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Tejano Music Legend ‘Little Joe’: His Improbable, Amazing Journey

Tejano singer “Little Joe” Jeff Brown / Wilson-Brown Productions

AUSTIN, TX -- His story is the stuff of Hollywood scripts, the ones too good to be true. One of 13 children, born on a dirt floor garage in Temple, Texas, who becomes the man of the house when his father is sent to prison. A shy kid at 15, he picks up a guitar, realizes it beats picking cotton, and strikes a match on a trailblazing musical career spanning more than 50 years, which takes him around the world, produces a friendship with Cesar Chavez, wins him accolades and five Grammys and makes him, like Chavez, an iconic figure among his fellow Mexican Americans.

But Jose Maria Deleon Hernandez – you might know him simply as Little Joe -- pondered that story, his own, and declared he couldn’t imagine anyone would be interested in it.

Oh, that was just Joe being Joe, his friends say. Humble. A giver, not a seeker of the spotlight.

Now, his improbable story is coming to the big screen. Filming has begun on “Recuerdos: The Life and Music of Little Joe,” a documentary which producers hope to unveil in 2015. After some coaxing, they were able to sell the legendary Tejano performer on the project.

Legendary 'Little Joe' Talks Tejano Music, Life, Upcoming Film 4:12

Hernandez admits he was reluctant when approached by producer Una McGinnis. But he told NBC News Latino he signed off when he considered that his life story might inspire other Mexican Americans.

“Chicanisimo, where we come from, nuestra cultura, that has never really been focused on. We need to highlight who we are,” Hernandez said.

McGinnis and those associated with the project couldn’t be more tickled.

“I don’t think there’s anybody from here to California and Walla Walla and Chicago and in between who when you ask, ‘Do you know Little Joe?’ The first words out of their mouth are, ‘I love Little Joe,’” McGinnis told NBC Latino.

“His is truly an American success story. It needed to be told,” said Dwayne Ulloa, a veteran music industry figure who is helping raise money for the project through an online funding site.

At 74, Hernandez is still known as King of the Brown Sound, a consummate performer and a musical innovator who blended an exuberant, stylized mix of traditional Mexican Norteño sounds with country, blues, roots and rock.

In a trailer for the documentary on the GoFundMe website, Hernandez says the Spanish songs his father and his family sang were his favorites as a kid, seared in his memory. “I didn’t want them to be forgotten. They were in my blood,” he says.

Before it became known as Tejano music, “it was just Little Joe,” Western swing stalwart Ray Benson says in the clip.

“Chicanisimo, where we come from, nuestra cultura, that has never really been focused on," said Little Joe, on why he agreed to become the subject of a documentary. “We are just not credited for so many important contributions. I tend to believe that it’s our fault for not documenting. We’re not good at that.”

The Tejano label became an identifier for Hernandez and his band, originally known as The Latinaires, then La Familia. But the moniker transcended music.

“It was an identity for all the poor people that I knew and grew up like me. The Chicanos,” Hernandez says.

He told NBC the documentary will be about him as much as it is about a people. Mexican Americans.

“We’re invisible,” he said. “When my family was picking cotton, I remember walking into stores and we were ignored. Unfortunately, I know I’m one of millions that came up the way I did, working the fields and being a stoop laborer just like my dad.”

Hernandez’s Mexican parents came to the U.S. after fleeing the revolution in their homeland. It is a story shared by countless Mexican American families, he says. He hopes the film can offer hope to younger generations that success is there for the taking. But education, he added, is the key to ending the chain of poverty. A 7th-grade dropout, it’s a luxury he didn’t have.

He has been described as a "Latino Elvis." In San Antonio recently, in the audience at a ZZ Top concert, fans swarmed Hernandez to snap pictures with him mid-show, prompting band frontman Billy Gibbons to crack, “I do believe I’m insulted.”

As its title states, “Recuerdos” will explore Hernandez’s life on and off the stage, such as his work with charitable, social and humanitarian causes, including his long association with the United Farm Workers and labor leader Cesar Chavez, and his performances over the many years for U.S. military overseas.

“He’s always been there when there’s a need, whether it’s on stage or marching,” Ulloa says.

“You don’t have to talk to him very long to know he’s very much for the underdog,” McGinnis says. “He cares not just about what happens to Hispanic people. He cares about people of any race.”

One of the best side benefits of the music is the podium, says Hernandez, who earlier this fall joined Texas Sen. Leticia Van de Putte as she traveled around the state in her unsuccessful bid for the lieutenant governor’s job. “To be able to help to speak on behalf of nuestra gente on issues that go unheard of. It’s the ability to help,” Hernandez says.

A long-lasting friendship with Chavez began unexpectedly during a visit to San Jose, Calif., when Hernandez was interviewed on the radio about his upcoming gig that night. The deejay began asking about Chavez and whispers that he was a Communist. Irritated, Hernandez walked out, but not before saying that Mexican American farmworkers had a right to speak out. Later that night, Hernandez got a call backstage before his show. He figured it was the deejay, perhaps wanting to continue the discussion or make amends. The stranger’s voice on the other end of the line was Chavez’s. He had heard the radio interview and called to thank Hernandez for defending him.

Little Joe hopes the film can offer hope to younger generations that success is there for the taking. But education, he added, is the key to ending the chain of poverty. A 7th-grade dropout, it’s a luxury he didn’t have.

Though he didn’t serve in the military, his family, including his brothers and sisters, has 400-plus years of service, Hernandez says. Mexican Americans have a long history of military service to country, but that’s a story that doesn’t get out there either, he laments, adding, “We are just not credited for so many important contributions. I tend to believe that it’s our fault for not documenting. We’re not good at that.”

With the onset of the Iraq War, Hernandez opened his shows with what might seem like a strange choice for most performers, “America the Beautiful,” vowing to keep performing the number till the war ended. When that day came he decided he couldn’t stop playing it. “Because I realized the veterans are still out there,” he says.

Over the years, many of Hernandez’s bandmates have stepped out on their own, not only with the bandleader’s blessing but his encouragement. According to Ulloa, a friend once told Joe he admired how the singer supported his bandmates. “But you’re the root,” the friend told Hernandez.

“Eventually the music always comes back to the root,” Ulloa says.

“Everybody else is fluff. It’s just a copy,” comedian Paul Rodriguez whimsically says in the “Recuerdos” trailer.

McGinnis, who books Hernandez’s shows and does his public relations, says he is among the Mexican American community’s most recognized people. “I liken him to their Elvis,” she says. In San Antonio recently, in the audience at a ZZ Top concert, fans swarmed Hernandez to snap pictures with him mid-show, prompting band frontman Billy Gibbons to crack, “I do believe I’m insulted.” Gibbons can be seen in the “Recuerdos” trailer singing Hernandez’s praises.

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Though the long beard of his younger years is gone, replaced by a salt and pepper goatee, Hernandez is still trim and younger looking than his years. He still plays about 80 to 100 dates a year and vows to keep performing as long as the fans keep coming.

“I’m not worried about my future,” he says. “I’m living it and making the best of it.”