Jose Feliciano

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Jose Feliciano Pencil Portrait
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It kicks in a 3.22 during the last recording on side two of Jose Feliciano’s album ’10 to 23.’ A cover of Lennon-McCartney’s “Hey Jude,” it’s a three minute gut string guitar solo that bears all the virtuoso hallmarks of the blind Puerto Rican’s musicianship.

It seems barely possible that a human being could generate such a diverse range of licks, flicks, angular scale work, superfast triplets and contrapuntal chord soloing. Forget the overrated heavy metal merchants whose reputations endure on the back of huge Marshall stack amps and heavy distortion, Feliciano simply plays here with a miked flamenco guitar, accompanied by sweeping strings and horns. At no point throughout the extended solo does he repeat a single motif.

A genius, so stop telling people you play the guitar and switch to the old chestnut “I’m learning the guitar.” Just like me – and I’ve learned a lot after nearly fifty years of playing – we’re all still schmucks on the instrument. One listen to Feliciano, and you’ll understand why.

Jose Feliciano was a major star in Latin America by 1966, but became an international star in 1968 when he climbed to No 3 on the US charts with the Latin soul rendition of The Doors’ classic Light My Fire, and followed that up in 1970 with the perennial favourite Feliz Navidad (I Wanna Wish You a Merry Christmas), and the theme to the 1974 TV series Chico and The Man.

Born blind in 1945, in the small Puerto Rican town of Lares, one of 11 brothers, Feliciano says: “I could take anything and make music out of it when I was a kid.”

The first music he remembers is the intensely romantic boleros that his mother listened to on the radio. He was playing the concertina at 6, and by the time he was 9 he was spending up to 14 hours a day at the guitar, mastering the fast, intricate and forceful picking technique that is his signature.

The family moved to New York in 1950 and, by the end of the decade, Feliciano, like his peers, had fallen under the spell of rock’n‘roll.

“A lot of Puerto Ricans wanted to be American, so we listened to rock’n‘roll,” he remembers. “I loved it. I used to do all of Ray Charles’ piano licks on the guitar. I didn’t have a choice,” he adds, grinning. “We couldn’t afford a piano.”

But that wasn’t all he was listening to. Classical guitar, jazz, American standards and the Spanish songs of his childhood were all part of a unique musical palette.

His first solo gigs were at Gerdes Folk City in Greenwich Village when he was 17. Gerdes was the home of the American folk movement. “I played rock’n‘roll and Spanish songs, which were then considered folk. I did Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, and met Dylan when he came to see me play. And Joan Baez. The whole of folk was there.”

It was at Gerdes that he got his major break, when an RCA rep came to see a group, but signed Feliciano instead. His 1965 debut, The Voice and Guitar of Jose Feliciano, established him as a powerful, wholly original interpreter of songs.

“I first sang boleros on record in 1966,” he says. “I was in Argentina for a music festival. RCA had invited me, and they didn’t know what to do with me. I didn’t fit the profile they wanted. So I said, let me record these Spanish songs. They did, and man, within a week of putting it out, it was Jose mania. I couldn’t leave my room for screaming girls!”

He still can’t believe it. “I was surprised and embarrassed. This happened to Sinatra and Elvis and The Beatles. Not to Jose.”

Feliciano was then marketed to English-speaking audiences with the release of Light My Fire. His version sold more than a million copies, and earned two Grammy Awards, for best new artist of 1968 and for best contemporary pop vocal performance.

Feliciano!, the album which featured Light My Fire, reached No 2 in the US and became his first gold album.

That was his peak, though, and despite changing record labels over the decades he has not been able to reconnect with English-speaking audiences.

Feliciano, who has been in music 50 years, has produced more than 60 albums and won six Grammys. He has amassed 40 gold and platinum albums internationally. His Spanish-language recordings of the 1980s received critical acclaim and were awarded Grammys for best Latin pop performance, in 1983, 1986, 1989 and 1990.

Recommended listening

10 to 23 (1969)

Coming off the awesome and well-deserved success of “Light My Fire” Jose Feliciano was given more free reign and a larger budget to work with at R.C.A. Records, and he uses it to his full advantage on this album.

The album opens up with an archival recording of a very young (10 years old) Feliciano performing a Mariachi number. It’s a scratchy, funky and utterly charming precursor to an album featuring some of the finer pop songs of the day, and show Feliciano to be one of the great interpreters of his time. The all instrumental “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” is mesmerisingly beautiful and ornate, and the theme from “A Thomas Crown Affair,” “The Windmills Of Your Mind” is equally impressive. There is also a great blues, “Little Red Rooster,” which is read in the unequaled Feliciano style.

Throw in another superb instrumental version of “Lady Madonna,” and that awesome closer “Hey Jude,” and you have an album for all generations.

One to play time and time again.


Jose Feliciano - The Official Website