Meet Little Joe’s Baby Brother
Meet Little Joe’s Baby Brother
Articles and all photos by Ramón Hernández
Every reader has heard of Little Joe, Johnny, Rocky y La Familia, right? Depending on your age, you may also remember Tony “Top” Hernández or Jimmy “La Avispa” Hernández? Then there is their youngest brother, Miguel Gilberto aka Gilbert Hernández and a recording artist in his own right.
Problem is, hardly anyone has heard of him because he has always been under the shadow of the band leader or lead vocalist of the bands for which he has played tenor saxophone. With that in mind, River City Attractions would like to introduce you to el más chavalito de los famosos Hermanos Hernández (the youngest of the famous Hernández Brothers).
His story begins on January 20, 1953 when as Little Joe said, “I remember coming home from school; and there he was, another baby brother.”
Shortly after he was born, Gilbert contracted polio, a crippling and potentially fatal infectious disease, and he was unable to walk or talk.
“I don’t really remember those early years, but as I’m told, Jimmy took me out every day. And that he taught me how to talk, as well as walk.”
“For a long time, no one thought he was going to walk,” Rocky said, “But he did.”
That’s how Jimmy helped Gilbert overcame polio. By 1961, Little Joe and the Latinaires were a sort of house band during the Sunday 4 to 6 p.m. matinees at the Tropicana in Temple, Texas. And, to give his younger brothers a taste of performing, his brother, Jesse, would pick up a then seven-year old Gilbert and put him on the stage to sing “Ramona.”
Rocky, who is older, said, “Gilbert started singing before I did and when I looked up and saw people throw nickels and quarters on the stage, I got jealous and wanted to do the same thing,” Rocky recalled.
So, Jesse than gave the microphone to Rocky, he sang “Put Your Arms Around Me,” then filled his pockets with coins.
“Most of the week, until my parents came home on weekends, we would go to the Silver Dollar, the Drop Inn, Little Chicago, and the Red Ram, a black bar on 8th Street because that’s where the happening was.
“Then, there also was the Tampico, Charro and the Acapulco, all Mexican bars, also on 8th Street. And it was at the Acapulco where Little Joe started in 1958,” Rocky added.
In 1968, in an effort to make a musician out of Rocky, Little Joe bought him a guitar, but turned around and gave it to his brother-in-law, David “Spooky” Esparza, who a decade later became the guitar player for Los Fantasticos.
Next, Little Joe gave Rocky a tenor saxophone and Rocky later gave it to Gilbert.
“I was 15 and a member of the Travis Junior High School Choir, so I was very interested in music and quickly learned to play that saxophone,” Gilbert said.
By 1970, Gilbert and John Alexander, would get on a bus to go see Little Joe perform in Austin and Dallas. In July, he sat in with Rocky and the Little Giants when they went to open for Hank Williams Jr. in Amarillo, Texas.
“Then, before the year was over, I joined the David Gutiérrez Orchestra with whom I recorded two 45 rpm singles,” Gilbert said. “And a year later, I went on tour and recorded with Roy Montelongo plus Shorty and the Corvettes.
“The turning point in my musical career occurred when going home from a gig in Houston, the band left me behind in Somerville, but instead of taking a bus home to Temple, I went to Houston and there, I stayed with my cousin, Clara Salcido for about one year”
It was there that Gilbert joined Los Pares (The Pairs).
“Our manager, Larry Rick Barajas Sr., was a gambler that gave the group that name because there were two Richards, two Joes and two Mikes in the original band. He also bought us a PA system and provided us with rehearsal space by building an air-conditioned music room in his garage,” said Lonny Lalanne.
This band, which was from Manchester, on the southeast side and near the channel also included some musicians from Magnolia and Houston’s 2nd Ward, styled itself after Chicago. They were Albert Mogil, lead vocals; Tom Cruz, guitar; Larry Rick Barajas Jr., bass; John “Pan” Gonzales, keyboards, Gilbert, tenor sax; Lalanne on trumpet and Mike Rosas on drums.
“Back then, it was like a gang because we were bandmates and hung out together as the closest of friend,” Lalanne added.
“Within three years of playing at the Golden Fleece, the Latin Club, Latin World, the Stardust and the Pan American ballrooms plus upstairs on The Square, we became the ‘number one band in our age group.’ We were by far, such a well-known, band, that we began packing them in at the Lovejoy Center and the Albert Thomas Convention Center.”
As Gilbert and Lalanne explained, they became a very successful kid band because they looked, acted and hung out with older people. Then, as icing on the cake, they backed Neto Pérez on two 45 rpm singles and Rocky Gil on one single.
Their good three-year run ended when Gilbert started freelancing with other bands and Lalanne began to play with Fat Emma, the top Chicano music group in Houston. After Lalanne graduated from high school in May 1973, he flew out to Lubbock, Texas to do his first gig with Neto Perez’s band, which at the time included Tom Cruz.
The worst of fates fell on the band when Neto and two other of his musicians died in a car accident on their way back from a gig at 3 a.m. The accident occurred in Elgin, Texas and it was Neto’s body that took the impact.
