Light My Fire

In his nearly 50-year career, music legend José Feliciano has ignited controversy, crossover and more than his share of Cuban smokes.
| By Gaspar González | From Sylvester Stallone, July/August 2010
Light My Fire
Photo by Jeffery Salter

As a small boy in the mountain town of Lares in Puerto Rico, José Feliciano would sneak out of his parents' house and wander into the fields, in search of the coffee berries he sucked like candy because, he said, they tasted sweet. Though born blind, young José was hard to rein in. He still is.

"Hey, are you making tortillas over there?" he shouts good-naturedly to a worker nailing a rug in place in the lobby restaurant of the Miami Airport Marriott. Feliciano has a well-earned reputation as a cutup. His musical director, Jim Durkin, and executive assistant, Grisselle Velázquez, sitting nearby, smile in a way that seems to say, That's just José.

When the waitress brings Feliciano his breakfast, two hard-boiled eggs with bacon, Velázquez takes over, removing the eggs from their shell, then mashing them into a bowl before mixing in the bacon. The preparation makes it easier for Feliciano to feed himself, because he doesn't have to hunt around for his food. Waiting for Velázquez to finish, Feliciano's attention drifts to the overhead speakers pumping electronic downbeats into the room; "iPod music," he calls it. It is not a compliment. Assured by Velázquez that the yolks are just the way he likes them-not quite cooked through-he digs in. Off to the side, a couple of guests, recognizing the short, slight figure with gray shoulder-length hair, stop to watch Feliciano eat. It'll happen a half-dozen more times before we're finished with breakfast.

It's hard to believe, but the Puerto Rican kid in the cool black shades who came out of the New York City folk scene to become an international recording star is now 64. Age, though, hasn't slowed him down. Feliciano is in Miami for a concert that will cap the annual Calle Ocho celebration, the Latin street party that draws hundreds of thousands of revelers to Little Havana. It's the last stop on his current concert tour. After this, he says, he'll start work on another album; Spanish or English, it doesn't matter. Mostly, he's just trying to enjoy himself and the latest chapter in his improbable journey.

"It started out as a hobby," Feliciano says of his musical interest, in between bites. "When I was three, my uncle played the cuatro [a small, four-stringed guitar] and I accompanied him on a tin can." Feliciano soon graduated to the harmonica and the accordion. By the time the family arrived in Spanish Harlem in 1950-one of thousands of Puerto Rican families who came to New York following World War II-five-year-old José was a blossoming musical prodigy, a development not lost on his parents. "My mother put me in a contest that was sponsored by Café Bustelo," he says, the accent of the New York barrio still evident. Feliciano played the accordion on a local radio broadcast and "won the votes of the people, so I got to play at the Puerto Rican Theater in the Bronx." He was only nine.

Around that same time, he took up the instrument that would become his trademark-the guitar. At first, he played along to the music on his radio, a mixture of Latin, blues, and early rock and roll. "In those days, radio was interesting," he says. "We listened to Frankie Lymon, Dion and the Belmonts, Ricky Nelson, Elvis." He also listened to Spanish classical guitar great Andrés Segovia.

Feliciano soaked it all in, teaching himself how to play almost every kind of music he heard coming out of the receiver. Slowly, a realization began to dawn on him. "I thought if I could play whatever was on the radio," he says, "the fate of other blind people wouldn't befall me. I didn't want to make baskets, I didn't want a newspaper stand, and I didn't want to be a blind beggar on the streets. Nothing against other blind people, but I didn't want that for me." It's one of the few times Feliciano, in talking about himself and his career, becomes deadly serious and the listener understands: It took a lot more than talent for him to make it. It took guts, too.

He quit school at 17, determined to become a professional musician. He naturally gravitated to Greenwich Village, then the hub of the folk scene. It was a time of reinvention. Robert Zimmerman had recently traveled to the Village from his native Minnesota, in search of the spirit of Woody Guthrie and a new life as Bob Dylan. Feliciano's route to the Village was shorter, only a subway ride, but his reinvention no less dramatic. In addition to playing the guitar, he had started singing. "My influences were people like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, The Drifters," he says. "I wanted to sing like the African-American singers. You could feel their pain. My pain was poverty."

