The world-famous eight-time Grammy winner plays his iconic “Feliz Navidad” for friends and neighbors in Weston
photographs by david bravo
The pews are packed with parishioners trying to conserve room by leaving their heavy coats on. The aisles are lined with men, women, and drooping children, from the back doors of the church, all the way down to the altar, which is resplendent in red poinsettias. True, the overflow, in part, can be attributed to the errant Catholics who turn up for Christmas Mass. But many of these worshippers came to hear José Feliciano, arguably music’s first Latin crossover star, an eight-time Grammy winner who was playing famous concert venues when J-Lo, Mark Anthony, and Gloria Estefan were just children. His distinctive phrasing of the “parrrrrum-pah-pum-pums” makes his “Little Drummer Boy” like no other version of the song.
With the exception of a few restless toddlers or hungry swaddled infants, the congregation is silent, rapt. For those unaware of Feliciano’s Christmas Eve ritual of singing in his church, there are few whispers of “You mean that’s the José Feliciano?” But those who have sought out this Mass know they’ll also be treated to an acoustic “Silent Night” as the Eucharist is distributed, and, in a nod to the era in which he came of age, Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Cherry Tree Carol.”
At the end of Mass just before the blessing, the Rev. Thomas P. Thorne, Pastor, thanks Feliciano for his devotion to his parish and mentions that an ornament that plays “Feliz Navidad” is being sold at the doors to benefit the church. Up to this point, Feliciano has not smiled—not grave, but focused, as his slender hands fluidly move up and down his guitar. The decades haven’t changed him much; his compact frame barely moves. His hair is still ample, shoulder length, and feathered, but more grey than black now. After the blessing he displays his other oft-noted characteristic: a mischievous sense of humor. He launches into “Feliz Navidad,” and the congregation is now full-throated, clapping, and laughing as he inserts “Buy the ornament!” into his bilingual lyrics.
Feliciano’s holiday staple, which by some estimates gets more radio play than any other Christmas song, was not the song that put him on the map. That was “Light My Fire,” his cover of The Doors’s 1967 single, which an RCA executive suggested Feliciano record after hearing him sing it in concert. Feliciano!, his first album to hit the U.S. charts, reached number two and went gold; its single, “Light My Fire,” hit number three, selling more than a million copies and earning him two Grammys. Feliciano has said he never thought he was doing anything unique, that he was just being himself, but the two versions couldn’t have been more different. Jim Morrison, with his insouciant, seemingly boneless stance, sang it commandingly and then quickly ceded his vocals to an endless organ solo. Feliciano’s version was a seduction: He used his passionate tenor to make not just the song but also every syllable (“you knoooooooow that it would be untrue…”) his own.
Making a song one’s own is currently the great ambition of the cute contestants in the karaoke kingdom that is American Idol. Feliciano’s been doing it for decades. In a 1987 performance on the German television show Ohne Filter (without filter, or as MTV might have it, “unplugged”), Feliciano performed Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Clad in black leather, not wearing his signature shades, and rocking back and forth, Feliciano played a dexterous Latin-infused guitar intro to the famous hook. By the time he added his vocal, he was clearly having fun, letting out some “hoos” and “haaas” and tailoring the lyrics for his audience, singing “Don’t go ’round, breaking German girls’ hearts!,” then ending the song with a riff on another Jackson standard, “Bad.” On “making a song his own,” Feliciano has said, “My plan always was I want to do the song better than the original.” While many Idol artists make their mark by re-tooling a classic, in this era of instant but fleeting fame, few, if any, are likely to achieve the longevity Feliciano has enjoyed.
