Graham Reid | | 4 min read
If rock'n'roll hadn't been invented, Jose Feliciano would probably still have had a career, although maybe not one quite as spectacular as that he enjoyed for a shining, if short, period in the late Sixties.
Feliciano's breakthrough hit in '68 was a moody, acoustic Latin treatment of the Doors' Light My Fire complete with jazzy vocal improvisations, but the Puerto Rican-born singer-guitarist always seemed to exist independent of rock culture. His voice was a supple instrument, his guitar playing full of inventive embellishment, and he maintained a separate career in Latin American markets with Spanish-language albums.
"No one can pigeon-hole me because I play everything, and I did that on purpose," he says, that smooth twentysomething voice from the Sixties now slightly hoarse as he speaks from a holiday hotel in Puerto Rico the week after his 56th birthday.
"I played jazz, rock'n'roll and every style, and of course had that Latin career for years, long before the current Latin crossover artists. I was the first.
"Actually, I was the second because Ritchie Valens had a hit with La Bamba, although that was the only Latin song he did. I did whole Latin albums and it was like Beatlemania for me in the Latin world, the screaming girls, not being able to leave the hotel, at the airport met by screaming fans. That was something!"
And does he ever miss it?
"Nah," he says with a cough-coloured laugh, "It was a wonderful memory and I'll enjoy it as such, but I'd rather people would see that musically I've grown in quality and wasn't a fly-by-night, and that I really know how to play my instrument."
While that last assertion is incontestable, Feliciano hasn't enjoyed the same public profile since the hits stopped coming in '70 after his theme for the television series Chico and the Man, which featured fellow-Puerto Rican Freddie Prinz in the lead role.
But the recently released compilation My Name is Jose Feliciano reminds of a 60s-to-early 70s career punctuated by Grammys, huge selling albums, sellout tours and songs such as his covers of Always Something There to Remind Me and California Dreamin', and his perennial Yuletide hit Feliz Navidad, which have imprinted themselves in the memory. And they came from an unlikely source.
Blind from birth, Feliciano moved to New York's Spanish Harlem district with his parents and 11 siblings when he was 5.
"In the 50s [Spanish Harlem] was in some ways the same as it is now, ghettos don't change very much. But I only lived there for five years, we moved to the lower East Side."
As a child he picked around on guitar and in his early teenage years started playing clubs in nearby Greenwich Village. His first professional engagement was at 17 in Detroit, and at 21 he played a concert in Argentina, where he was spotted by RCA executives who had him record a Spanish-language album. Others followed - all popular in South and Central America, and the Caribbean - but back in the States producer Rick Jarrard encouraged him to record the Doors' Light My Fire which had become part of his concert repertoire.
"I didn't agree, but it was one of the times I was wrong. When my career took off it surprised me, I was only 22. To have that much success so fast, I just wasn't prepared."
But the hits kept coming, he recorded in four languages, and was acclaimed in numerous critics' polls in categories as diverse as folk, jazz and rock. Those golden years have now been revived, without his input, on the new compilation album.
"I'm happy about it to an extent, there's a couple of songs there I don't like and truthfully I don't like compilations because every album I ever did had a special meaning for me. I like compilations in the sense they remind me of that, and on this two out of three ain't bad, as they say.
"So hearing some songs again brought back memories, like Chico And the Man. I remember I was in Brazil on vacation and was asked to come back to California to write the music for the programme. Always Something I enjoyed rehearsing because I played with [jazz musician] Ray Brown, who is the best bass player in the world."
If Feliciano sounds mildly grudging in his acceptance of an album putting his name back in the spotlight, it's because, as with so many artists, he believes he's never truly left it. To some extent that's true.
In recent years he had a minor dance hit under the pseudonym JF (the 94 single Goin Krazy, the same year he played for the Pope at the Vatican), and has been the subject of television tributes with the new league of Latin artists such as Ricky Martin. But even by the early Sixites he knew his high-profile time had passed.
"It bothered me for a while, but when record companies lose interest in you ... Of course radio started to change and now it's despicable because you can't get a new record played. It sucks.
"Light My Fire was at stations for a long time, then a station in Seattle was getting tonnes of requests and from that came another and another.
"Now a lot of money is spent on getting records played, and anyone who says payola is not alive and well is crazy."
Yet while his career continued after the hits stopped - he has recorded 65 albums, had 16 Grammy nominations and won his sixth in 91 - he possesses that vanity common in so many former stars who no longer command our undivided attention.
"I'm very lucky because unlike others who start out like I did and fade away, by the grace of God I haven't. Now that I'm older and more mature I think I sing better and play better, and of course my writing is much better.
"When you've had a chance to live some experiences then you can really write, and not having lived that much when I was young I didn't have much to write about. Now having seen life, the songs seem to come easier."
While that may be true, his new record company Universal seem less enamoured with his work. He delivered a new album a year and a half ago that is supposedly coming out in February.
"I don't know what my future is right now because they've been stalling it and stalling it - and so I really don't know. I'm hoping that it will come out. It's a great album and has got some great songs on it, and I think it's well put together."
For someone who did same-day session work with John Lennon and Joni Mitchell (the morning with Lennon, in the afternoon he played on Mitchell's hit Free Man in Paris), has been awarded 45 gold and platinum albums, received a doctorate in Human Letters from Sacred Heart University in California in May this year, and has had a private audience with the Pope, isn't this indifference just a little hurtful?
"Well, it happens to the best of us, it happens in everyone's line of work. You have to be reasonable about it. Bitterness is the worst enemy, it keeps you from being creative. The album is there, it still stands up. I'll just bide my time."