Singer and guitarist José Feliciano (born 1945) is one of the best known Hispanic entertainers in the United States and a major star in the Spanish-speaking world. His trademark is his furious guitar work and ability to re-invent rock classics with a Latin spin, as demonstrated in one of his biggest hits, "Light My Fire."
José Feliciano was born on September 10, 1945, in Lares, Puerto Rico. His large family was barely supported by their father's work as a farmer. By 1950, Feliciano's parents had relocated to a Latino section of New York City's Harlem, where his father found work as a longshoreman. By this time, the young Feliciano was already beginning to develop his enormous talent for music. According to his press biography, "His love affair with music began at the age of three, when he first accompanied his uncle on a tin cracker can." By the age of six, Feliciano had taught himself to play the concertina simply by listening to records and practicing. Later in his career, Feliciano would master the bass, banjo, mandolin, and various keyboard instruments. These accomplishments were more remarkable because he was visually impaired since birth.
In his early teens, Feliciano discovered his instrument of choice: the acoustic guitar. Again, he taught himself to play simply by listening to records. The second of twelve children, Feliciano was blessed with a lucrative talent. By the age of 16, he was contributing to the family income by playing folk, flamenco, and pop guitar on the Greenwich Village coffeehouse circuit. At a time when his father was out of work, 17-year-old Feliciano quit school in order to perform full-time. He played his first professional show in 1963 at the Retort Coffee House in Detroit.
Back in New York, Feliciano was heard at Gerde's Folk City by an RCA Records executive, who quickly arranged a recording contract for the young singer. His first album, The Voice and Guitar of Jose Feliciano, and single, "Everybody Do the Click," were produced in English in 1964, but failed to make it onto the U.S. music charts. The album, however, was well received by disc jockeys; it was played regularly on their radio stations. In his first years with RCA, Feliciano's producers focused on his Puerto Rican background and marketed most of his albums to Latin American audiences; consequently, his name first became familiar to Spanish-speaking listeners. Indeed, as early as 1966, Feliciano played to an audience of 100,000 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
RCA began marketing Feliciano to the English-speaking audiences of England and the U.S. in 1968, when he released his version of the Doors' 1967 hit, "Light My Fire." His reworking of the now-classic tune peaked at number three on the U.S. pop music charts, selling over a million records and making the singer a celebrity overnight. Feliciano received two Grammy Awards for "Light My Fire," one for best new artist of 1968 and one for best contemporary pop vocal performance. Feliciano!, the 1968 album that featured "Light My Fire," was just as successful, earning the guitarist his first gold album.
Although that release was largely composed of songs written and previously recorded by other musicians, Feliciano was able to establish himself as an important artist by radically redefining the music that he recorded. Both the Latin influence in his style and his facility with the acoustic guitar greatly altered the quality of songs like "Light My Fire," that were originally recorded by rock bands using electric instruments. Of that song, Rock Movers and Shakers explained, "Its slowed-down, sparse acoustic-withwoodwind arrangement and soul-inflected vocal defines Feliciano's style." Feliciano! also garnered the unique honor, according to Thomas O'Neil, author of The Grammys, of becoming a favorite album among teenagers in the mood for romance.
Following the success of Feliciano!, its namesake went on tour in both the United States and England, displaying his talents as a guitarist and as a singer who could cover a variety of musical styles. At the time, he told Melody Maker's Alan Walsh, "I'm just a musician. … not a popmusician or a jazz musician; just a musician. I play guitar but I also regard my voice as an instrument. I don't really like to be placed into a compartment and type-cast because I'd like to work on all levels of music."
Despite all the accolades, Feliciano's 1968 success was sometimes coupled with conflict. During a series of well-attended dates in England, the blind performer ran afoul of British quarantine laws about pets: Feliciano's seeing-eye dog could not enter the country. It was a problem for the musician not only because he needed the dog for navigation, but also because she had become something of his trademark onstage. The helpful canine led the singer to the center of the stage at the beginning of each performance and returned to bow with him at the end. Feliciano did not return to England for several years.
