.

"It was César Chávez," Joe recalls. "He said he was listening to the interview and wanted to call and say thanks for the kind words."

The opportune call marked the first step in a lifelong friendship between Little Joe and the civil rights icon, a bond that would color Joe's career with a proud Chicano hue. In a career spanning a staggering six decades, the native of Temple, Texas, astutely embraced Mexican and American styles, earning him the coronation as the "King of the Brown Sound."

Little Joe has never been too fond of the title — in conversation last month at the Buckhorn Saloon in downtown San Antonio, he shrugs off the Tex-Mex crown, a label tacked on by a promoter with an ear for lasting nicknames. If the 74-year-old singer has a downside, it's his zealous humility.

Offstage, Little Joe downplays his stellar résumé, as if he didn't pave the way for Tejano or share '70s marquees with stars like Santana and Frank Zappa.

For years, Little Joe dodged numerous requests to collaborate on a film about his life and career. But, with the upcoming Recuerdos: The Life and Music of Little Joe, he seems to have changed his tune and now feels ready for his story to be told.

"I hope there's a lot of learning to be had from this documentary," says Joe. "It's not just for Chicanos or Latinos, it's especially for those who don't know who we are. Or know who we are, but know very little about the culture, music and contributions."

Speaking with Little Joe — loose-tied, silver-haired and sharp-tongued — he seems excited about the documentary on his life's work. Directed by Austin filmmaker Gary Wilson, Recuerdos will be the first full-length treatment of his social and musical impact, slated for release in Spring of 2016.

"Music is so vital to political struggle," Wilson tells the Current. "That's why Joe is important."

To make sense of Joe's long career, Wilson is in the process of interviewing musicians and politicians who helped shape the story. Artists including Billy Gibbons, Ray Benson ("We didn't call it Tejano music until much later. It was just Little Joe"), Cheech Marin and Paul Rodriguez make appearances, verifying the wide reach and credibility of his music.

The proceeds from his Sunday night gig at the Guadalupe will help boost the budget of Recuerdos, a film that Joe hopes will rouse a new generation of musicians. As with the serendipitous radio interview, he says: "You never know who's listening."

Born in 1940, José María De León Hernández was the seventh of 13 children. Jim Crow carved his hometown of Temple into segregated neighborhoods, with whites isolated from black and Latinos.

The racial and ethnic divisions had a deep impact on his life and career.

With white musicians dominating the radio dial, Little Joe took in the twangy country blues of Hank Williams and the Western swing of Bob Wills. But in his neighborhood, Joe learned the energy and fiery singing of African-American music. "I lived on the black side of town," he recalls. "So when I was at friends' houses, I'd hear black music, blues and R&B." 

At home, Joe dove into the culture and tunes of his parents, who had emigrated from Mexico. With the booming arrangements of orquesta, the waltzing rhythms of norteño and a few swing records thrown in for good measure, Joe's family schooled him in Tex-Mex music. It was these unofficial lessons that informed the young singer, who dropped out in seventh grade to pick cotton.

In the fields, black workers sang the blues and Mexican immigrants visited the corridos of their hometowns in Coahuila and Chihuahua. Hearing the disparate styles connect with a shared purpose — passing time during hard work — Joe began to see the roots of these genres, their common ground and how to weave this music into something new.

With the growing influence of mixed sounds all around him, it was only a matter of time before Little Joe began to make some of his own. He made his musical debut at 13, when his cousin David Coronado asked him to pick up his guitar and a stage name, choosing "Little Joe" because of his short stature.

He became the newest member of The Latinaires, a little R&B outfit with two horns and a drummer. They took most of the '50s to gain momentum, working in cotton fields and Texas factories, before making their debut in '58 with "Safari One and Two" on Corpus Christi's Terro Records.

Humble and all, but Little Joe hobnobbed with many stars, such as Linda Ronstadt, above. - COURTESY
Humble and all, but Little Joe hobnobbed with many stars, such as Linda Ronstadt, above.

By 1959, Coronado split from the Latinaires, leaving Joe as the band's frontman. With the introduction of Little Joe's little brother Jesse on bass, the restructured Latinaires quit their day gigs and made a run at a recording career. In 1963, the band released Incredible! and Unbeatable!, a pair of exclamatory LPs on San Antonio's DLB label. The albums are solid funk records, with occasional sections that might betray the rhythms of their Tex-Mex roots. Though Little Joe's impressive range is on display, he had yet to develop the style that would help create the genre of Tejano. On Unbeatable! he sounds like a talented James Brown impersonator.

Also in '63, Little Joe found inspiration in San Antonio's Sunny and the Sunglows. With "Talk to Me," a string-kissed vision of teenage love in 6/8, Sunny Ozuna and his SA band reached the 11th spot on the Billboard chart and played on Dick Clark's American Bandstand (Sunny was the second Chicano performer on the show, after Ritchie Valens in '58).

"It made me feel so proud to know that there was a Chicano on American Bandstand," says Joe. "It inspired me and made feel that I too could make a career and make things happen with my music. He set a high bar for all of us."

