Jose Feliciano could be called the Puerto Rican Ray Charles. Born blind in Lares, Puerto Rico from congenital glaucoma, his family moved to Spanish Harlem when he was five. Teaching himself the accordion, by age nine he was playing to enthusiastic audiences at El Teatro Puerto Rico in the Bronx. Feliciano followed the Greenwich Village coffeehouse crowd on the folk scene in his teens, eventually relocating to Detroit to play full time, earning a contract with RCA in 1962.
His early albums were folk scene soul-jazz affairs with flamenco flavorings. Usually re-interpretations of jazz or pop standards highlighting Feliciano’s intricate guitar work. But Jose wasn’t feeling it. He went back to his roots, recording a series of Spanish-language albums that reinvigorated his craft and harnessed his style.
In 1968 he re-emerged with a cover version of the Doors’ “Light My Fire,” turning the haunted, velvet chamber rock masterpiece into a laid back am radio samba with an ardent, soulful gypsy flair, losing none of the song’s incandescent yearning power. It became an instant, giant hit.
Feliciano quickly released the LP Feliciano!, a collection of reinterpretations of pop songs of the day, from the Beatles (“In My Life,” “Here, There and Everywhere,” and a gorgeous instrumental take on “And I Love Her”); to Burt Bacharach “Always Something There to Remind Me”) to the stunning version of the Mamas and the Papas “California Dreamin’” which opens the record.
I’ve got a bunch of versions of "California Dreamin'" in my record collection by everyone from Wes Montgomery to George Benson to Hugh Masakela, and Feliciano’s is by far my favorite, even more than John Philips’ original. He accomplishes that rare feat of capturing the soulful essence of a pop song while converting it into something entirely his own.
His delicate, lacy, but dexterous flamenco fingerwork blend smoothly with impassioned vocals to give each song an urgency and mystical quality akin to an personal confession. If you didn’t recognize these tunes immediately, you would think this man was pouring out his soul to you in his most private feelings and moments. And of course he is, even through someone else’s words.
In October, 1968, Jose Feliciano performed the national anthem during the World Series. His performance was in some ways the apotheosis of both his popularity and his style—a controversial re-imagining of America’s national song that incorporated new rhythms and Spanish words.
The performance became a flashpoint of controversy along predictable lines with the same old stolid conservatives ragging on about how it was a disgrace, disrespectful, etc… I thought about this on Thanksgiving Day as I watched the halftime show at Ford Field in Detroit as the NFL Lions were preparing to be blown out in the second half.
A canned stage show ran through a half-hearted, stale set of predictable Motown classics that everyone’s heard a zillion times in the last forty years. I thought about what some of these football fans were doing or listening to when Motown was truly a vibrant force. Country music? George Jones? Ray Price?
The expensive, elaborate labored to look cheerful through a flurry of dance steps and puffs of colored smoke, but it was dead as Motown and Henry Ford and the automobile industry itself. There was no life there, just recycled anesthetic. I happily cranked up Jose, still fresh and yearning and vibrant forty-one years later, and did a little California Dreamin’.
For the record, Jose's version of the National Anthem became a major hit at the time. I haven't heard it, but I'm sure it remains one of the best covers of that particular chestnut ever.
JOSE FELICIANO FELICIANO!, 1968, RCA Records