Texas-born singer-singwriter Jose Maria DeLeon Hernandez – known as Little Joe – often has been called a Tejano music pioneer.
But if you ask him, he’s just making the music he grew up listening to.
“Well, when I started out, it wasn’t called Tejano music. To me it was always Mexican American music,” he said in an phone interview from his Texas home. “My music is a mixture of different genres and different styles for me. I grew up in more of the swing, big-band jazz era. I was influenced by all styles of music and a lot of artists I appreciate.
“So I play American music as opposed to Latin music, salsa or Mexican music. Music is music, so I grew up trying to play all the music that influenced me. That’s how it worked for me. I’d bore myself to death if I played only one style of music.”
Little Joe brings back his band La Familia for a return engagement at the Gallo Center for the Arts on Friday. He last played the downtown Modesto performing arts center in 2011.
Throughout his more than 50-year career, which includes 50 albums and four Grammy Awards, Little Joe has kept his diminutive moniker. Now 73, he said it comes from his childhood days and just stuck.
“I was a skinny shy little kid. One of my best friends was named Joe as well. He played football and basketball and he was a big kid. They called us Big Joe and Little Joe,” he said. “When I became Little Joe, it was during the Little Richard, Little Stevie Wonder era. So I was Little Joe and the Latinaires. That name just stayed with me until today.”
Little Joe played with his Latinaires from 1959 to the late ’60s. Then in 1970, his new band, La Familia, was born. Over the years, the lineup has changed, and now his son-in-law is the guitarist and bandleader for the group. Today, Little Joe tours with a seven-piece band.
“We are family, we’ve become family,” he said. “Some of these kids are young enough to be grandchildren, but I do have three of the guys who have been with me at least 20 years.”
Along the way, the group became one of the most popular Tex-Mex bands around. Hailed as the “King of The Brown Sound,” Little Joe has a documentary about his life in the works.
“I’ve been on the road over half a century. Through the years, I’ve met very interesting people who have really impacted my life. I’ve been very fortunate, given where I come from. I’m just a seventh-grade dropout cotton picker from Texas,” he said. “I never dreamed music would take me around the world to the White House and to shake hands with presidents. I’ve met people from all walks of life, actors, political people.”
Some of his famous friends, including Willie Nelson and Jesse Jackson, have been interviewed for the project.
Over the years, Little Joe has championed various causes, including his work in diabetes prevention and as an education advocate. He also has been an outspoken supporter of other Texas musicians.
“Those are the kinds of things I enjoy getting involved with; the things that touches lives,” he said. “They want little of me, to use my name and celebrity status. I feel it’s a small part of me, but it has a positive effect. The music industry has been great for me. It works for me and helps people. I’m blessed I’m able to do that.”