17 Apr JOSE FELICIANO
Jose Felciano sat stiffly on a wooden stool in the middle of sun-bathed Detroit Stadium, his burgundy suit almost gaudy below the glint of his dark glasses. In the stands World Series spectators lit cigarettes, bit their nails, read programs, munched hot dogs—most of them unaware of Jose’s presence.
Fifty-three thousand baseball fans, impatiently waiting for the Tigers and Cardinals to lock horns.
The TV cameras zoomed to Feliciano. For a tedious moment, network and viewers poised for the start of the “Star Spangled Banner,” the national anthem which has become such a ritual now that the original intent of it—as a display of patriotic fervor—is all but forgotten.
“I was really afraid,” Jose recalls. “I didn’t know whether to begin the song or what. But once I got into it, I lost my fear. Actually, it was the second most frightening experience of my life. The first was meeting a girl.”
Jose seeped into his Spanish soul version of the national anthem, complete with an affectionate “yeah-yeah” at end. There were a few boos at Jose’s unique interpretation of the song, but generally the fans were more interested in Tiger Mickey Lolich’s opening pitch than any possible desecration of the national anthem. In fact, many observers didn’t even notice Feliciano doing his thing with the “Banner.”
The rumpus came next day, when, as Jose observes, “the syndicated press blew the event sky high.” Overnight, via AP and UPI, Jose became a household word—revered by free spirits, detested by the ever-sensitive middle class.
Newspapers were swamped with letters condemning the 23-year-old blind Puerto Rican who’d come to the States 18 years earlier. A typical comment came from the wife of a famous comedian, who lives near the Felicianos in Newport Beach. She told a dress store owner where Jose’s wife, Hilda, also shops: “Frankly, he’s just a crass little upstart. It’s just a thing of the moment. In a year, nobody will remember who he was. Besides that, he’s a goddam immigrant!”
From being just another kid with just another hot single and album, Jose emerged as a must-see with the curiosity seekers who make up middle class America.
They might have been unhappy with this “crass little upstart” but they came to see him by the hundreds—at Caesar’s ‘Palace in Las Vegas, the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, and anywhere else he was playing. Came to see this immigrant kid doing his thing with the national anthem, and they’ve kept on coming.
Was it a simple publicity stunt designed to hype Jose into the Big Money night club league? Was the purpose to light a fire to America’s already simmering reaction to recent radical action in the streets? Hasn’t Jose any respect for the sacred anthem?
Yes and no. His manager, Sid Garris (an ex-Detroit DJ, who also handles Anthony Quinn and Robert Culp), received the word that Ernie Harwell of the-Tigers was looking for someone to sing the “Star Spangled Banner” to lead off the World Series.
Usually the chore is performed by a local celebrity, like the manager’s wife or a school teacher. (Once Robert Goulet did the honors but forgot the words.)
“Jose is a mad baseball fan,” says Garris, who resembles Bing Crosby, pipe and all, “and I figured it was an excellent chance for him to attend his first World Series game, and also to get a little publicity at the same time. The game’s watched by hundreds of millions of people around the world,” he added, glint in eye.
“When I signed Jose, he sang the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ for me, and it was really way out. I figured if we could bring him into mainstream a little, he could do it in style, with respect.”
Hilda Feliciano recalls: “Jose said, ‘Oh christ. I’ll ruin my career if I do it my way.’ But he desperately wanted to go to the game, and eventually we decided he could do the song reasonably straight, without compromising too much. ‘’To thine own self, be true,’ is our motto.”
“Sure I expected some kind of reaction,” Garris says matter-of-factly, “but hell, nothing like what happened. Nobody was prepared for that.”
Least of all RCA Victor, Jose’s record label. Nobody from the company’s A & R department was on hand to tape Jose’s soulful reading of the anthem. The only available tape was NBC’s air check videotape of the entire telecast.
Two days after the game, acetates of Feliciano’s “Star Spangled Banner” were moving fast on the streets of New York at $3 a copy. RCA hurriedly contacted NBC and rushed out a single, taken straight from the videotape. It hit big.