Armed with his guitar and a soul-inflected if somewhat nasally voice-"until I had a tonsillectomy at 21, and then my voice improved 100 percent"-Feliciano played coffeehouses in the Village, before embarking on a tour of the national folk-club circuit. From the beginning, his act was different. "I played folk music, things like [the Dylan composition] ‘Don't Think Twice, It's All Right,' " he remembers, "but I also played Spanish music and instrumentals, which a lot of folk people didn't do, because they only played three chords."

He eventually landed back in New York, at Gerde's Folk City, the famed West Fourth Street venue that had helped launch Dylan's career only a few years before. Though Feliciano couldn't have known it at the time, the stint at Gerde's would do the same for him. The blind youngster with the virtuoso guitar skills instantly drew a crowd. One night, RCA Records exec Jack Somer, who had come to Gerde's to check out another act, heard Feliciano, and offered him a contract.

In 1964, Feliciano released his debut album on the label, The Voice and Guitar of José Feliciano. Featuring songs like the Ray Charles classic "I Got a Woman" and "Flight of the Bumblebee," the record showed off Feliciano's range as a musician, but didn't garner much popular attention. Two more albums followed, with similarly lackluster results. Then, in 1966, Feliciano made a trip to Argentina for a music festival. RCA executives there suggested he record in Spanish. Feliciano agreed and cut an album of romantic boleros, like the ones he had heard as a kid floating out of open doors on 103rd Street. Released in Latin America, the album caused a sensation. "It was like the windows burst open," says Feliciano. "I was like Elvis in those countries. I couldn't leave my hotel room."

Returning to the United States, the singer was determined to repeat the success of his Spanish-language album in English. At RCA, he was introduced to producer Rick Jarrard, who had previously worked with Jefferson Airplane. It was a memorable meeting. "I heard something drop on the floor," Jarrard will tell me a few days later, detailing that first encounter. "So I bent down to pick it up. My hand got within a few inches of it and I realized it was [a fake] eye looking at me. Then I heard José say, ‘Have you seen my eye anywhere?' " The producer had fallen victim to one of Feliciano's practical jokes. More than 40 years later, Jarrard, speaking by phone from his home in Nashville, can barely finish the story without bursting out laughing.

The duo immediately got to work on an album of cover versions of contemporary songs, including The Doors' "Light My Fire." Feliciano had performed the song in concert, but he didn't think it made sense to release it on record since it had been a number-one hit less than a year earlier. Jarrard persisted. "We went in there with that very spare instrumentation and it just turned out incredible," says the producer.

The record company was not as enthusiastic about the song, or the album. "RCA hated it," remembers Jarrard. "They said, ‘We wanted a rock album.' They wanted to erase it." The company ultimately relented and released the album with little fanfare. Much to the surprise of the suits at RCA, Feliciano's soulful, flamenco-tinged cover of "Light My Fire" made it all the way into the top ten on the pop charts in 1968. The song and album also netted him two Grammy Awards, for Best Contemporary Pop Vocal Performance by a Male and Best New Artist.

At 23, Feliciano was a recording star in two languages, traveling the world and enjoying the perks that come with success. One of them was cigars. "They were a sign of affluence to me," he says. "I think I started with Macanudos." Those quickly gave way to premium Cuban brands like Ramón Allones, La Flor de Cano, Cohiba and Montecristo.

"[Beginning] in the late '60s, I would buy Cuban cigars in England and other places I traveled," notes the singer. "Even today, the majority of my cigars are Cuban cigars. I get them from travel, from friends." Asked if he ever runs into trouble with U.S. Customs inspectors, Feliciano smiles. "The secret is to bring back one box [at a time]," he says, adding mischievously: "I always had a theory that if they asked me to give them up, I would crunch them up and say, ‘OK, you can have them!' " (Thankfully, it's never come to that.)

Feliciano may not have gotten into hot water for bringing Cuban cigars into the country, but in 1968, he nevertheless managed to offend some patriotic types in the U.S. He did it in a rather unexpected way. The singer, a huge baseball fan, accepted an invitation to perform "The Star-Spangled Banner" before Game 5 of that year's World Series, a contest between the Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals. That day, accompanied by his Seeing Eye dog Trudy, Feliciano walked out to left field in Tiger Stadium, propped his foot on a chair and began strumming his guitar and singing, his delivery soulful and heartfelt: "Oh, say, can you see..."

