Necessity is what drove Tejano legend Little Joe to get out of the cotton fields and get up on stage.
As a young man Little Joe found himself as the primary breadwinner for his mother and younger siblings after his father was incarcerated in the 1950s.
“Necessity can make you do all kinds of things good or bad,” he said. “I think what I did was good. I didn’t have very many options either. Three strikes — I’m a minority, I’m poor and uneducated — so coming out of the cotton fields was a big change of life for me. But you know I am really proud of my experiences. I believe that I am who I am because of my experiences. I always brag about how I am really a cotton picker and I do music on the side.”
Taking the stage was not easy for Little Joe who was extremely shy in his youth. But the need to provide for his family outweighed his stage fright.
“No matter how I threw up backstage before going into the venue I had to get up and perform,” he said. “… I was in charge of the family and the little extra money or that pay that I acquired from performing went a long way and things just got better. One thing I have never been worried about or afraid to do is work hard and sacrifice and do whatever needs to be done to get the job done.”
Little Joe has moved from playing guitar to taking center stage as the frontman of Little Joe y La Familia, which has been going strong for decades.
“You know music is magic, it really is,” he said. “I’ve been asked about music and what it does for me and what it does for people. There’s no other art in the world that can make a 9-10 month (old) baby move, sway and clap their hands and bring smiles to their face or a 90 year old person. Music touches the soul.”
Little Joe, who grew up in a predominately black neighborhood in Temple, Texas, was introduced to the blues genre of music at a young age. He compares the traditional Mexican ranchera-style of music to the blues because both contain lyrics that bring emotional responses from audiences.
“I do it like Little Joe feels it, which is in a bluesy way,” he said. “People feel it that way and that’s why (the song) ‘Prieta Linda’ same thing that’s a blues song and I look out and see the audience and I see men and women crying and it sometimes brings tears to my eyes because it captures their soul and sometimes they’re thinking of their loved ones and whatever they’ve gone through in life and it’s that bluesy feel of the song that they feel and its just so amazing seeing men and women really just weep. I know when it first started happening I started freaking out. I was like ‘Oh hell, what did I do wrong?’ But it’s funny because they will be crying, hollering and los gritos salen de corazon (their crying out comes from the heart), salen de alma (it comes from the soul), and there are tears rolling down their cheeks but they’re screaming their hearts out.”
A couple of new projects are in the works for Little Joe. He is currently working with a writer on a book of his life and is in the process of putting together a documentary featuring interviews with musicians, actors, social activists and other interesting people he has met during his career.
“It’s been a great journey for me and best of all it’s gotten better as time goes on and I am in a place where I feel real fortunate,” he said. “I can kind of pick and choose to do what I want with my career so that makes it a lot more comfortable for me but I am always open and available for a challenge and it’s always fun to take on new projects and different things to do.”