Invited to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the fifth game of the 1968 World Series at Detroit's Tiger Stadium, Feliciano's disturbed many of his more conventional listeners with what the Detroit Free Press called his "tear-wrenching, soul-stirring and controversial" rendition. He was booed during the performance and received critical press for months to follow. The offending interpretation, according to the New York Times, was simply a matter of style: "His rendition was done in a slower beat, similar to a blend between soul and folk singing styles. He accompanied himself on the guitar." Though later artists would offer unique renditions of the anthem that were accepted as artistic variations, Feliciano had been the first to alter the song, which infuriated many. The Times quoted one listener as having responded, "I'm young enough to understand it, but I think it stunk. … It was non-patriotic." Another commented, "It was a disgrace, an insult. … I'm going to write to my senator about it."
Feliciano later recalled the incident with regret. "I did it with good intentions and I did it with soul and feeling," he told Michael Mehle in the Denver Rocky Mountain News in 1998. "When it happened, people wouldn't play me on the radio. They thought I was too controversial. After that, my life was not so good musically. … and I've been trying to dig my way back ever since." Feliciano continued to record and perform steadily since 1968, but never achieved the same level of popularity. The album Souled hit number 24 on the U.S. charts in 1969; also that year, Feliciano/10 to 23 reached number 16 and earned the singer a second gold album. A little later, however, Feliciano's voice entered just about every American household when he recorded the theme song for the enormously popular television show Chico and the Man, in 1974, and "Feliz Navidad (I Wanna Wish You a Merry Christmas)," which became a holiday staple.
Numerous moves to different record labels and varying marketing strategies failed to re-ignite Feliciano's popularity with English-speaking audiences. In the mid-1970s, after about ten years of producing Spanish and English albums for RCA, Feliciano was signed briefly to the Private Stock label. When that company similarly failed to revive the interest of English-language audiences, Feliciano signed with Motown Latino, in 1980. He remained with Motown for several years but eventually made another switch, this time to EMI/Capitol, which by the early 1990s had developed a formidable Latin imprint.
Despite his relatively low profile in the U.S., Feliciano has enjoyed consistent international sales-more than enough to allow him and his family a comfortable life. He has earned 40 gold and platinum albums internationally. His series of recordings marketed for Spanish-speaking audiences in the 1980s garnered considerable acclaim, including Grammy awards for best Latin pop performance, in 1983, 1986, 1989, and 1990. In 1991, at the first annual Latin Music Expo, Feliciano was presented with the event's first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1998, he released the album Senor Bolero and completed a European tour.
In 1982, Feliciano married Susan Omillion, who had started a fan club for the singer in Detroit when she was 14 years old. This was a second marriage for Feliciano. His first wife was Hilda Perez, the manager of one of the cafes where he had performed in the 1960s. In 1988, the first of his children, Melissa Anne, was born; Jonathan José followed in 1991. The family purchased a renovated eighteenth-century inn and settled in the New York suburb of Weston, Connecticut. In his honor, the high school that Feliciano had attended in Harlem was renamed the Jose Feliciano Performing Arts School.
The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, edited by Mike Clifford, Harmony Books, 1988.
O'Neil, Thomas, The Grammys: For the Record, Penguin, 1993.
Rock Movers and Shakers, edited by Dafydd Rees and Luke Crampton, ABC/CLIO, 1991.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/ Summit Books, 1983.
Billboard, September 7, 1991.
Detroit Free Press, May 28, 1993.
Down Beat, February 5, 1970.
Independent on Sunday, June 21, 1998, p. 7.
L.A. Clips press biography.
Los Angeles Times, July 18, 1998, p. F1.
Melody Maker, October 19, 1968; October 26, 1968.
Newsday, August 9, 1995, p. A8.
New York Times, October 8, 1968.
Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), December 13, 1998, p.3D. □