On Saturday nights in the early 1970s, the old City Coliseum, which courted some of the best Tejano bands in Texas, was the place to be for young Latinos in Austin.
Young women spent afternoons getting their hair done before slipping into stylish mini dresses and heels while men laced up their Stacey Adams shoes — all in preparation for the big Tejano dances.
It was at one of those dances where Tommy De Leon, who had recently returned from Vietnam and was stationed at Fort Hood, met his future wife, Elida.
“His friend introduced me to him because his friend liked my sister,” Elida, now 63, says with a chuckle. “That way we could double date.”
The two 20-somethings had been dating for about six months before the couple learned that popular Tejano band Little Joe y La Familia, a pioneer in the Tex-Mex sound that still performs today, was coming to the City Coliseum on April 1, 1972.
Little did the young couple know that by attending the much-buzzed-about event, they would soon become a part of Austin’s Tejano music history.
At the show, about 80 women were asked to pose for what ended up as the cover photo of the now classic best-selling album “Las Viejas de Little Joe and the Latinaires” by La Familia, which is credited as being the first Chicano double album in the U.S. Now a collector’s item, the album is archived at the University of Texas at Austin’s Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection and is also on display at the Austin History Center in an exhibit about local Latinas in music.
Ready for their close-up
If Little Joe y La Familia was kicking off a tour, Tommy had to be there. His uncle had turned him on to Little Joe’s music and, when he returned from Vietnam in 1969, the two went out to celebrate at a Little Joe performance in Harker Heights near Killeen. Tommy remembers the beer flowing and Little Joe Hernandez dedicating several songs in his honor.
The April 1 dance kicked off as usual — some couples gathered near the coliseum’s gym-like bleachers, others mingled at the long rows of tables set up on the part-concrete, part-hardwood basketball court flooring. Singles tended to congregate near the entrance. “We would just go and pick the girl we wanted to dance with and that’s how we communicated with each other,” Tommy, now 66, says. “The best dancer would always get to pick whoever they wanted.”
At about 10:30 p.m., during the band’s intermission, the De Leons recall an announcement made for all the ladies to head to the bleachers for a photo that would be featured in Little Joe’s upcoming album. (A month before the show, the publication Musica reported, “Little Joe is out recruiting. No, not men for the Army but girls for his new LP. He is seeking a total of 75 girls for the cover of his upcoming LP.” But not everyone who attended the dance knew about that announcement.)
“I went, ‘OK, let’s go!’” Elida says. “It was fun, and my friends were excited, so we went up there together. My sister also was right next to me.”
Tommy remembers everyone running toward the bleachers. Elida and her friend Minnie both snagged spots on the front row, wearing little black v-neck dresses. Also featured on the front row was then-teenager Sylvia Donley, daughter of Tejano music icon Manuel “Cowboy” Donley and a musician herself. At that time, she was a member of one of the first local all-girl Latina bands, the Liberated.
She said she didn’t realize the photo shoot was going to happen that night and didn’t know what the photo was for until afterward.
“I remember some guy saying, ‘Everyone get up, come over here.’ I didn’t want to get up, but he said, ‘It’ll be real quick.’” Donley remembers being so shy that she went straight to the back of the crowd, but, before the photo was shot, she was pulled to the front.
“I guess they threw me out there because I was young and had legs,” she says with a laugh. Donley wore a short romper and jokes that if she had known the photo would end up on a classic album cover she would have dressed more appropriately. Donley’s mother is also on the front row next to her. “Actually I think if I would have known it was for an album cover, I would have gone to the bathroom and stayed until it was over,” she says. “I was very ranchera (bashful). If you looked at me, I would shrink.”
Tommy remembers a lot of the guys at the dance grew jealous because the only men among the group of ladies were Hernandez and his bandmates.
“They said, ‘What’s Joe doing over there with my girl?’ I told them, ‘Don’t you want your girlfriend to be on the cover of Little Joe’s album?’” he said. “If I had the chance, I would have been glad to go and mingle in the photo with the girls.”
All in ‘La Familia’
During the 1960s and 1970s, Hernandez spent time playing in the Bay Area, where he discovered “Latinismo,” a term for a burgeoning Latin music scene that was emerging in the San Francisco area with musicians such as Santana.
