2018 is the 50th anniversary of Jose Feliciano’s U.S. Top 100 singles debut with his interpretations of “Light My Fire” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” We spoke with him about his career and his upcoming national anthem anniversary on September 8.
By Warren Kurtz
JOSE FELICIANO was born in Puerto Rico, blind since birth, and raised in New York City. His first success came in Argentina with a string of seven Spanish language singles in the Top 10 from 1966 through early 1968. In the summer of 1968, he gained attention in the U.S. when his interpretation of “Light My Fire” reached the Top 5, a year after The Doors’ recording reached the number one position. Months later he performed “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Jose Feliciano-style, at the fifth game of baseball’s World Series in Detroit to a mixed reaction of applause and boos.
GOLDMINE: You had tremendous early success in a place I am spending a lot of time this year, Argentina.
JOSE FELICIANO: I was like Elvis in Argentina and I didn’t know it. The record company was unsure what to do with me at the time. I wanted to do an album for my parents of songs in Spanish. When I went to South America, I could hear that there was a crowd of people to attend a music concert. I hoped it was The Beatles. I really liked The Beatles and thought maybe they are surprising me with a Beatles concert while I was there. Then I heard people talking about who would be performing. One person said that she wasn’t familiar with that performer and asked, “Quien es (who is) Jose Feliciano?” This big crowd was there for me? That was the surprise. I did well in Latin America. Originally I had planned on just being a guitarist, but added voice, bass and percussion to what I was doing. I was banned in Cuba. Castro didn’t want any Western influence and over the years Cubans hid cassettes of my music there.
GM: In 1979, a few months before you joined Minnie Ripperton for the end of her Minnie album with her version of “Light My Fire,” I spoke with Ray Manzarek about Doors covers. He told me, “I’m always interested to hear what other people do with our material. They bring a different approach to it.” He said that he was thrilled to have two Doors songs in the Top 10 at the same time in the summer of 1968 with The Doors’ “Hello, I Love You” and your version of “Light My Fire.”
JF: I didn’t know that. Thank you. I did something different. If not, why do it? They still play me on Sirius XM 60’s on 6.
GM: Yes, we heard you this weekend. Your next single, “Hi-Heel Sneekers,” made the Top 40, and then there was “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which peaked at 50. I think it is beautiful and powerful, your voice reached the Glen Campbell range. Now you have been asked to return to Detroit, for the 1968 World Series Championship 50th Anniversary Weekend, with the Tigers versus the St. Louis Cardinals, just like 50 years ago.
JC: I am looking forward to it. Unlike 50 years ago, I hope to receive all applause this time because 50 years ago it was controversial. It’s the same song! What has changed?
Flip side: And I Love Her
A side: The Star-Spangled Banner
Top 100 Debut: November 2, 1968
RCA Victor 47-9665
GM: The flip side of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is your version of “And I Love Her,” with just you on guitar and George Tipton’s wonderful orchestral arrangement, just like the two of you brought to the middle section of “Light My Fire,” except in this case the entire song is an instrumental, one that I think could cross over to many music formats.
JC: My love is the guitar. I never meant to be a singer. I also love The Beatles’ music and have been a fan ever since they came around.
Jose Feliciano surrounded by Paul & Linda McCartney, courtesy of Jose and Susan Feliciano, josefeliciano.com
GM: In addition to your 1968 Feliciano! album with three Beatles covers, another favorite of mine is your 1969 album 10 to 23, with three more Beatles covers and two Bee Gees covers, including a family favorite, “First of May,” which our daughter Brianna and I saw Blackmore’s Night perform a few years ago with Ritchie Blackmore and his wife Candice Night. The album also includes your single, “Rain,” which I have also heard the Canadian group, The Bells, cover as the flip side of their single, “I Love You Lady Dawn.”
JF: I love The Bells. Jacki Ralphs’ voice on “Stay Awhile” is beautiful. “Rain” is my first song as a composer and I thank producer Rick Jarrard for his encouragement. I think he is one of the best producers, up there with Steve Cropper. I was in Hawaii on vacation and it was raining but the sun was out, which inspired me. With “First of May” and “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” on the 10 to 23 album, I always liked The Bees Gees and found them to be innovative, which certainly became true when they continued on with all those wonderful songs on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. I think they gave The Beatles some competition.
