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When considering the artistry of José Feliciano, it’s almost impossible to separate the music from the man—a sure sign that you’ve achieved the status of a legend. As the first modern Latin musician to crossover into the English-speaking market, Feliciano is a trailblazer, a trendsetter and a world-renowned folk troubadour, and yet he has remained as humble as his beginnings and as accessible as his songs. Behind those trademark dark glasses looms a sensitive and imaginative individual who has given the world—with only a spotless acoustic guitar as his passport—a universal sound that has influenced generations.
Feliciano’s road to success was not an easy one. The talented guitarist we know today honed his craft through countless hours of practice, hard work and undaunted drive. Luck certainly smiled on him after his career started, when he began collaborating with such stellar jazz musicians as guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and bassist Ray Brown, but a closer look reveals that Feliciano’s early years were full of hardship—a challenge that he met with all the innocence, grace and determination of a strong-willed, precocious child.
He was born on September 10, 1945, to impoverished parents who lived in Lares, a town in the hills of Puerto Rico. The victim of a congenital glaucoma that left him permanently blind at birth, José was one of 11 children and, as we would learn later with his 1964 album debut The Voice and Guitar of José Feliciano, one with an incredible musical talent.
“When I was three years old,” he recalls in a video shot in his private recording studio, “my uncle would play [the cuatro] and I would accompany him on a tin cracker can of saltines, and I remember that the first time that I played on the tin can my mother went into the kitchen and cried—it was something which I couldn’t understand.”
Feliciano’s parents lacked the resources to nurture their son’s natural talent, as they could barely survive as a family. When he was five, they all migrated to New York. “It was very strange,” he explains. “[The city] was very big and I could hear crowds of people, and it sounded like babble. For a little while, I thought I was in the Tower of Babel because I couldn’t understand the language.”
Feliciano eventually learned English and, taking advantage of the Braille system, which he now uses to read everything he can get his hands on about the Civil War and World War II (among count-less other subjects), he educated himself. He also taught himself to play guitar and sing, practicing for as many as 14 hours a day with nothing but a handful of records by popular artists of the day like Elvis, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. By age 17, he had abandoned school to sing around New York and help his parents financially.
It wasn’t long before audiences at the coffee houses and small clubs on New York’s ’60s folk scene began to witness the birth of a star. Feliciano clearly enjoyed playing his acoustic guitar and building on the tropical style that was popular at the time. Record industry executives noticed him and, in 1965, RCA signed him. A year later, after a historic performance in Argentina, Feliciano got the chance to record an album in Spanish for RCA called El Sentimiento, La Voz y La Guitarra. On the album, he reinterpreted a few traditional bolero songs—among them “Poquita Fe” and “Usted"—and became an instant sensation.
“When I recorded the boleros in 1966 and they were released,” Feliciano remembers, “all of a sudden it was like Elvis Presley in 1956. I mean, I became a teen idol. I had the screaming girls, I couldn’t leave my hotel room, and, then, it spread to Venezuela and Colombia, and all over South America. It was really something.”