Guest DJ José Feliciano Is An Alt.Latino Icon : Alt.Latino Feliciano discusses his career as a crossover pioneer on this week's show and he plays the music that influenced his career — and it's not what you think.

Guest DJ José Feliciano Is An Alt.Latino Icon

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From NPR Music, this is ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras, and I can't even believe what I'm about to say. Sitting right across from me is José Feliciano. Thank you so much for being here, Mr. Feliciano.

JOSÉ FELICIANO: Well, thank you. It's great to be here with you, Felix.


FELICIANO: (Singing) You know that it would be untrue. You know that I would be a liar if I was to say to you, girl, we couldn't get much higher. Come on, baby. Light my fire.

CONTRERAS: OK, we're here in ALT.LATINO world headquarters in Washington, D.C., and you were here in D.C. for a special event, correct?

FELICIANO: I went to the Smithsonian, which was really interesting because I had the fortune - although I didn't see it at the time - the fortune of donating one of my guitars to the museum. And she'd been with me, really, 51 years.


FELICIANO: And she's the one responsible for "Light My Fire." She's the one responsible for the "Star-Spangled Banner."

CONTRERAS: OK, now let's hear one of those songs played on that guitar.

FELICIANO: But even more than that, she's responsible...

CONTRERAS: This is "Light My Fire" from the album "Feliciano!" from 1968.

FELICIANO: ...For the early boleros that I did.


FELICIANO: (Singing) Well, you know that it would be untrue, and you know that I would be a liar if I was to go and tell you, mama, we couldn't get much higher. Yeah, come on, baby, light my fire. Come on, baby, light my fire, yeah. Try to set the night on fire, hey. Hey, come on, baby, light, light my fire, yeah. Come on, babe, light my fire. Don't you know it's all right? Light my fire. Light my fire. Light my fire. Oh, light my fire, light my fire, light my fire. Yeah, girl. Girl, you better light my fire, yeah. You better light, you better light, you better light my fire. And we're going to much higher. Oh, come on, girl. You know, I love you, girl. You know, I need you, babe. Come on, light, light, light, light my fire. Light my fire. Light my fire. Light my fire. Light my fire. Light my fire. Light, light, light, light, light my, my, my fire. Light, light, light, light, light my fire, girl.

CONTRERAS: This is a guest DJ session...


CONTRERAS: ...And you were kind enough to send along some of the songs that have influenced you over the years. And they highlight where your career has gone and what you've done. And it also reflects just how much a part of music has been a part of your life from the very beginning - and different styles.

FELICIANO: Definitely. Definitely.

CONTRERAS: So you were born in Puerto Rico...


CONTRERAS: ...And you came to the United States at an early age.

FELICIANO: Yeah, I was 5 years old - 1950.

CONTRERAS: And - OK, so we're going to - you wanted to play some music that you might have heard when you were a kid coming here for the first time.


CONTRERAS: This is from 1956.


CONTRERAS: This is Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers.






FRANKIE LYMON AND THE TEENAGERS: (Vocalizing, singing) Why do fools fall in love? Why do birds sing so gay and lovers await the break of day? Why do they fall in love? Why does the...

FELICIANO: I was growing up in elementary school at the time when I heard this song, and I heard somebody that could have been me if those guys had found me - a kid's voice singing about love and romance, things that I felt. And rock 'n' roll was just starting to come around, come of age, and that really did influence me. I mean, even to this very day, I listen to old rock shows that had some of the artists that I liked then. But I never closed my mind to anything, you know? And I was so involved with music. I used to sing this particular song in the school assembly. And some of my school chums would get together, and we had our own doo-wop, you know, group, you know? We didn't even know that it was doo-wop, and it was just singing on the corner, you know?


FRANKIE LYMON AND THE TEENAGERS: (Singing) Why does the rain fall from up above? Why do fools fall in love? Why do they fall in love? Why does my heart skip a crazy beat? Before I know, it will reach defeat. Tell my why. Tell my why. Why do fools fall in love?

CONTRERAS: We're going to move on to the next track. You asked for Ray Charles.


RAY CHARLES: (Singing) Well, I got a woman.

FELICIANO: Ray Charles, I have to say, really was my first musical hero. When I found out that he was blind like I was, it gave me the idea that maybe if I worked hard and I learned how to be a professional in the way I played the guitar and the way I sang, that something like what happened for him would happen for me.


FELICIANO: That's what I thought, sure. And I felt the same way when I listened to Elvis - the same thing. I thought, well, if Elvis is out there playing a guitar and singing, why couldn't I? And so - but I think what I loved about Ray Charles' music - it wasn't like anything else that was being played. It was his own, you know? The thing I loved about Ray, though, was that Ray arranged his own orchestra. He also conducted his own orchestra. And that fascinated me to think that this blind guy was doing the kind of things that only sighted conductors are supposed to do. And I wanted to push that envelope. I wanted to be that way with my life. I was bold enough that I learned to drive a car, you know?


