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Puerto Rico Profile: José Feliciano

December 17, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

A revolution has taken place in American music this year, as Latin music has exploded onto the pop scene. Latin artists seemed to appear out of nowhere, and, led by Puerto Rican superstars like Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez, they have suddenly taken over the airwaves.

While the emergence of these performers has been quite dramatic, it should not come as such a great surprise. After all, at this time of year there is a constant reminder of the influence of Puerto Rican music in our lives. As we fight through shopping malls and tune into car radios this holiday season, we will inevitably hear the strains of "Feliz Navidad," the Christmas gift of Puerto Rico's Jose Feliciano to the world.

Jose Monserrate Feliciano was born on September 10, 1945, in Lares, Puerto Rico. Blind from birth, young Jose discovered the joy and soul of music early on. At age three, he was accompanying musicians on a tin can. He taught himself to play the accordion when he was six, and by ten he was playing guitar. With little formal training, he soaked up the Latin sounds and rhythms around him, first in Lares, and later in Spanish Harlem.

Feliciano's family moved to New York in 1950, and he was exposed to the melting pot of musical styles that the city had to offer. In the late '50s, he fell in love with Rock and Roll. By the time he began to perform professionally, in the early '60s, folk music dominated the New York scene. With his dark sunglasses, acoustic guitar, and soulful voice, Feliciano honed his skills in the smoky cafes of Greenwich Village.

In this formative period, Jose Feliciano combined an astonishing technical virtuosity with a unique understanding of the many cultures around him. Without ever abandoning his Puerto Rican roots, he absorbed the songs and styles of jazz, folk, and rock. By the late '60s, he was ready to emerge as an artist whose thoroughly distinct style would have universal appeal.

Feliciano had his first big hit in 1968 with a slow burning version of the Doors' "Light My Fire," for which he won a grammy for best contemporary male pop vocal performance. That same year, he also won the grammy for best new artist. From that auspicious start, he has continued to thrill audiences worldwide with his recordings and concert appearances. Other hits followed, especially "Che Sera" and, of course, "Feliz Navidad."

Moreover, Feliciano's success has extended well beyond his native Puerto Rico and the United States. Perhaps because he blends so many influences, he has captured the adoration of fans around the world, from Poland to Japan to the United Arab Emirates.

His music does not just spread across continents; it also spans generations. In the 1970s, Feliciano wrote the theme song to the TV show "Chico and the Man," which starred the late Puerto Rican actor Freddie Prinz. Today, as Prinz' son Freddie Prinz, Jr., has emerged as a Hollywood star in his own right ­ appearing in movies such as "I Know What You Did Last Summer" ­ Jose Feliciano is still going strong. In fact, just last month he appeared on Ricky Martin's much-hyped network television special.

Feliciano has also been busy in recent years with a number of prestigious appearances. He performed at the Vatican and had an audience with Pope John Paul II in 1994; last year, President Clinton invited him to sing his ubiquitous holiday song during the annual lighting of the White House Christmas Tree; and this September, he was a featured performer in "The Americanos Concert," a celebration of Latin music at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Hosted by Edward James Olmos, the event was broadcast in the U.S. and abroad by PBS and included a beautiful duet by Feliciano and Gloria Estefan.

All these appearances testify to Jose Feliciano's continuing relevance as both a pop performer and an artist of the highest caliber. So as we hear the tell-tale notes of "Feliz Navidad" piped through department store sound systems ­ from Mall of America to Plaza Las Americas ­ let us pause to admire the guitar, the voice, and the soul behind the familiar tune.