Feliciano actually appeared on the Idol of its day, The Ted Mack Amateur Hour, when he was a teen, playing electric guitar for a jazz ensemble called The Modern Sound Trio. But he was not an unknown before and not a superstar after. Born blind on September 10, 1945, in Lares, Puerto Rico, José Monserrate Feliciano displayed a flair for music when he was three. His uncle played the quarto, a small, native Puerto Rican guitar, and Feliciano accompanied him on a tin cracker can. “My rhythm was perfect,” he has recalled. “I didn’t miss a beat.” His father worked as a farmer but wasn’t making enough to support him and his ten brothers, so, in 1950, the family moved to New York City. There, at age six, Feliciano taught himself to play a second-hand concertina, an accordion-like instrument, by listening to records. American Bandstand provided the soundtrack that helped him master his next instrument, the guitar, by the time he was nine. That year, 1954, he made his first public appearance as a guitarist at El Teatro Puerto Rico in the Bronx. Influenced by Sam Cooke (the first song on one of his compilation CDs is “You Send Me”) and Ray Charles, Feliciano added singing to his repertoire and started performing at school dances and at the Lighthouse for the Blind in New York City with his trio.
A decision to help his family ended up making him famous. During high school, Feliciano started playing Greenwich Village coffeehouses, and by the time he was seventeen, he was making enough money from the hats passed around the clubs that he dropped out of school to help pay the bills at home. The bookings at the Bitter End, the Gaslight, and Gerde’s Folk City earned him the notice of the late New York Times critic Robert Shelton, who called him a “ten-fingered wizard.” Even more effusive was the late Dave Van Ronk, a folk singer and influential figure in the New York City acoustic scene, who once recalled the first time he saw Feliciano: “He blew me away…I said ‘My God, you can’t do that with a guitar.’”
An RCA executive was impressed enough with the gigs at Folk City to give Feliciano a record deal, which led to the release of his first single, “Everybody Do the Click,” and then, over the next two years, his first two English-language albums. They didn’t make it onto the U.S. charts, but RCA International’s release of three Spanish-language albums made Feliciano a bona fide star among Latin audiences, with 100,000 people coming to see him at the Mar del Plata Festival in Argentina in 1966. Feliciano has said of those pre-crossover artist days, “It wasn’t easy for Latin artists, because Latin music really wasn’t popular.”
He cracked the American market with “Light My Fire” and followed it up in 1968 with a rendition of the rhythm-and-blues standard, “High-Heel Sneakers,” which made it to number twenty-five on the charts. By year’s end, Feliciano had played at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles and at the Miami Pop Festival along with Chuck Berry and The Grateful Dead. A performance in October of that year changed his life.
Feliciano was invited by the late Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Game 5 of the World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit at Tiger Stadium. Harwell’s first choice had actually been Marvin Gaye, but some of the baseball powers were concerned Gaye’s performance might be too “bluesy.” So Harwell went instead with the recommendation of a friend in the music business who had heard Feliciano sing the national anthem at the Greek Theatre.
Anyone who appreciated the differences between Feliciano and Morrison’s versions of “Light My Fire” shouldn’t have been surprised at what Feliciano did when, guided by his dog, Trudy, he took his seat on left field: He made the song his own. His Latin/jazz stylings, not surprisingly, inflamed traditionalists; he was booed and a national controversy was born. Feliciano says some radio stations stopped playing his records, bringing an end to “Sneakers” climb up the charts. He said that he was just trying to express his love of country by putting a little gospel into the song, but people “just weren’t used to it then.” He never anticipated the reaction. And he could have never guessed at the response from a teenager named Susan.
Susan Feliciano, one of Assumption’s Eucharistic ministers, stands near the church’s altar, holding the golden chalice and dispensing the Eucharistic wine. A petite, blonde woman in a demure lavender sweater set, she smiles slightly and her lips move to the hymn the organist is playing. More than thirty years ago, when her interests leaned more toward baseball than the church, Susan Omillion went to see her hometown Tigers at Game 5. She had never heard of José Feliciano, but thought his controversial performance was striking and the negative attention unfounded.
