If you do what you love and you do it with joy, and you do it with a humble attitude, everything falls into line.
I first saw him getting off the Blue Note Tokyo shuttle as he arrived at the music club for his last live performance in Tokyo last month. Clad in black tapered pants, black vest and black rolled-up sleeved shirt, he looked lean with his perennial wavy hair, and still confidently alert. Watching him closely, I was emotionally struck by a whimsical breeze of more than 60 golden years of musical dedication that seemed to have swept by him enough to mark an extraordinary lifetime since he thumped a tin cracker can at the age of three. This is the same man who in the later years, would find himself electrifying the world that he couldn’t see, with his romantic voice and incredible “10-fingered” guitar technique that won him nine Grammy awards for 60 albums. All the phenomenal entertainers died to perform with him: Elton John, Glen Campbell, Andy Williams, Diana Ross, Bill Withers, Paul McCartney, Santana, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Paul Simon, George Benson, Natalie Cole, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby…the list goes on. José Feliciano, after all, has been and will always be an exceptional legend even to himself, for being the “first Latin artist to cross over into the English music market”.
During our first meeting, he was instantly bubbly and amicable shaking my hand gently with his first remark: “Alma? That doesn’t sound very Japanese.” Then, he started to talk about the Philippines A LOT—about the food (chicken adobo and chicharron) he ate there during his numerous tours in the tropical country, his momentous encounter with the then President Ferdinand and First Lady Imelda Marcos, and how some of his song hits became famous since his Manila concerts, simultaneously impressing me with his memorized Tagalog phrases.
Having visited Japan, perhaps, more than 20 times since the 1970s, José endearingly recollected some of those lasting memories.
I remember playing at concert halls in Tokyo, Osaka, and Fukuoka with just a little band of drums and a bass player. At the Blue Note Tokyo, I have been playing for many years. Japanese people always made sure they would take good care of our luggage, our needs… service was excellent. I often came every New Year and so, I learned the Japanese New Year greeting, “Akemashite Omedeto Gozaimasu.” Then, at the end of the concert, I would say “Oyasuminasai” (Good night). I love the Japanese people. There’s something about them that intrigues me and makes me feel very Japanese. They are very unassuming, very shy, down-to-earth, and kind. Thus, I really could not understand why Japan and the US were bad enemies (during the war). But today, Japan is one of the strongest allies of the US. Surprisingly, I did not experience any culture shock on my first trip to Japan. I suppose I got used to listening to Japanese music even back home. I like the koto instrument and I was ready in my mind before coming to japan. I surely love Japanese food; tempura sukiyaki, sushi, sashimi...
Although not having been raised in a musical family, José discovered his true love at such a supple age and strived hard to train himself.
Music didn’t run in my family. I had a brother though, who was a frustrated percussionist. I was the only one blessed with musical talent. I played guitar from nine years old. Nobody taught me; I learned by myself. I had an uncle who had a Puerto Rican instrument called the “cuatro”. I accompanied him on a tin can, and used it as a percussion instrument. I heard the guitar and I fell in love with it. Now my son, Jonathan, is also a musician. He’s my drummer in my band and he has been playing since he was two.
Migrating from his motherland Puerto Rico to the US in 1950 was certainly a pivotal point in José’s life—an unprecedented event that provided him the education he could not, otherwise have received back home, and the forceful lever for his career to shine brilliantly in the Western world.
Yes, I was five years old when I moved from Puerto Rico to New York. I came from a very small town, Lares. Life was hard. But, I love Puerto Rico. I am proud of being a Puerto Rican and an American. It wasn’t an easy life at the Spanish Harlem either in those days. We lived in poverty. We resided for five years in an apartment my aunt left us with. In 1955 we moved to Lower Manhattan, at the Lower East Side, Henry Street. I wasn’t thinking much about the life at the Spanish Harlem back then, but I went to school, learned Braille, wrote and educated myself. In that district, there were a lot of Spanish players playing on hot summer nights. I would hear the sound of their music and that elevated my musical energy. I got to play at the Blue Note and in coffee houses at the Greenwich Village. It was very interesting.
“Interesting” would be a faint understatement to record José’s amazing success evolution, from small gigs at coffee houses to huge concert halls, world festivals, presidential invitations, stadiums, not to mention his epic performance of the The Star-Spangled Banner at the Tiger Stadium in Detroit during the1968 World Series. Soon, hundreds of recordings, Grammy awards, world tours, and the precious honor to receive his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame had shaped José into a megastar. This is absolutely more than just “interesting”.
I never thought I’d get as far as I’ve gotten. I never knew I’d become a star. Around 1964-65 I knew I was going to be a good musician. I played in the Village. I met Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter Paul & Mary... I remember working with Joan Mitchell for Free Man in Paris. I also worked with Bing Crosby, and that must have been my most unforgettable moment. I will never forget that. It was very nice working with all these famous people. I didn’t work with John Lennon too much though, but I met Paul McCartney in Manchester when he started his band WINGS, and I met Linda on the road as well. That was a tremendous love story. Only once in a lifetime that one has somebody you truly love. I say that for myself too.
Now I’m just a traveling gypsy. But, my biggest break was when RCA records signed me in 1965. RCA Producer Jack Somer went to Folk City and he was supposed to sign a different band, but instead he signed me. I started to record in Spanish in Argentina, then I became a Latin idol. I had the girls screaming! I learned how to run to a limousine. When you’re blind, that’s not an easy thing to do, you know. I couldn’t believe it myself. You think only Elvis Presley would have that kind of audience, not José Feliciano. Elvis unfortunately was a victim of his own success. RCA was very good to me, and it’s sad it doesn’t exist anymore. Record companies don’t really exist anymore since everything now has gone digital.
Life going digital hasn’t stopped José from pursuing what his heart truly desires. This year, his fans would be expecting a new album. A biography and a powerful documentary on his life are also underway.
It’s true everything has gone digital these days, but vinyls are coming back. It can’t be the way it used to be. Things have changed, what can you do? I try to keep up and do my music according to generations. I sometimes change repertoire, or add original songs. I have a new album out in fall I’m calling Reunion. I’ve gotten together the man who produced Light My Fire and Feliz Navidad. People can expect I still have a good voice, after all, I still play my guitar and I am not just an old artist trying to look young. I don’t think I want a movie about my life, but I can go with a book. I’m writing a book The José Feliciano Story So Far with the help of my wife, Susan. She knows my whole life, after all. She’s very talented, an artist, and a journalistic gem. Apart from that, I still do world tours. I don’t like to travel much because I don’t want to leave my family so much. I did stop performing for less than half a year. I feel that when I’m on the top, what the hell else would I do? I am trying to reach a happy medium. My dream is to keep playing as long as my body is healthy.
Healthy and happy is definitely José Feliciano. Reaching 74 this year, this enormous talent is still vivacious, humorous, and quick-witted both onstage and offstage. At the Blue Note Tokyo last June, together with distinguished band members Trevor Coen (b), Jonathan Feliciano (ds), Bob Conti (per), Tyler McHugh and Steven Sasloe (key), the audience rightfully rendered José a tearful standing ovation for his unchanging delivery of hit songs, such as Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone, the Beatles’ In My Life, Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean, California Dreaming, his Spanish compositions, and of course the undying megahit Light My Fire. Indeed, what passionate decades of fire it has been for an unforgettable luminary.
Because there's good in every one,
and a new day has begun.
You can see the morning sun if you try.
And I know things will be better.
I know they will for Chico and The Man.
(From Chico and The Man by José Feliciano)
Many special thanks to Blue Note Tokyo and Susan Feliciano.