Feliciano, José (Contemporary Musicians)
Although many music lovers know his name, most could probably name only one or two of the innumerable songs recorded by guitarist José Feliciano. The staying-power of his biggest hits on American music charts and the fact that he has been blind since birth have together made Feliciano's name a house-hold word in the English-speaking United States and Britain; in the Spanish-speaking world, however, he is a major star.
Feliciano was born on September 10, 1945, into a Puerto Rican family barely supported by his father's work as a farmer. By 1950, Feliciano's parents had relocated the growing family to a Latino section of New York City's Harlem, where his father found work as a longshoreman. By this time, young José was already beginning to develop an enormous aptitude with musical instruments. 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 keyboards.
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 12 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 showor which he was paid by the club instead of from a hat passed through the audiencet the Retort Coffee House in Detroit in 1963. Back in New York that year, he was "discovered" at Gerde's Folk City.
Big in Argentina
The RCA Records executive who spotted Feliciano quickly arranged a recording contract. The singer's first album and single, both of which were produced in English in 1964, failed to make it onto the U.S. music charts; but the album The Voice and Guitar of José Feliciano did catch on with disc jockeys, who played it 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 North American and South American listeners. Indeed, as early as 1966, before any of his recordings had appeared on U.S. charts, 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, reaching Number Two and 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 established 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 that, like "Light My Fire," were originally recorded by rock bands using electric instruments. Of that song, Rock Movers & Shakers explained, "Its slowed-down, sparse acoustic-with-woodwind 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 "make out" album among teenagers.
"Just a Musician"
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 pop musician 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 signer to his stool in the center of the stage at the beginning of each performance and returned to the stage 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 later 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." The Times nonetheless quoted one listener as having responded, "I'm young enough to understand it, but I think it stunk.... It was nonpatriotic." Another commented, "It was a disgrace, an insult.... I'm going to write to my Senator about it."
Later Success Limited to Spanish Market
Although Feliciano has continued to record and perform steadily since 1968, he never achieved the same popularity with a single or album that he did that year. 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. In the 1970s, 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 has become a Christmas staple. These moments aside, however, the guitarist has not repeated the chart success that launched his career.
Numerous moves to different record labels and varying marketing strategies have failed to reignite 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 had consistent international salesore 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 the late 1980s, Feliciano began a family with Susan Omillion, whom he had met in 1971 and married in 1982; he had previously been married, in the 1960s, to Hilda Perez, the manager of one of the cafés where he had performed early in his career. In 1988, Melissa Anne Feliciano was born and in 1991, Jonathan José. Also in the 1990s, Feliciano's old Harlem high school, Public School 155, was renamed the José Feliciano Performing Arts School.
The Voice and Guitar of José Feliciano, RCA, 1964.
Feliciano! (includes "Light My Fire"), RCA, 1968.
Feliciano/10 to 23, RCA, 1969.
Souled, RCA, 1969.
Fireworks, RCA, 1970.
José Feliciano (includes "Feliz Navidad"), RCA, 1971.
And the Feeling's Good (includes "Chico and the Man"), RCA, 1974.
Sweet Soul Music, Private Stock, 1976.
José Feliciano, Motown, 1981.
Escenas de Amor, Motown Latino, 1983.
Me Enamore, Profono, 1983.
Te Amaré, RCA International. 1986.
Nina, Capitol/EMI Latin, 1990.
Latin Street '92, Capitol/EMI Latin 1992.
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 & Shakers, edited by Dafydd Rees and Luke Crampton, ABC/CLIO, 1991.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Páreles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Billboard, September 7, 1991.
Detroit Free Press, May 28, 1993.
Down Beat, February 5, 1970.
Melody Maker, October 19, 1968; October 26, 1968.
New York Times, October 8, 1968.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an L.A. Clip Productions press biography, 1992.
Ondine E. Le Blanc