A ‘Banner’ Year: Jose Feliciano celebrated for influence on American music history
When Lady Gaga donned the glittery red pantsuit in 2016 to sing the national anthem for the Super Bowl, or when Whitney Houston settled on the red-white-and blue track suit to do the same 25 years earlier, they knew they not only had the freedom to choose what they wore, but also how to sing the song.
There are but a handful of performers who have made it their own, including Marvin Gaye and his smooth delivery at the NBA All-Star Game in 1983 or Jimi Hendrix’s blistering rendition at Woodstock in 1969. But someone had to go first, and that person was a young, blind Puerto Rican whose jazzy, soulful, Latin-flavored acoustic version paved the way for all other pop stars to personalize Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“I thought of myself as an adventurer,” says Jose Feliciano, now 72, during a telephone interview from his Weston home, as he recalls his Oct. 7, 1968 performance at Game 5 of the World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers at Tiger Stadium. “I had a chance to do something different with the anthem. I did it never knowing or thinking about the consequences it could bring. I sang it with gratitude for the country I loved.”
His performance earned praise, but also heavy criticism. He had just cracked the Billboard charts with his rendition of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” - and would soon push the anthem into the pop charts for the first time - but suddenly radio stations were not playing his music. He persevered (he is a multiple Grammy winner) and others followed. “As time went on, other people did it their way and they found out it wasn’t a crime to express yourself even if, musically, it was done in a different way.”
Last month, Feliciano’s groundbreaking performance, and his 50-year career, was celebrated during a naturalization ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History where 20 candidates from 17 countries became new U.S. citizens. It was there he also donated his concerto Candelas guitar, on which he played the anthem and “Light My Fire,” a pair of iconic sunglasses, his performing stool, a fan letter from Japan and the braille typewriter on which he wrote lyrics.
“Only 23 years old at the time, (Feliciano’s) interpretation of the anthem was unexpected, new, different and vital,” said Smithsonian music curator John Troutman at the ceremony. “It was soulful, searching, steeped in blues and seasoned with the percolation of his fingers across the guitar … it demonstrated the complexity of the American spirit as none had before.”
Feliciano’s contribution to the museum’s music holdings is a nod toward the important intersection at which he stands in American popular music. Born in Lares, Puerto Rico, Feliciano grew up in New York City and is considered the first Latin artist to be a major crossover pop success, starting with his 1968 album “Feliciano!” and his beloved Christmas song, “Feliz Navidad.”
A musical manifestation of the country he calls home, Feliciano’s music has long been a blend of pop, flamenco, folk, jazz, blues and rhythm and blues, all delivered with deft hands across nylon strings on an acoustic guitar. It is in his individuality and unique expression that Feliciano is entirely singular, and, yet, emblematic of the different musical traditions and styles that have shaped American music. He also is a beloved American export, with fans across the world and a discography that includes songs in multiple languages.
He says he never set out to achieve a particular sound. Largely self-taught, with just a few years of classical guitar training, the turntable was his predominant teacher, along with innate musical talent. “I didn’t start out by trying to make up a style. I just started being the way I was.”
An inveterate explorer, he says he was always searching for something, beginning with a desire to become independent from being blind since birth because of congenital glaucoma. “I discovered I possessed other things that elevated me and I had my senses to protect me.”
Early on, he headed out in to the world, playing coffee houses in Greenwich Village and clubs from Boston to Detroit. The donation of his specially made guitar by Candelario “Candelas” Delgado was particularly difficult, given the 51 years they have been together.
“I looked at my guitar as my orchestra, because it did everything for me, which in my younger days set me apart from everybody else,” he says.
This guitar also reflects Feliciano’s impact on guitar design. “I always found the classical guitar was made so small, more like a lute than a guitar and I always felt that a guitar should have a big body on it, so it’s got sound,” he says. “This was the first prototype of that, and I enjoyed giving it to the museum.”
It now joins other formative instruments, such as Louis Armstrong's trumpet, Prince’s Yellow-cloud electric guitar and three guitars from guitarist and BMI songwriter Steve Cropper, which were donated in 2016. Weston resident Roger Kaufman, a musician and music producer, helped to coordinate the Cropper and Feliciano donations.
“I’ve always been an admirer and I am fascinated at his career,” Kaufman says of Feliciano. “He’s an iconic figure who paved the way for so many.”
As much as this is a year to look back, Feliciano has performances lined up to keep him busy. He plays with Peabo Bryson Aug. 3 in Willimantic and at SummerStage in Central Park on Aug. 12 for a concert that revisits the 1960s music scene in Greenwich Village. On Sept. 8, he returns to Detroit to Comerica Park to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” when the Detroit Tigers play, you guessed it, the St. Louis Cardinals.
He also is working on a documentary about his life and a biography written by his wife, Susan.
When asked where he places himself in the timeline of American music, he chuckles. “I am so many things. That is what I am,” he says. “I am an assimilation of everything that I have picked up in my life.”
At the ceremony, before he played his Candelas for the last time, he took in all that had been said about his influence and career. “I try not to talk about myself. It’s not in my nature … as long as my career has been, it has gone by so fast for me.
“To all you new citizens, God bless you and welcome to America.”
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