 Though his career was picking up in the dance halls of Texas and California, tragedy struck in 1964 when Little Joe's brother was killed in a car accident. Inspired by Jesse, who convinced Joe to pursue music full-time, the Latinaires pushed forward into the '60s.

Little Joe found his true creative voice in the Bay Area in the late '60s, from where so many pop music origin myths emanate. As the flower children bum-rushed the Haight Ashbury neighborhood, Latin American musicians found a home in the same thriving scene. "It was there that I saw all these hip guys speaking Spanish and really embracing it in their music," says Joe. "The Latin thing was really happening, with Carlos Santana and Malo especially." 

Living in California, Little Joe changed the band name from the Latinaires to La Familia, reflecting the Chicanismo of the music around him. "When I got to the Bay Area, I felt and saw a difference," says Joe. "La Familia felt inclusive and let people know what we're about."

Right away, the music echoed the realignment toward Latin America. The horn section gained members and prominence, borrowing from the booming frontline of orquesta. The rhythmic backbone moved from the downbeat — that bastion of soul and funk — to the punching upbeat of conjunto and norteño. The lyrics slipped into something more comfortable, trading English for Spanish. And the accordion began peeping its piano-key grin into the picture.

In performance, Joe was absorbed in this nueva onda. Footage from PBS' Latin Music USA shows La Familia in the early '70s riffing with excitement on "Las Nubes." In crimson fringe and gold-laced gear, Joe coyote-yelps with delight, rallying the band into a full charge.

Concerts like these, with younger generations roaring and older ones two-stepping in approval, helped set the stage for Tejano, a localization of Chicano identity and pride.

"The Chicano movement was representing people not from Mexico, but people from the Southwest region of the United States taking ownership of their own identity and unifying with Latin America," says JJ Lopez, general manager of Trinity University's Jazz 91.7 and Texas vinyl junkie. "Bringing Mexican genres into the soul-driven music he was doing, Joe helped create Tejano in the '70s. Little Joe was there to really take that onto the world stage." 

"Santana made it Latin rock, with 'Oye Como Va' and all that," says Little Joe, explaining the process. "That's very much the same thing I did with the Mexican songs, mariachi, orquesta and Mexican genres. I just do it in a bluesy way 'cause that's the music that I grew up listening to. Our culture has such a rich foundation in music, I was fortunate to learn those songs. The difference is I do 'em my way."

While Joe was at the forefront of Tejano music, buoyed by the phone call with César Chávez, he became part of the political push too. Shortly after they met, Little Joe began fundraising tours for Chávez and his United Farm Workers. "In the '70s, these were the guys out there leading the march," says Joe. "The identity that was missing that we needed was provided by these Chicano leaders." 

The UFW reciprocated Joe's rapprochement, naming the singer's rendition of "Las Nubes" as the organization's official anthem.

"When we all hear that, it's like, 'there's our song, let's go dance,'" UFW president Arturo Rodriguez, a San Antonio native, tells the Current in an interview. "It's tremendously emotional when Joe sings his heart out about the life and dreams of farmworkers as he does in that song."

Written by Wally Armendariz, "Las Nubes," or "The Clouds," takes the suffering and wandering of a migrant worker and casts it back out, singing proudly of the will to rise above. "The clouds that go by stop to drizzle on me / It seems as if they're smiling whenever they hear me sing," goes the refrain, as the horns blare and the rhythm section rocks forward.

"That song relates so well to the farmworkers," says Little Joe. "People who've been out in the field. That's the song about oppression, hope, liberation. It goes well with what we cotton pickers are about."

After his involvement with UFW, Little Joe's presence became something of a must-have for Democratic political campaigns. From Leticia Van de Putte and Ann Richards to Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson — whenever a politician needs Tejano cred, Joe is high on the list of names.

But it's not all been by the PR book. Joe recalls Henry B. Gonzalez onstage with La Familia at an SA fundraising gig, with a joint in Joe's mouth as the congressman introduced the band.

"He's so consistent, he's not Johnny-come-lately," says Arturo Rodriguez. "He's not someone who all of a sudden realized an opportunity to help farmworkers. He's been doing it decade after decade."

In between political appearances, Joe helped create and hone the Tejano sound, a musical force that reached full stride in the '90s. In the Tex-Mex heyday of Selena, Mazz and La Mafia, Joe y La Familia's 16 de Septiembre won the '91 Grammy for Best Mexican Performance.

But perhaps the greatest honor bestowed upon Joe is "King of the Brown Sound," reigning over both sides of the border. But, again with that perennial humility of his ruling the day, don't think for a minute any of it ever got to his head.

"I don't know about being king of it, or any title," says Joe. "King of Tex-Mex, King of the Brown Sound, El Rey. It's all appreciated, I just don't know if I can live up to all the hype. I'm humbled by all the attention, credit and respect, above all." 

Little Joe y La Familia Recuerdos Fundraising Concert

$50-$150, 6pm Q&A, 7pm concert, Sun, Feb 8, Guadalupe Theater, 1301 Guadalupe, (210) 271-3151,

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