GM: Ahead of 10 to 23 you released the soulful single, “Marley Purt Drive,” which was not included on your album, and like “First of May,” was a song from the Bee Gees’ Odessa double album and later served as the opening number for Lulu’s New Routes album the following year, recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
JC: In my case, we recorded it in Los Angeles with members of The Wrecking Crew. I played a 12 string guitar, which was made near you in Florida, at Miguel Company Guitars. James Burton, who has played with Elvis and others, played dobro. The background singers, who had also sung with Elvis, were The Blossoms with Darlene Love.
GM: Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is one of my wife Donna’s favorite modern Christmas songs, a modern classic and favorite like “Feliz Navidad.”
JC: “Feliz Navidad” was an idea that Rick suggested as a producer, to try to write a Christmas song. How could I do that? How could I compete with all the great standards? Then something just happened. I thought I could teach Spanish speakers English and teach Americanos some Spanish. It didn’t allow English language or Spanish language radio stations to reject it, because it was bi-lingual. It is filled with simplicity and became a monster hit that I hear on the radio everywhere during the Christmas season. What a gift.
GM: “Chico and the Man” was also a bi-lingual song. When my wife Donna and I were dating in the ‘70s, “Chico and the Man” was on TV on Fridays in her house. The flip side of the “Chico and the Man” single, “Hard Times in Barrio,” dealt with changes in the neighborhood. Both songs, from your And the Feeling’s Good album, encouraged an understanding among cultures. The Hispanic Heritage Foundation has invited you for a performance on September 12 at The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
JF: Yes, I will be performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at that event too. In the mid-‘70s, after not being played on the radio for a while, I was asked by James Komack, who produced “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” and “Welcome Back, Kotter,” to write a theme song for his upcoming show, “Chico and the Man.” While I was on a Brazilian vacation I wrote “Chico and the Man” which was used as the opening number for the show. The song “Hard Times in Barrio” was played at the end of each episode. The show “Chico and the Man” was like nothing else at the time and should have won an Emmy for NBC.
GM: Speaking of NBC, on Easter this year, John Legend performed “I Only Want to Say (Gethsemane)” as part of Jesus Christ Superstar Live on NBC. In 1971, when the Jesus Christ Superstar music finally caught on, it was fun to hear the cover singles from the rock opera, with Helen Reddy’s version of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and your version of “I Only Want to Say (Gethsemane),” which Brianna says is one of her favorite versions of that song.
JC: I am glad she likes it. This is another one with producer Rick Jarrard.
GM: Also, in the ‘70s you were among the musicians on John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll cover album.
JC: Yes, there were many musicians on it, playing as an ensemble. I did one song there and then across the hall, where Joni Mitchell was recording her Court and Spark album, I played electric guitar on “Free Man in Paris.”
GM: I heard “Free Man in Paris” a lot on Canadian radio. Even though Joni Mitchell had moved to California by then, she was still considered a Canadian, for their MAPL (Music Artist Performance Lyrics) Canadian content tracking. Speaking of moves, in 1990 you and Susan moved to Connecticut. There is a whole page on you in Tony Renzoni’s Connecticut Rock ‘n’ Roll book.
JC: That is nice to hear. We look forward to getting that book.
GM: Since your move to Connecticut, your music has been included in a couple of family favorite movies. In 1996’s Fargo, Steve Buscemi’s character says about the entertainment in the Carlton Celebrity Room, “It depends on the artist. You know, Jose Feliciano, you got no complaints” while you play “Let’s Find Each Other Tonight,” sounding like a relaxed Jim Croce song.
JF: I like Jim Croce’s music. Sure, there is “You Don’t Mess with Jim” and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” but my favorite is “Time in a Bottle.”
GM: Regarding the 2001 release of Moulin Rouge, Brianna said that your “El Tango de Roxanne” is her favorite song and an amazing performance. After seeing it the theater in Roanoke, Virginia with her best friend Aya, they drove to three stores to find the movie soundtrack and when they finally did, they blasted your song all the way down Electric Road. It was cold, but they put the top down on the car, so that your song could be heard. She asked how you feel about the new Moulin Rouge musical coming to Broadway.
JF: Oh my! Well, Sting will enjoy the royalty money that “Roxanne” will bring him. Please tell Brianna, Donna and the Goldmine readers that my songs in English and Spanish are on Feliciano Radio 24-7. I do the jingles too. You can go to our website, which also includes upcoming concert dates. Feliciano Radio is on the top of the screen. It takes a few moments and then the songs start. You can pause and fast forward, to different songs too.
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine, known for “Fabulous Flip Sides” along with giveaways, interviews, CD, DVD and book reviews. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, as part of “Moments to Remember” at wvcr.com or iHeart Radio – search WVCR.