Revibe: José Feliciano 1996

José Feliciano

José Feliciano has been acclaimed by critics throughout the world as the greatest living guitarist. Guitar Player Magazine awarded him ‘Best Pop Guitarist’ five years running and placed him in their ‘Gallery of the Greats’. He has also been voted Best Jazz and Best Rock Guitarist in the Playboy Magazine readers’ poll numerous times. José has received over forty gold and platinum discs and won twelve Grammy nominations, in receiving his sixth Grammy Award in 1991, he became the ONLY artist ever to have won pop music awards in two language categories.

By the age of 25, Feliciano had performed over much of the world and recorded songs and had hits in three languages on four continents, his career of blending musical styles from the global jukebox could arguably be regarded as having made him one of the first ever ‘world’ musicians.

Constantly in demand to perform all over the world (in 1994 alone, he visited thirty countries), Feliciano has played in front of royalty, with top orchestras including the London Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Vienna Symphony, was one of the first major pop artist to perform behind the former Iron Curtain and not too long ago culminated in an audience with the Pope in Rome.

José was born blind, to humble beginnings, on September 10, 1945, in Lares, Puerto Rico. One of nine boys, his love affair with music began at the age of three when he first accompanied his uncle on a biscuit tin. Aged five, he and his family immigrated to New York. Young José learned to play the concertina at the age of six, using a handful of records as his teacher, he was performing for his classmates at eight, and at nine, having graduated to the accordion, he played in public for the first time at El Teatro Puerto Rico in New York, gaining a standing ovation.

Tiring of that instrument, he taught himself to play the guitar, again with nothing but records as reference, undaunted determination and 14 hours practice every day. His style was partially grounded in, and influenced by, jazz legends Django Reinhardt and Wes Montgomery, the classic work of Segovia and Luis Bonfa’s Brazilian heritage. Feliciano’s growing confidence vocally, having been exposed to the rock ‘n’ roll of the fifties, was also being honed; on popular singers, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, “singers that had had it hard”, he later recalled.

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde © 2015

At 17, in 1963, José quit school and immediately began playing the coffee houses in New York’s Greenwich Village. The hat being passed around determined his fee though he later admitted “not even for coins some of the time, just for the hell of it”. He played his first professional engagement that same year in Detroit. With subsequent gigs at small clubs in the city, he longed to be signed by Motown. Shortly thereafter, a music critic writing of his performance at New York’s Gerde’s Folk City referred to him as a “10 fingered wizard who romps, runs, rolls, picks and reverberates his six strings in an incomparable fashion”. He added “If you want to witness the birth of a star, catch Mr. Feliciano before he leaves tomorrow night”.

José had begun his major chart success in South America in 1966 aged 21. Hits in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Venezuela culminated in an appearance that year at the Mar Del Plata Festival near Buenos Aires in front of a staggering 100,000 people. In 1968 José’s slow sensual reworking of ‘Light My Fire’ by The Doors, became a massive US and British hit – assuring him of international recognition. His very personalized treatment of the rock classic became the benchmark and reference point for further covers by everyone from Stevie Wonder to Shirley Bassey, with Massive Attack bass-beating it along the way. As Jim Morrison was calling him up to thank him for making the song a standard so John Lennon was giving Feliciano the critical thumbs up for his versions of ‘Help’ and ‘Day Tripper’. Within three years he followed up with hits across Europe, Asia and South America.

By the time he was 23, he’d won two Grammies and his quest for achievement subsequently led to his career expanding to include acting in several TV dramas, television themes and film score work. At the same time, major television shows worldwide, including his very own specials. More recently, legendary author, Ray Bradbury asked Feliciano to write the music to his play, ‘The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit’, adding again to his list of musical achievements.

Since then, many of Feliciano’s own songs including ‘Rain’, ‘Chico and the Man’, ‘Ay Carino’, Destiny’, ‘Feliz Navidad’ and ‘Affirmation’ have also gained wide recognition.

In America, José is still remembered as being the first artist to stylise ‘The Star Spangled Banner’. Before Hendrix’s infamous take and in front of 53,000 people at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium for the 5th Game of Baseballs World Series, Feliciano adapted the national anthem to his own style, caused national uproar and infuriated traditionalists, for the first time the song hit the contemporary charts. By 1987, he’d been forgiven enough to join entertainment legends in having his star permanently implanted on the Hollywood Walk.

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde © 2015

Feliciano’s achievements were further recognised the same year when the City of New York renamed his high school in East Harlem, The José Feliciano Performing Arts School.

Having recorded more than 60 albums in a career amassing nearly 100 million record sales, José, the man, remains modest and un-phased by it all. Two years back, celebrating 30 successful years in music, he performed in over 30 countries. He remembers well the hardship and sacrifices of his upbringing and is grateful for the good fortune that even his talents needed and, more significantly, he feels his career is gathering strength.

Now after his sold out dates here last year, and growing interest on the dance-floors of London with his rendition of ‘Golden Lady’, José Feliciano returns to enchant us with further brilliance in the Summer. With dates scheduled for Manchester, Liverpool and hopefully Birmingham, and confirmed dates of 27th of June until 2nd July at the Jazz Cafe in London you’ll have little excuse to miss out.

With the avid interest in his back catalogue, RCA/BMG will be releasing an album of some of his finest moments, due to hit the shops prior to the live performances. An opportunity one should endeavor to be part of.

Declan Hickey