She set up a fan club to show her support of Feliciano’s bold rendering of the anthem. For nine months, she tried to contact his record company, RCA, without getting a response. Taking pity on her, her mother suggested she contact the kindly play-by-play guy Harwell, who not only took her call, but gave her Feliciano’s office phone number. A fan club was born; she didn’t meet Feliciano until Harwell (to whom the couple’s website is dedicated) introduced them when she turned seventeen (Feliciano was twenty-six).
Soft-spoken yet talkative, Susan says yes, during the three years she had been tracking Feliciano’s career, she fell in love with him. And when they finally met? “We were friends, we just clicked.” Susan, ever the chronicler of their lives, says they met on August 2, 1971, a Monday, and on August 2, 1982, also a Monday, they married. In 1988 Melissa Anne, now a Eucharistic minister like her mother but a ringer for her father, was born. Jonathan José was born in 1991, and Michael Julian arrived in 1995.
All the while, Feliciano, whom Susan says does have “a foot in both worlds” enjoyed a varied and storied career. “Feliz Navidad,” which he penned in 1970 when he was homesick for his family in Puerto Rico, was covered by other artists and is even the name of a colorful children’s holiday book. In the seventies, he hit the American charts again with the theme song to the television series Chico and the Man, scored a guest role on the show as Chico’s cousin Pepe, and appeared on Kung Fu and McMillan and Wife, all the while recording Latin albums. In the next decade Feliciano signed with Motown’s new Latin music label, performed at the Motown 25 special (on which Michael Jackson first performed his “moon-walk”), earning a star on the Hollywood walk of fame in 1987 and even writing music for a play by Ray Bradbury. After an appearance years later at Carnegie Hall, New York Times pop critic Jon Pareles summed up Feliciano’s talent thus: “He has always been an eclectic musician. His guitar technique pulls together the pinpoint attack of flamenco, the insinuating chords of bossa nova, the linearity of jazz and the blues inflections of rock lead guitar, and he can sing with the dramatic inflections of a bolero singer or the floridity of a soul belter.”
Feliciano has put it more simply: a guy who “likes to play everything.” The walls of the recording studio inside the former Old Banks Tavern, his 280-year-old Weston home overlooking the same river as his church, tell a different story. The room where he likes to “get away and create” is adorned with dozens of gold and platinum records. Hanging amidst the framed accolades is a large cross. When asked what role religion plays in his life, he explains he doesn’t like to think of it as “religion,” but “just the way one should live. I’m far, far from perfect, but it gives me the rudder I need to get through life.” As for why someone who has sung for dignitaries and in huge venues all over the world would sing in a local church, he points to his wife and daughter’s roles in the parish and his sons’ duties as altar servers. “I do it because, simply put, this is how I am able to participate… . We all do what we can, bringing our time and talents to the table, so to speak.”
Susan no longer travels everywhere with him because of the children and because of the demands of Old Banks and its fifteen rooms. Still, she says “I will do anything I can for him.”
How does Feliciano balance the wildly incompatible passions of showbiz and family? “It’s not easy.” With a laugh, he adds, “My family is very patient, I guess.”
Feliciano continues to tour and write music, which he calls, tongue-in-cheek, his “personal ‘gospel according to José.’” What is he preaching? “Patience and openness to one another is the only way to coexist in today’s world.” To that end, Feliciano joined the Haitian earthquake recovery effort in February by recording “Somos El Mundo,” the Spanish version of “We Are the World” along with Estefan, Shakira, and Ricky Martin.
Two months earlier, Feliciano appeared with Aretha Franklin and Alicia Keys for the nonliturgical start of the Christmas season, the tree-lighting on NBC’s Christmas in Rockefeller Center.
What “punctuates our personal Christ-mas,” says Susan, is Assumption’s mass, where her husband sings his distinctive “Drummer Boy,” tapping on his guitar to provide percussive accompaniment in the otherwise silent, candlelit church. He’s been rapping out rhythms one way or another for more than sixty years, sometimes with the bright light of fame shining on him, at others, with a smaller flame burning. How has it lasted so long? “God’s grace,” says Feliciano. “Only by God’s grace.”