Imagine: the national anthem on the pop charts. (Perhaps now the Beatles will revive “God Save the Queen,” Gordon Lightfoot “Oh Canada,” the Bee Gees “Waltzing Matilda.”)
It wasn’t the first time an artist had been slaughtered by the public for tangling with the “Banner.” Back in wartime 1941, when Hans Kindler introduced a stream-lined Stravinsky harmonization and choral setting in Baltimore, the audience actually booed. Yet while distinguished musicians (and few will doubt Jose is just that) are criticized for artistically interpreting the song, every day thousands of school children, teachers and general public sing it off key and no one complains.
“They said I sang it off key, that I don’t know how to play guitar, and one woman even wrote saying she didn’t mind classical guitarists, but when a long haired hippie started doing the song, she was nauseated,” Jose says, more amused than uptight.
“I did the song the way I feel it. It was honest. It wasn’t just a publicity stunt. I didn’t have any idea what would happen. Aretha Franklin souled the song at the Democratic Convention, so I figured there wouldn’t be much of a fuss. Now I open all my U.S. gigs with Banner. I like the song, I love my country, and I see no reason why I shouldn’t do it.” Although Jose’s expenses were paid by the Tigers, he lost $60 on a bet he made with Garris.
Jose, short, stocky and good looking, with thick black hair, has been blind since birth. He came to New York 18 years ago, and started playing guitar at about the same time.
“I really didn’t know what would become of me,” Jose mused, stretched out in the spacious back seat of a black Cadillac limousine, fighting its way out of downtown, peak hour Toronto. “I thought I’d be spending my life making brooms, mops, chairs and things. That’s fine for some blind people, but I wanted something more out of life. Music seemed the best way.
“The fact I’m blind has been a great help to my career. If I’d been sighted I’d have played baseball and got into trouble like all other kids on my block.
“Actually, being blind is not so bad. If you’re born this way, you never know anything else and you don’t wonder about it. Though I’d hate to have lost my sight after being able to see,” he said, without the slightest self pity.
Lifting his glistening brown brogue boots over his seeing eye dog, Trudy, Jose said, “These roads are very smooth.” The engine droned over the open highway to London, Ontario.
Hilda, an attractive and sprightly brunette, is Jose’s wife, business manager and alter ego. To her, everything to do with Jose is “we.” “We” have a new record. She feels part of Jose, and he doesn’t discourage her. Both came from families of eight children, both were born in Puerto Rico just 34 miles apart.
But they met later at a Greenwich Village coffee house, run by Hilda. They were married five years ago, just after Jose started the club grind which took him all over America. The general public was still many records and many concerts and many letdowns away.
RCA Victor signed him, and cut several albums for the Spanish South American market, where Jose was always popular. But nothing happened Stateside. Victor believed in him, but the wrong people were assigned to producing his discs.
“I’d arrive at the studio,” Jose recalls grimly, “and some old cat would say, ‘OK Jose, let’s do a folk rock album today, or a country, or a rock album.’ I never had the chance to be myself. They wouldn’t respect my judgment.
“It became so bad we threatened to leave. We stopped doing English albums, and only cut Spanish product because Victor had no say in what we did or how we did it.”
Eventually, he signed with Sid Garris, who renegotiated his Victor contract, so Feliciano had some say in what was done. Rick Jarrard was his new A & R man, and it clicked right away. ‘“We didn’t need to say a word. He knew what I wanted to do, and he knew how to put it down on tape. And it worked out right,” he added, as a sort of conversational exclamation mark.
“Rick played me the Doors’ ’Light My Fire’ when we were listening to album material and suggested we slow it down and do it with soul. So we put down one track with my vocal and guitar, then another with bass and conga drums. Rick added some special string arrangements, and a flautist improvising. A West Coast DJ picked up the song and played it, and soon there was enough momentum for the song to be pulled off the original album, and released as a single. It moved slowly, but it got there,” he said, lifting his legs onto the seat, and putting his head in Hilda’s lap.
