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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
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.