“It gave me so much pride that my culture, my language, my music, being Chicano or Latino, was so popular that everyone wanted to speak Spanish,” Hernandez says. “Everyone wanted to play Latin music, whether it was Latin country or Latin rock.” That’s when he decided his band name, “the Latinaires,” was outdated and changed it to “La Familia,” which is reflected on the album cover.
With the Chicano, Civil Rights and César Chávez movements inspiring Hernandez at the time, he wanted the band name to reflect his heritage and roots. “I just needed a change, and La Familia sounded good because I consider musicians to be a big family,” he says. “While changing names, I thought of recording 20 songs recorded early by the Latinaires. And I wanted to do something special.”
Hernandez played with some double meaning in his album title, since “viejas” is also slang for “women” and the album title could also be interpreted as “Little Joe’s women.”
“The idea was to record las ‘viejas’ de Little Joe — our old songs — but I needed some ‘viejas’ for the picture,” Hernandez says with a laugh. “The women there represent the viejas canciones (songs) de Little Joe.”
“I was a little embarrassed by the title,” Donley says. “I wasn’t a vieja. I was a muchachita (young girl).”
But Elida wasn’t bothered by the title. “I didn’t think anything of it,” she says.
“And I still don’t think anything of it. To me, it’s just like saying his girls. It didn’t bother me at all. I just saw my picture on there, and that was the good part,” she says.
Hernandez says the title was simply a light-hearted play on words. “Hey, if we can’t have fun with what little time we have in this world. … You know, if we have good health and fun, what else do we need?”
Recipe for success
At the time, Hernandez recorded under the independent label Buena Suerte Records, which he says gave him the freedom to be more creative with his album covers.
“I used to get really passionate about the album covers and make them part of the story line or theme of the music,” he says. The cover photo for another album, “Adios Mariquita Linda,” received national recognition for its originality. It featured Hernandez, dressed in an all-white outfit, about to be executed by Mexican soldiers, some on horseback by railroad tracks.
“(Las Viejas’ photo) was good marketing, and being independent I was pretty much free to do whatever I thought was fun and had promotional value,” Hernandez says. “That particular album was very popular.”
The album cover resurfaced when Gloria Espitia, Mexican-American archivist for the Austin History Center, was researching information for a 2011 exhibit called “Voces de Latinas.”
“What caught my eye was all the women,” Espitia says. In her research, she had found that women at the time made up the majority of music purchasers.
A greatest hits record with unique double-album format, coupled with a cover photo of high promotional value, was a recipe for success. Especially, Espitia notes, if every woman in the photo and their family and friends purchased the album.
“It was an idea that hadn’t been done before, and maybe the album received a little boost from the cover,” Donley says. “I mean, a lot of eye candy didn’t hurt.”
At the time it was rare to see so many women on an album cover, Espitia says. “It was also unusual to show woman power on the record jacket.” Many of the women pictured have their fists in the air.
Capturing a moment in time
When the album was released later that year, Donley remembers her father being surprised to see his then-wife and daughter both featured prominently on the album cover.
“I was low-key and didn’t tell anyone I was on the cover,” she says. “I guess my mom didn’t tell Dad, either.”
Elida and all her sisters purchased the album and basked in their mini celebrity status.
“To see your picture in Joe’s album, and to be a part of his collection, felt a little like being famous, too.”
Tommy, who has a vast record collection including between 50 to 60 Little Joe albums, likes to take the cover to family reunions and show it to his grandchildren.
“My wife tells me, ‘Don’t take that album cover. They’ve seen it too many times,’” Tommy says. “I would like it if people saw photos of me when I was young.”
Capturing that moment in time at the City Coliseum, which is no longer standing, also brings a special historical value to the photograph. It brings back fond memories for not only those on the album cover but all who danced at the Saturday night celebrations, which brought a community together with bands such as Manuel “Cowboy” Donley, Ruben Ramos and Sunny and the Sunglows (later the Sunliners).
When the lights went up around midnight and the dances came to an end, friends headed to Hill’s Cafe on South Congress, one of the only eateries that was open after midnight. They’d wait in lines that snaked out the door, still wearing their best outfits, and order a chicken fried steak and buttermilk biscuits after a long night of dancing. They’d meet there again when the next big act came to town.
As the Austin area rapidly changes, the American-Statesman is providing in-depth coverage of the culture and life of a fast-growing Hispanic population. Get more community coverage in our free weekly Spanish language newspaper, ¡Ahora Sí!, and online at ahorasi.com.
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