Hilda ran her fingers through his hair: “He’s become much easier to live with since he made it,” she said, “Jose was determined to get there and he was so let down when it took so long.
“He’d sit there saying nothing and suddenly come out with something like, ‘Why isn’t anybody helping me? I don’t have a hit record. Yet, I heard today John X has a hit, and what a schmuck he is.’ I’d tell him to cool it and wait, and he’d get mad and say ‘I don’t think you care whether I make it or not.’” The Felicianos have 400 birds, 22 talking parrots, six chinchillas—all pregnant—four Doberman puppies, and three big dogs, including Trudy, Jose’s seeing eye dog, to keep them occupied. They both eat too much and compensate by dieting a lot. And Jose loves telling corny jokes. Over dinner, Jose rattled forth a diverse section of his aged yucks. (“What wears a turban and rides a brown pig? Lawrence of Poland.”)
Most of his jokes are aimed at other ethnic groups, such as Poles, Negroes and Italians. (“How do you tell an Italian airplane? It has hair under its wings.’’)
Later, in the dressing room of London’s cold and damp hockey stadium, Jose worried about the temperature. “If it’s too cold, I won’t be able to move on the fretboard,” he moaned to Hilda. Over a thousand people shivered in winter coats in the stands and on the chairs placed on wooden boards over the ice. London’s 200,000 people are not renowned for musical awareness, but when Jose was led onto the stage by Hilda, and placed on the stool in front of the two mikes, a clear rapport was established.
Backed up by Paulinho on drums, Efrem Logreira on congas and Robert Kindel on bass, Jose really got to grips with the tunes of the times. First Tommy Tucker’s “High Heel Sneakers,” which he belted along a melodious highway. Then came “Phoenix,” an instrumental rendition of “Love Is Blue,” “Goin’ Out of My Head,” “Daytripper,” “Younger Generation,” “Satisfaction,” “California Dreamin’,” music from Zorba the Greek and Black Orpheus.
The applause built and grew in dimensions, the chill forgotten. It was the best thing they’d seen in London since the Centennial train went through. Jose sat on his stool as he’s always done, rocking to the rhythm he was putting down, sightless eyes staring straight into the blinding purple spotlights, singing soul.
The cue song “Goin’ to Chicago” finished, and out trundled Hilda and Trudy, and Jose stood up and bowed, long and low. They screamed themselves hoarse. The trio returned, and Jose once again climbed onto the stool, and you knew what it was going to be, and it was. “. . . you know that it would be untrue . . .”
Another standing ovation. Once again, Jose had lit the audience’s fire, and was feeling kind of warm himself.
Later we listened to the big Cadillac’s radio and talked of singers and influences, as the highway hummed beneath us. “I guess I’m in the soul bag,” he said, as Hilda got more and more involved in her book of West Indian supernaturalism. “I like putting meat . . . feeling . . . myself into songs. I suppose I’m an actor’s singer. I like to feel a personal involvement in the lyrics.
“Ray Charles influenced me. On guitar, West Montgomery was a great inspiration. I also dig Stevie Wonder—whew, can that kid play the harmonica. Aretha’s very good. Simon and Garfunkel are unbelievable.”
As for future material, “I’m definitely doing ‘Hey Jude.’ I’ve cut ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ for the next album. And I’m going to do ‘Walk On By.’ ”
“Abraham Martin and John” came on the radio. “Jeez, I wish I’d recorded that song first,” Jose said, and then, “Hey, don’t those jocks who talk over records give you a pain in the ass?
“I think that for a guy my age, I’ve done really well,” Jose said, getting back into the ever-present bag of nuts and sweets.
“And we’re gonna move into a new house soon,” said Hilda, “and we’ll electrify the fences, because some of the fans are too much.”
“I wanna get a seeing eye lion, so that nobody will be game to refuse us admittance anywhere,” Jose grinned.