Practice makes perfect for Jose Feliciano

The legendary guitarist is ready to relight his fire for local fans this week as he returns to Israel to perform at Tel Aviv’s Nokia Arena.

Jose Feliciano guitarist 370 (photo credit: Courtesy PR)
Jose Feliciano guitarist 370
(photo credit: Courtesy PR)
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 household name.
“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 children.
“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 family.
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 fashion.”
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.”
His 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.
“I don’t 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 do.”
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.
“It’s a 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.
“Jimmie’s been 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.
The station’s 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.”
In the 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 “Good Times.”
“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.”
Feliciano isn't 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.