When he was finished, there was applause, but also murmurings in the stands. "I felt very good about the performance," recalls Feliciano, "until [NBC field announcer] Tony Kubek, during the game, told me, ‘Do you know what you've just done? Veterans are throwing shoes at their television sets. The phones are lighting up. People are saying you should be deported.' " The comment still rankles him. "How do you deport an American?" he asks.

Looking back on it, Feliciano understands that "1968 was a turbulent year. People thought I was messing around with the anthem. I wasn't. I tried to give it some soul, some life." Still, he blames the controversy for hurting his career. After that, he says, some radio stations refused to play his music. (Despite the boycott, a recording of Feliciano's rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" went on to make the charts, encouraging other artists to offer their own nontraditional interpretations of the anthem. "Now," he says, "everybody does it any way they want.")

If the controversy put a damper on Feliciano's airplay, it certainly didn't keep him from becoming one of the first-and biggest-crossover Latin stars in show business. Today, myriad YouTube clips testify to just how ubiquitous a presence on the cultural scene he was by the 1970s. Look and you'll find him accompanying Andy Williams on "Autumn Leaves," dueting with Johnny Cash on the country legend's TV show, even jamming with Carl Perkins and Merle Travis on a version of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." There was also the theme-lodged to this day in the memory banks of 40-something Gen Xers-to the hit television show "Chico and the Man," a song Feliciano not only sang, but wrote (and which he still uses to open his concerts). And, of course, there's "Feliz Navidad," the bilingual Christmas standard that has become as much a part of the season as eggnog and mistletoe. Talk about crossing over.

"José definitely took Latin music worldwide," says record producer Emilio Estefan, architect of his wife Gloria's own remarkable crossover career. "His music was a mixture of Latin music and American music, and he brought a feeling to it, brought his quality as a person, as a musician. He opened a lot of doors for a lot of people."

Feliciano, however, never really considered himself a Latin pioneer. "To me," he says, "it was about getting on TV or [making a record]. It wasn't until later that I began to see myself as a spokesman." It's a role he has since taken seriously and expanded well beyond music. In the early 2000s, he participated in protests against the U.S. Navy's use of Vieques-an island municipality of Puerto Rico with a population of around 10,000-as a bombing range and training ground. "He was raised in New York, but he has his roots in Puerto Rico," offers Velázquez, who, in addition to being Feliciano's executive assistant, is a second cousin. "He went there because people were suffering." The campaign proved successful. The Navy pulled out of Vieques in 2003.

Two years later, after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Feliciano used his influence to convince officials to extend aid to those victims of the storm whose immigration status was unclear-without seeking retribution. And just last December, he took a vocal stand against the hijacking of "Feliz Navidad" by a right-wing group who released a parody of the song titled "Illegal Aliens in My Yard." Feliciano says he found the lyrics, which included references to undocumented immigrants spreading bubonic plague and tuberculosis, "very offensive [because] America is a land of immigrants." The group responsible for the parody apologized and removed it from its Web site a few days before Christmas.

Feliciano doesn't let negative experiences like that-or, really, much of anything-get to him. "He loves having fun, and he's very cool," says Durkin, his technical director since the early '90s. "If something goes wrong on the road, he just puts it aside. Everybody in the band has been with him at least 20 years. That says a lot."

So does Feliciano's list of accomplishments. He has released more than 50 albums in English and Spanish. He has won a total of eight Grammys, the most recent in 2008 for Señor Bachata, a collection of songs done in the popular Dominican style. And he's got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Along the way, he's also managed to make time for a family. He and his wife Susan have three children: Melissa, 21; Jonathan, 18; and Michael, 14.

With his schedule these days, Feliciano doesn't see as much of his family or his Connecticut home as he'd like, but he compensates by taking a little bit of home on the road with him, including his favorite cigars. He likes "to smoke them with a little snifter of Cognac," and says the allure of cigars for him remains constant: "What I like about cigars is that you don't have to smoke one every 20 minutes. Cigars are made to be smoked after dinner or on a nice sunny day. That's a good time to smoke a cigar." Then, getting up from the table, he heads to the pool area to do just that.

Gaspar González is a Miami-based wirter and filmmaker.

"Small correction, the cuatro (I'm assuming it is a Puerto Rican cuatro) is a small TEN string guitar." —July 3, 2011 05:58 AM
"This is a great article. I have a website devoted to tonsillectomy patients. www.mybigfattonsillectomy.com I get questions all the time about the effect of tonsillectomy on voice quality." —September 30, 2010 22:46 PM

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