Renowned bassist Julio Hernandez’s childhood was anything but humdrum, but Hernandez didn’t know it at the time. Whether he was jumping on crooner Paul Anka’s bed for a morning wakeup call or innocently attempting to snap a picture of camera shy, Lady Sings the Blues-era Diana Ross, brushes with fame were all in a day’s play for young Julio. For the Cuban-born kid touring Europe with his bass player father, Orlando “Papito” Hernandez, that was just quality time with family and friends.
But childhood wasn’t all jet setting for Julio, now in his 50s. By age 13, his family settled in LA for Papito’s gig as part of Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass. Another year, the family stayed behind while Papito was on tour with Anka, and pop peers Andy Williams, and Steve and Eydie, amounting to a total of four months of family time. “That was just what dad did,” Hernandez says, looking back. His father’s crazy schedule, while not conducive to full-time, hands-on parenting, helped prepare Julio for a future as a professional musician.
These days, Hernandez, Barry Gibbs’ bassist since 2005, is one of the music industry’s go-to players, known for his professionalism, Zen attitude and infectious smile as much as his chops. With more than 600 albums in both American and Latin music markets and dozens of tours under his guitar strap during the last four decades, Julio’s Nordstrand loyalty is more than flattering — it’s an honor.
Growing up with not only a father who was a musical prodigy, but an entire pedigree of melodic double helixes thanks to aunts and uncles, grandparents, siblings and more, it was no surprise that Hernandez would follow in his father’s footsteps. But it was not by design. No one encouraged Julio to join in on the familia’s jam sessions. Nobody ever put a bass guitar in his hands. Hernandez was left to his own devices.
Desperate, Julio resorted to breaking the cardinal rule of big-brother, little-brother relations by sneaking and playing his elder sibling Orlando’s prized drum set, unleashing his pent up adolescent angst on the borrowed cymbals and snares. Orlando, however, was not up for sharing, and dashed Julio’s drumming dreams the moment he found out his little brother was playing his sticks.
Around 16, Hernandez discovered legendary bass player Stanley Clarke, whose solo albums are some of the most influential in jazz fusion history. Risking everything, Julio absconded with his father’s 1970 Fender P-Bass, teaching himself to play behind closed doors at the family’s Miami home where they had relocated again for Pepito’s career. “I just started playing, and it was like breathing,” Hernandez said. “I had to do it. It was love at first sight.”
Barely a year later, the family moved again, this time to Las Vegas. Papito signed on at Caesar’s, the Hilton and the Dunes as part of the casinos’ house bands that backed touring musicians. When Papito left for another brief tour with Steve and Eydie in 1978, Hernandez, by then studying music at UNLV, got his big shot. Papito did not want to abandon his steady gig at the Dunes, so he took a chance on Julio as his sub. “He pushed me into it,” Hernandez recalls, tickled by the stress surrounding his first paying gig. “Let me put it this way. I know what fear is.”
Not long after, Julio’s parents moved back to Miami permanently. Hernandez and Orlando stayed and became fixtures on the Vegas scene. While playing with his father’s peers, Julio got a lot of let’s-see-if-you’re-as-good-as-your-old-man sideways stares. The Strip turned into its own sort of university as Julio threw himself into studying the many percussionists and horn players who played in town with the days’ stars like Wayne Newton.
Despite his father’s looming presence in his life, Hernandez never aspired to become his father’s clone. Instead, Julio focused on developing his own style from the start, drawing from favorite players like Clarke, Neal Stubenhaus and Nathan East. “But then I did it my way,” Hernandez says. “I put my own spin on it.”
However, Julio did take some key advice from his father: Learn to play everything, every style of music possible, particularly within the Latin-American genre. Papito’s work ethic was relentless, and part of his success was due to his versatility, just like Julio. That sort of musical cache comes in handy with mainstream pop music, too, because of the array of sounds pulled from when it’s time to get creative.
And while Hernandez did not seek to copy his father, Julio is not insane. Of course he hit up his old man for lessons when he was starting out. “He knew so much more than I did, so I just listened,” Hernandez says with reverence. Yet, his most important lesson from his father had nothing to do with their shared talent.
“Never be late, never let anything be on you,” Papito told his son. “If anything bad happens, make sure it’s not because of you. If there are any problems, they’re not from you. Have a great sound and a great attitude. Be professional and deliver.”