FELICIANO: Yes. Yes, I did, and I drove well. If somebody directed me and whatever, I listened. And I always had my foot near the brakes...


FELICIANO: ...In case I had to stop.


FELICIANO: And I'll be darned. I mean, for a blind guy, I drove damn good.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter).


CHARLES: (Singing) She knows a woman's place is right there, now, in her home. I got a woman way over town that's good to me. Oh, yeah.

FELICIANO: Thank you for listening to "I've Got A Woman." That was the other thing I liked about the song, "I've Got A Woman."


FELICIANO: Because it made me feel like I had one, though I didn't.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter).


CHARLES: (Singing) Oh, she's my baby. Don't you understand?

CONTRERAS: I'll be 60 years old this year, so I grew up with Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles...


CONTRERAS: ...And José Feliciano. And I think that for a whole generation of folks that you three in particular really broke the mold or broke the idea or the misconceptions about what people without sight can or can't do...


CONTRERAS: ...Because it - you just - you drove a car, you know?

FELICIANO: Well, the way, Felix, I've always looked at my life is this. I got dealt a bunch of cards that, in the beginning, didn't look quite right. I came from a poor family. I mean, poorer than poor. We - I came from the hills of Puerto Rico, from Lares, which is a little town. Coming up this way was not easy. Then, of course, I had - the thing is that I was blind. And that was a strike against me because in 1945, when you're blind, they put you in an institution, and they never see you again. That was what a lot of parents did. And in the beginning, it was tough for my parents to cope with the fact that they had a blind child.

Of course, then they came to their senses, and they raised me very well. My mother was really a real teacher, and my father was a teacher in his way. He taught us in the way he knew how to teach us. So I can't complain. I'm here. I'm alive and still playing on stage. So I'm 72...

CONTRERAS: Oh, my gosh.

FELICIANO: ...And a half.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter) I'd say that you've done more than survive.

FELICIANO: Well, thank you.

CONTRERAS: You certainly left a huge imprint on music and on culture and everything in general. And speaking of which...


CONTRERAS: ...I asked you to bring in some songs, but is it OK if I play something that I brought in of yours?




FELICIANO: (Singing) Reloj, no marques las horas, porque voy a enloquecer. Ella se iba para siempre, cuando amanezca otra vez.

CONTRERAS: I've always said that this song, "El Reloj," from your album of boleros...


CONTRERAS: ...Is like two minutes and 34 seconds of perfection.

FELICIANO: Well, thank you. Try not to play too many of these things because they make me - I start to cry when I hear them.

CONTRERAS: Why is that?

FELICIANO: Well, one, because they're very good. I got the emotions right in the song.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter) Yes, you did.

FELICIANO: But it recounts for me how young I was. I was very young. I mean, I couldn't have been more than 20 or 21 for those albums. I enjoyed doing the bolero albums. I did quite a few of them.


FELICIANO: (Singing) ... de esta noche perpetua, para que nunca se vaya de ti, para que nunca amanezca.

CONTRERAS: I want to play something from this song, "El Reloj." It's a cross-cultural moment because during the guitar solo, you bend the strings like a blues player.


CONTRERAS: But that goes to, I think, your place in music history and in the genre in particular, how you mesh those cultures, because we are bicultural people.


CONTRERAS: We grew up with both...


CONTRERAS: ...Right?

FELICIANO: To play a blues lick like that was a crazy idea, you know?


FELICIANO: Why I thought of it? Well, I wanted people to know that I was American. Even though I was a Latino, I wanted them to know that I also was American. And so since I've been listening to the blues and things like that all my life, why not put something in there to show that?


FELICIANO: (Singing) Para que nunca amanezca, para que nunca se vaya de mí, para que nunca amanezca.

CONTRERAS: We'll come back to our interview with José Feliciano, but first, let's check in with our friends at the NPR podcast Code Switch.

I'm sorry, let's try IT again. You're listening to ALT.LATINO. We're in the studio with José Feliciano talking about music, talking about his career. One of the reasons you're here in D.C. was to, of course, contribute some of your memorabilia, as you mentioned, to the Smithsonian. So your - some of your stuff is sitting right alongside of, you know, Ella Fitzgerald, Tito Puente, Celia Cruz - all the great musical greats. But also, you performed at a naturalization ceremony, and you performed a version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" that was a recreation of something you did at a World Series game...


CONTRERAS: ...In 1968. So let's talk about that a little bit because that was controversial at its time...


CONTRERAS: ...But it's funny what 50 years can do to a controversy, right?

FELICIANO: Well, for one thing, one thing that it does is it lowers the key - you know? - because it was a different version in that sense.

CONTRERAS: Well, let's talk about it in 1968. We're so used to, now, people doing different versions of it. But at the time that you did it, it may have been the first, if not one of the first times anybody took liberties with the arrangement. And so it caused a little bit of a controversy. We're going to play a little bit of that...