The other musicians were Alfredo Ponce. This San Angelo-based trumpet player joined Neto when Gilbert De Anda broke up Coyote to join Tortilla Factory. The other was David Castillo, a great jazz saxophone player. Both were new band members.
“In short, everybody but me died in the car wreck,” Lalanne said with a hint of sadness and disbelief. I saw one die and two other dying; and I was the only survivor. So, I was the one that was left to speak to their families.
“Neto was the driving force and after he died the group sort of disbanded.”
A year later, Gilbert moved to North Hollywood and began playing with Tierra shortly after this band was formed by Steve and Rudy Salas in 1973. He also got to perform at the Hollywood Palladium with both rock and Chicano bands.
However, he missed Texas and early in 1979, Gilbert went back to Austin, where he joined the Paco Rodríguez Orchestra.
“That’s when I started singing lead vocals with a band,” Gilbert said with pride. I began by doing backup vocals, but he would coax me by saying, ‘Mijo started singing.’ But it was actually my brother Rocky that taught me how to sing at 15.”
On Easter Sunday of April 1979, Gilbert and his father Salvador Santiago Hernández, best known as “La Cotorra,” had been out partying in Austin since Good Friday, which happened to fall on Friday the 13th.
“Dad had brought me along as the designated driver. However, he insisted on driving his car back to Temple. So, I got into the car and knocked out. That was my last recollection,” Gilbert said.
They were headed north on Interstate 35 and Gilbert was asleep when Cotorra crashed his 1960 Chevy Sports Coupe in a head-on collision with an 18-wheeler. The car went under the semi-truck. The semi shaved off the top of the car and they were lucky they were not decapitated.
What saved them from this terrible fate is that Gilbert was passed out in a prone position and Cotorra immediately leaned over his body to prevent him getting killed. When he escaped with just a few scratches and five broken bones, Cotorra was hospitalized and kept in intensive care two weeks. He died Sunday, November 4, as a result of those injuries.
The following year, Gilbert moved to San Antonio where he says, “I freelanced with chingos de pura raza groups. If I wasn’t playing, when Little Joe came to town, I would go to his gigs, but I did not get up and sing with him because I had gotten into drugs and I was kind of like in the low side of life.
It was in the Alamo City where he met and wed Linda Martínez and their union was blessed with the birth of Santiago Salvador. Married and now a father, Gilbert began to clean up his act. So, each time Little Joe and Johnny were in town, they would call him up and he would go to their gig, get up on stage and sing “Margarita” with his two older brothers.
“But as hard as I tried, my marriage didn’t work out. We separated when my son was two and a half years old and in late 1984, I went back to Houston where I played and recorded with different orchestras and bands such as Avizo plus Rocky Gil, who died shortly thereafter,” Gilbert continued.
“I would play at the Phase 3 and La Bastio Club in the Market Square area with Roland Kirk. Roland has the distinction of being able to play three saxophones at the same time. However, the highlight of my career is when I sat in with Miles Davis.
“Then I recorded a compact disc and toured New Mexico, Arizona, California, Denver and Chicago with Sangre Viva, whose bandleader and lead vocalist was Rio Grande Valley native Gilbert González.
Gilbert, who is quiet and low-key, continued freelancing without any fanfare as one of the hundred
Fast forwarding to 2007, this is the year when Gilbert and Lonny Lalanne put together the Texas Studio All-Star Orchestra and recorded “Simplemente Mi Sueño.” The title tune in this CD was “Juan Piedra, a song his father, La Cotorra, had written in the 1950s. Not only did the tune become a big hit, but it was also nominated for a Grammy Award.
“I recorded the CD at Gilbert Velásquez’s studio with Lonny and Vic Nash plus twenty musicians from San Antonio,” Gilbert stated.
After that, Gilbert, who will turn 65 this month, continued freelancing until 2015.
“I went back into the studio, but no one wanted to help me,” he continued. “Then, halfway through the recording, I got real sick. I went to the medical center and found out I was dying of liver cancer. Since then, I have gone through more than $80,000 of medications.
“It was really bad, but I kept on recording until I finish my most recent CD in 2016.”
A look at the list of over a dozen musicians who recorded on this production is like reading off a roster of San Antonio’s crème de la crème.
To top it off, Little Joe recorded “Nuestra Canción” with his carnalito. He also supported his little brother’s “Canta Conmigo” CD by releasing it on his Tejano Discos Internacional label (TDI Records 139).
Vic Nash Espinoza wrote “Nuestra Canción” and Dr. Pete A. Sánchez, who manufactures Little Joe’s salsa, penned four more original tunes. If you haven’t heard Gilbert make his tenor sax sing, just catch one of Wild Bill Perkins’ Calle Seis performances.
Furthermore, this month everyone sailing on Chicano Cruise II will see and hear Little Joe and Gilbert sing in duet in what will truly be a rare, memorable performance.
Unfortunately, this cruise is completely booked and you will have to wait for the next cruise, meanwhile keep checking at www.chicanocruise.com or call (702) 9540-0298.