Julio also learned to always follow the boss. That comes in handy when your boss is the man who shares the record with John Lennon and Paul McCartney for most consecutive Billboard No. 1 hits. (He’s also the second most successful songwriter in history behind Macca.)
Puerto Rican virtuoso guitarist and singer Jose Feliciano picked up on Hernandez’s unique skill set beyond his musicality. “Julio!” Feliciano once greeted him exuberantly at the studio during a recording session. “The only bass player I know who plays with the singer.” Hernandez plays to the lead, always, whether it’s the singer, the sax player or the drummer. “It’s like a conversation,” Julio says.
But he’s not perfect. And those conversations with performers sometimes leave Julio speechless, because in his heart he’s a fan. Hernandez’s bosses’ talents occasionally get the best of him, which thankfully flatters. While recording the Beatles song “And I Love Her” with Natalie Cole, Julio strained to keep his composure because of the legendary singer’s unforgettable, romantic voice.
Balladeer Armando Manzanero, the man for whom Mexican abuelitos swooned as far back as the ’50s, once stopped during a live session to make sure Hernandez was okay. “Just the lyrics alone, I got lost in them,” Julio says laughing at himself.
Another time, Hernandez sat in for the live tracking of Barbara Streisand’s Guilty Pleasures album. Streisand threw Julio when she decided to add Barry Gibb’s “Don’t Throw It All Away On Love,” made famous by his brother, Andy Gibb.
“All of a sudden Barbara Streisand starts singing that song I grew up with,” Hernandez recalls. “I look up and there’s Barry Gibb, and all of a sudden Barbara Streisand started singing to me.” Julio stopped playing, instantly immobilized, caught up in Babs’ magic. Barry gave him an empathetic look. “That happens to all of us,” Barry said jovially, because, well, he’s Barry Gibb, and he’s jovial. Even though Julio tours regularly with Barry, he never forgets that powerful “Staying Alive” falsetto can be unleashed at any moment, too.
While Julio is immersed in the pop and adult contemporary scenes, he traverses the international musical divide, as well, weaving back and forth between the music worlds of the two Americas, just like his father did.
One of Hernandez’s earliest breaks came in South America when he was 22, November 1984, his first tour not operating out of a van or playing Top 40 covers. Julio was performing in front of 100,000 people with José Luis Rodriguez “el Puma.” More than 20 years and many South-of-the-Border gigs later, his career came full circle when he served as musical director for Puerto Rican pop singer Chayanne’s world tour from 2006 to ’08. (He hired his brother Orlando for the gig, so that debt is paid.)
Over the years, Hernandez logged countless studio hours, as well, with everyone from Lady Gaga, Lauryn Hill and Shakira to Plácido Domingo, Ricky Martin, Yo Yo Ma and Chris Cornell. While the recording process can be extremely challenging, Julio likes that it pushes him to perfection.
“In the studio, you listen to it back on the headphones,” Hernandez says. “There’s no feedback. It’s just you. It’s extremely honest. If you are off by the tiniest thing… [he cringes], you hear it, plain and simple. I like playing new songs, as well, making parts up, just creating. It’s the whole creative process.” But live or in studio, Julio’s trusty NJ5 bass is always at the ready.
Julio Hernandez’s relationship with Nordstrand Guitars goes back to the beginning. While searching for a new bass around 2005, Hernandez stumbled upon the company’s website. Julio tried out a couple of Nordstrand basses and found his beloved set neck NJ5, one of only two Carey Nordstrand ever made. It didn’t phase him a bit that Carey was a virtually unknown bass maker working out of his home’s garage at the time.
“The great thing about his basses is that I can get any sound out of that one instrument,” Julio says about his NJ5 he’s played on albums by Streisand, Cole, Christina Aguilera, Michael Bolton, Julio Iglesias and many more. This comes in handy in the studio, when Hernandez often doesn’t know the full breadth of music styles he will be called upon to deliver. Of the many high-end basses Julio has owned over the years, his Nordstrand offers him the most versatility, he says, yet with its own signature sound.
“Julio was the first top level player that ended up with one of my basses,” Carey says, looking back. “I was a bit overwhelmed by it all at the time. It meant a lot to me that someone at that level found my work so compelling that the bass became his main working instrument. It was very legitimizing for me. I still get a big kick when I see him posting pics on Facebook where he’s in a studio or on a stage with that bass. As an instrument maker, that is the highest honor—building the bass that becomes The One. I couldn’t be happier about all that.”
Julio is pretty pleased, too.