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From cotton fields to the stage: Family roots fuel Little Joe’s Tejano success

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TWC News: From cotton fields to the stage: Family roots fuel Little Joe’s Tejano success
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Before winning five Grammys, creating more than 50 albums and performing in front of thousands with the likes of Willie Nelson, Little Joe was picking cotton in the fields of Tejas.

"I probably went in my mom's womb because I saw her picking cotton when she was pregnant, I am serious," Jose Maria DeLeon Hernandez, or “Little Joe,” said.

Born in Temple, Texas on the dirt floor of a garage, Little Joe credits his success to his work ethic learned early in life.

"I've always said I'm a cotton picker first and I do music on the side," he said.

As a teen, Little Joe made a life-changing investment with money earned picking cotton as a migrant worker.

"I was 14 years old when I bought my first guitar in Atlus, Oklahoma,” he said.

But it was in 1955 when Little Joe was paid $5 to perform at a Sock Hop in Cameron. He said that’s when he realized performing was more fun than picking cotton, and both could earn a paycheck.

In the early days, melodies heard in Little Joe’s music were similar to what blue-collar Mexican-Americans listened to, known as ‘Conjunto.’ Later, that sound transformed into ‘Chicano’ music.

The creative crash of cross-mix of style is called 'Tejano,' now heard around the world. Little Joe is a ruler of the genre, known to many as the “king of the brown sound.”

Since that night at the Sock Top, the Texas native has sold millions of records with his band La Familia—a career spanning coast-to-coast for six decades.

"People want it," Little Joe said. "People crave it outside of Texas."

Little Joe y La Familia has played all over the country, including the White House. The group was also the only Tex-Mex band to play the historic Farm Aid Concerts in the 1980s and 90s.

Beyond all achievement and international fame, Little Joe said his younger brother Jesse is the reason for La Familia’s success.

Jesse was the bassist, singer and songwriter for the band until 1964, when he was killed in a car accident at the age of 20.

Little Joe then made a graveyard promise he’d never forget.

"When we buried him I made a vowed that I would stay with it until I got to the top,” Little Joe said. “Because that was his vision."

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