One of the nicest compliments Jose Feliciano ever received came when he ran into
Robbie Krieger, the guitarist for The Doors, a few years after his 1968 silky
cover of their 1967 hit “Light My Fire” made the Puerto Rican-born guitarist a
“Robbie told me that the way I interpreted the song was
the way he had originally envisioned it – a Latinjazz fusion,” said the
68-year-old, blind musical legend last week from his stately suburban
Connecticut home he shares with his wife of 31 years, Susan, and
“I got that musical feel to it without meaning to. I played a
nylon string guitar and I used a percussionist – Milt Holland – who happened to
play congas on the track. And that’s what emerged.”
“Light My Fire” went
on to sell millions of copies and cemented the young Feliciano’s status as one
of the premier guitarists of his generation by the time he was in his mid-20s.
He’s spent the past 45 years proving it time and time again, with numerous
Grammys and sold-out world tours to his credit.
Blind from birth,
Feliciano immigrated with his family to New York City when he was five. Inspired
by the rock & roll revolution of the 1950s, he taught himself to play guitar
and by age 17, he had quit school and was performing at Greenwich Village coffee
houses and turning over the money earned from passing the hat to his
A music critic from the New York Times, reviewing his performance
at 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
A record contract with RCA soon followed, and well before
“Light My Fire,” Feliciano became a huge star in Spanish-speaking countries with
his interpretations of old boleros like “Poquita Fe” and “Usted.”
talent couldn’t be contained by the Spanishspeaking market, and Feliciano became
one of the most successful Latino crossover artists to make it big in mainstream
American pop culture since Ritchie Valens hit it big in the early 1960s with “La
Bamba.” However, he scoffs at the idea that he paved the way for the subsequent
tidal wave of Latino music – from Jennifer Lopez and Gloria Estefan to Ricky
Martin and Shakira – that permeated the mainstream in subsequent decades “I
never considered my career in that way. I just happened to be Latino, and like
any artist, I was trying to forge a career. If I opened doors for others, that’s
great, but nobody starts out with those aspirations,” he said.
think Hank Greenberg thought of himself as the first Jewish baseball player – he
was a baseball player who happened to be Jewish. I’m an artist who happens to be
Latin. If you want to go way back, let’s look at someone like Tito Puentes. He
was the real pioneer who opened the door so I could do what I
Feliciano likely used a baseball reference because the New York
Yankees fan had just enthusiastically recounted a recent visit to Yankee Stadium
to visit star reliever Mariano Rivera, a short time before his retirement last
month. And he likely used the Jewish reference because his return to Israel
after a six-year absence is on his mind.
Feliciano, along with his
touring rhythm section, will be performing on October 10 at the Nokia Arena in
Tel Aviv accompanied by the Ra’anana Symphony Orchestra.
wonderful thing to play with symphony orchestras – I’ve played with many – but
it’s really special in Israel because you have so many great musicians,” said
Feliciano, who added the concert is going to be filmed for a possible DVD
release or US public broadcasting special in the future.
Tying all the
loose musical ends together is Feliciano’s longtime musical conductor Jimmie
Haskell who has arranged his orchestral scores for over 40 years. Haskell has
provided the Israeli musicians with the material and arrangements, and Feliciano
will hold one rehearsal with them the day before the show.
both my friend and my mentor. I’ve learned so much about string and orchestral
arrangements from listening to what he does,” said Feliciano, adding that he has
many fond memories of his first visit to Israel, when he performed to a rapt
crowd at the Zappa Club in Tel Aviv.
“I feel great about coming back to
Israel – the last time I got to visit some of the sites like the Church of the
Holy Sepulchre, but this time I don’t know if we’ll have time. It’s going to be
in and out,” said Feliciano, who has graciously recorded radio promos and
conducted TV interviews with Channel 2 ahead of the show.
US correspondent Nachum Barnea visited Feliciano at his home, where the singer
recounted an anecdote about his first visit to Israel.
“It was during
Passover and my tour manager went shopping and got a loaf of bread. He left it
in his room and when he got back, the bread was gone. The maid had taken it,”
said the youthful-looking Feliciano with a chuckle Retelling the story to the
Post, Feliciano added a heartfelt postscript: “I want all my fans in Israel to
know that I’m looking forward to coming back to the homeland.”
meantime, Feliciano has been hitting the road and performing as much as
possible, including a recent show close to home in Connecticut featuring guest
appearances by his two teenage sons Jonnie and Mikey, who played drums and bass
respectively on versions of The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” and Chic’s
“They’re great musicians, I’m very proud of them,” said
Feliciano of his sons. “They picked it up on their own. I guess by living with
me, they got into music, but I never pushed them one way or another. They made
up their own minds and so far, they’ve done a great job.”
ready to hand over the generational reins yet, though. He said that he keeps his
ears open to the charts to find any new music that he might be able to take on
and stamp his trademark on it. But, ultimately, he keeps turning back to the
classics. His latest album, released last year, is a collection of 12 songs by
Elvis Presley that he’s always wanted to cover.
“I’ve been a fan of Elvis
since I was 11, so for me, it was a real thrill to make an album of all my
favorite Elvis songs,” he said. “It was a tough selection process but I think I
ended up with some of the best ones, like “Love Me Tender,” “Don’t Be Cruel,”
and “All Shook Up.”” “I don’t practice the guitar like I should, so most of the
time, I’m able to get my guitar chops up by being in the studio and recording.
That’s how I stay in shape musically.”
For Feliciano, it seems whether he
practices or not, he’s still perfect.