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The West Australian

Jose Feliciano: His Fire Is Still Burning


May 20, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The West Australian Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved. 

'WAIT a minute, I'll put my wife Susan on the phone," says Jose Feliciano. "She's the historian in the family."

As my opening gambit in an interview with the enduring star of pop-rock and Spanish music, I've just asked him a question about his 270-year-old home in Fairfield County, Connecticut.

But Jose's obviously no authority on historic homesteads and prefers to deflect the question to his wife.

The obliging Susan Feliciano soon fills me in on the details: "It was built in 1730 and was originally known as the Thomas Banks tavern," she explains. "It used to be an inn during the times of the British."

The Felicianos bought the rambling property in 1990 and undertook extensive renovations while maintaining the historic colonial nature of its origins. It sounds like an idyllic place for Feliciano and his wife to bring up their three children, the youngest just eight.

"Mel Gibson lives just down the road," says Feliciano, though I don't think he means that literally. They live in the same Connecticut county, I imagine is what he means.

It provides a link with Australia for our conversation that begins in earnest with Jose moving into his spiel about how much he is looking forward to coming to this country next month for another tour.

He has been touring the world for nearly four decades, his most recent trip to Australia about three years ago. His first visit, he recalls, was in 1970, not too long after he shot to fame with his hit song Light My Fire, a slow gentle version of the old Doors hit.

"We played that first time (in Australia) in the Chevron Hotel in Sydney," he says, "and broke Tom Jones' record for the number of people in that room."

That was at the height of Feliciano's popularity, of course, but he's never stopped working, never stopped being popular and continues to tour, make records and notch up achievements as the first artist who could cross over easily from English to Spanish songs.

Born in Puerto Rico in 1945, Feliciano was taken by his family to New York's East Harlem - otherwise known as Spanish Harlem - when he was five.

He grew up in New York but actually began his career by recording some songs as a 20-year-old in Puerto Rico - singing in Spanish. A shrewd agent suggested that the young singer-guitarist (who was blind from birth from congenital glaucoma) should record in English, and he was sent back to a Los Angeles studio.

So began a remarkable career that has included six Grammy awards, 22 Grammy nominations and a swag of other honours around the world. He is known as an Ambassador of Goodwill for his charitable works and there is even a performing arts high school in East Harlem that bears his name.

His album recordings have now reached the phenomenal number of 65 - Feliciano is probably the world's only artist who records as many albums in Spanish as he does in English.

He says he continues to write and record albums and dismisses any notion that he might slow down as he heads towards 60.

He almost snorts at the suggestion that there can't be much else to achieve in a lifetime of music that saw two of his Grammy awards before he was 22.

"I'm as busy now as I ever was," he says. "Why would I want to retire when I'm still having so much fun. My health is great, I go to the gym twice a week and I still think I'm pretty sharp on stage."

Jose Feliciano performs at the Burswood Theatre on June 5.

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