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'You Can't Do That With A Guitar'

Jose Felicano goes downtown


6 July 2005
Copyright © 2005 NY DAILY NEWS. All rights reserved.

He's become as reliable a holiday visitor as Santa Claus, Jose Feliciano has. A day or two after Thanksgiving, some radio station cues up "Feliz Navidad," Spanish for "Merry Christmas," and for the next month there's Jose, right alongside Bing and Nat and the other holiday perennials.

For many years it was almost as common during the other 11 months to hear Feliciano's interpretation of the Doors' "Light My Fire," where he slows it down, speeds it up, lines it up from every possible angle and had almost as big a hit with it in the summer of 1968 as the Doors did in the summer of 1967.

"Light My Fire" has receded in recent years, because radio programmers think that for most songs, 40 years is just too darn old. But there's always been a core of music fans in New York, and elsewhere, who never thought either of his biggest hits defined Feliciano in the first place.

What they remember downtown is a teenage kid who came into the folk clubs of the Village in the early '60s and knocked everyone out with his guitar playing. In a world where everyone wanted to be a success and almost no one wanted to say so out loud, it was widely agreed almost from his first notes that this kid had the goods. "When I first heard Jose Feliciano, he blew me away," the late Dave Van Ronk recalled. "I said, 'My God, you can't do that with a guitar.' He was a pretty good singer, too."

Neither of those skills came by accident. By the time he was a teenager, Feliciano had paid some dues.

He was born Sept. 10, 1945, in the hill town of Lares, Puerto Rico. Medical care being less than state of the art, glaucoma left him legally blind from birth, his sight only a speck.

And so, following a long tradition of blind men and women who turned to music because the playing field was more level, he was tapping out rhythms for his uncle on a tin cracker box at the age of 3.

His family moved to New York when he was 5, and here he taught himself to play the concertina. At 8 he was giving shows for his classmates at Public School 57 on E. 115th St. At 9 he performed at the Puerto Rican Theater in the Bronx.

Then he heard rock 'n' roll, and that clinched it. He picked up a guitar and started studying under the only teacher the family could afford, phonograph records. He would play for 10, 12, 14 hours a day, he later said, and sometimes he would sing along.

He quit school at 17, and while he later said part of his motivation was to help his unemployed father support the rest of the family, it wasn't like he could go out and get a factory job.

Instead he headed downtown, toward his fellow guitar pickers, and made friends with Mike Porco, the owner of Gerde's Folk City.

"Mike was like a father to me," Feliciano would later tell Robbie Woliver for his history of Folk City. "He gave me a job so I could earn some money. I just left my parents' home. I didn't have a winter coat, so Mike bought me one."

At a time when most folk-club gigs meant passing the hat and being lucky to get the hat back, Feliciano said Porco was paying him $150 a week and giving him a regular gig.

Porco may have had a soft spot for the blind kid from uptown, but he also very likely figured Feliciano was worth it.

"I used to wait tables at Folk City," said Louis Bass, Porco's brother-in-law. "I usually paid more attention to my customers than the people on stage, but I did pay attention to Jose Feliciano. He was a really good guitar player."

Those 14-hour practice sessions had borne fruit.

"I was the only guy who used to deviate from folk music," Feliciano said years later. "I used to play ‘Flight of the Bumblebee.' I played ‘Dueling Banjos' on one guitar. People used to freak out because a folk musician wasn't supposed to play that good. I played more than three chords. It freaked them out a bit."

Nor was it only his fast fingers that got people's attention. He would park his Seeing Eye dog next to the stage, which was a good conversation-starter, and he also had a laserlike wit.

"I had the impression when I first met him that he was just a shy kid," said Van Ronk. "I subsequently discovered he has one of the most vicious wits of anyone I ever met. He is hilariously funny."

For all the respect he engendered downtown, however, Feliciano didn't break into the music business through the folk song window.

In 1966, RCA executives heard him sing at a festival in Argentina and signed him as a Latin-market artist. He became an international star, a teen idol, before he migrated back to the English-language market and cut "Light My Fire" as the flip side of a similarly reworked interpretation of "California Dreaming."

"Light My Fire" reached No. 3 on the national charts, and while Feliciano never had another single match it, his guitar skills and endearing stage show propelled him to a long and successful career that included movie music, a private audience with the Pope and having PS 155 in East Harlem renamed the Jose Feliciano Performing Arts School.

And, of course, every year he still wishes everyone a merry Christmas.

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