CONTRERAS: ...That version.


FELICIANO: (Singing) O say, can you see by the dawn's early light.

CONTRERAS: Talk to us a little bit about the reaction, what happened and how it made you feel.

FELICIANO: Well, I didn't know quite how to feel because I heard cheers and I also heard jeers, you know? And I paid it no mind. I thought, well - so I'm sitting in the ballpark watching the game. At that time, it was televised by NBC. Tony Kubek was broadcasting for NBC. He said, do you know what you just did? And I said, no, Tony, what? What did I do? He said all of the switchboards lit up. People are throwing shoes at their television sets. And everybody's in an uproar because you did the anthem. And then he said to me, but I wouldn't worry too much because I thought you did something good, and I liked it. So that made me feel good when I walked back into the dugout. And then I had to catch a cab for Las Vegas because I was playing in Las Vegas at the time. I felt strange, you know?

CONTRERAS: Some radio stations stopped playing your music.

FELICIANO: Yeah, they did. They certainly did.


FELICIANO: (Singing) And the home of the brave. Yeah, yeah.,

CONTRERAS: And now, 50 years later, José Feliciano recreates his performance during a naturalization ceremony held at the Smithsonian Institute this past June here in Washington, D.C.


FELICIANO: (Singing) O say, can you see by the dawn's early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming? Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight o'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming. And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air - they gave proof through the night that our flag was still there. Oh, say does that star-Spangled banner yet wave o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave? Hey, hey.


FELICIANO: God bless America.

CONTRERAS: We're in the studio again with the great José Feliciano talking about music. And I think we want to go back again to some of your earlier days because people like Bob Dylan were your contemporaries.

FELICIANO: Definitely. Well, I admired Bob Dylan. I didn't understand his music in the beginning. But I always liked the fact that he too, just like me, was courageous in his own way because the conservatives didn't accept Bob Dylan. They didn't listen to his poetry so that they could know what he was saying. It took me his second album for me to realize, oh, my God, you know, this man has a lot to say. A lot of what he was saying and talking about was the message that all the young kids got - you know, that government didn't care about people sometimes. I mean, my favorite song that I did of Bob Dylan's was "Masters Of War." And he tells it like it is. I mean, hey, the masters of war are destroying the country and killing people still.

CONTRERAS: From 1966, this is José Feliciano singing Bob Dylan's "Masters Of War."


FELICIANO: (Singing) Come you masters of war, you that build the big guns, you that build the death planes, you that build all the bombs, you that hide behind walls, you that hide behind desks. I just want you to know I can see through your masks. You that never done nothin' but build to destroy - you play with my world like it's your little toy. You put a gun in my hand. And you hide from my eyes. Oh, then you turn and run farther when the first bullets fly. Like Judas of old, you lie and deceive. A world war can be won. You want me to believe. But I see through your eyes. And I see through your brain like I see through the water that runs down my drain.

You fasten their triggers for the others to fire. Yes, sit back and watch as the death count gets higher. You hide in your mansion while the young people's blood flows out of their bodies and is buried in the mud. You've thrown the worst fear that can ever be hurled, fear to bring children into the world, oh - threatening my baby, unborn and unnamed. You ain't worth the blood that runs in your veins. How much do I know to speak out of turn? You might say that I'm young. You might say I'm unlearned.

But there's one thing I know, though I'm younger than you. Even Jesus would never forgive what you do. Let me ask you one question. Is your money that good? Will it buy you forgiveness? Do you think that it could? I'm sure you will find when your death takes its toll all the money you've made will never buy back your soul. And I hope that you die and your death will come soon. I'll follow your casket on a pale afternoon, and I'll watch while you're lowered onto your death bed. And I'll stand on your grave till I'm sure that you're dead.

CONTRERAS: A very powerful performance of "Masters Of War" by José Feliciano, who has been with us here in the studio. And our time is just about over.

But before we go, tell us what you're working on next.

FELICIANO: Well, I'm working on a documentary of my life. And I'm also working on a book of my life that was written by my wife. I'm very lucky. I have those things to look forward to.

CONTRERAS: Are you still touring?

FELICIANO: I'm doing gigs that don't require me to go to Timbuktu.


FELICIANO: And I'm enjoying it. I'm having a great time. I'm home with my wife. I'm looking forward to this year's Thanksgiving because I wasn't there last year.

CONTRERAS: Quality of life, right?

FELICIANO: Exactly. Exactly.

CONTRERAS: José Feliciano, thank you so much for coming by stopping and talking to us here at ALT.LATINO. Thank you very much.



CONTRERAS: Thanks again to José Feliciano. And to illustrate the point that his restless, creative spirit will not slow down, we're going to close the show with a track that he recently released in September - an instrumental that reflects his skills as one of our great guitar players. This is called "Affirmation."

This has been ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras. Thanks for listening.


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