José Feliciano: The pick of Puerto Rico

Tim Cumming meets the evergreen guitarist
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The Independent Culture

"I could take anything and make music out of it when I was a kid," says the guitar legend José Feliciano, who this year celebrates 50 years in music. Born blind in 1945, in the small Puerto Rican town of Lares, one of 11 brothers, he would go on to be one of the world's first crossover-music stars, producing more than 60 albums and winning half a dozen Grammies.

"I could take anything and make music out of it when I was a kid," says the guitar legend José Feliciano, who this year celebrates 50 years in music. Born blind in 1945, in the small Puerto Rican town of Lares, one of 11 brothers, he would go on to be one of the world's first crossover-music stars, producing more than 60 albums and winning half a dozen Grammies.

The first music that he remembers are the intensely romantic boleros that his mother listened to on the radio. He was playing the concertina at six, and by the time he was nine he was spending up to 14 hours a day at the guitar, mastering the fast, intricate and forceful picking technique that is his signature.

The family moved to New York in 1950, and by the end of the decade, Feliciano, like his peers, had fallen under the spell of rock'n'roll. "A lot of Puerto Ricans wanted to be American, so we listened to rock'n'roll," he remembers. "I loved it. I used to do all of Ray Charles's piano licks on the guitar. I didn't have a choice," he adds, grinning. "We couldn't afford a piano."

But that wasn't all he was listening to. Classical guitar, jazz, American standards and the Spanish songs of his childhood were all part of a unique musical palette that, a half-century later, he now brings to Camden's Jazz Cafe.

His first solo gigs were at Gerdes Folk City in Greenwich Village when he was 17. Gerdes was the home of the American folk movement. "I played rock'n'roll and Spanish songs, which were then considered folk. I did Bob Dylan's 'Don't Think Twice', and met Dylan when he came to see me play. And Joan Baez. The whole of folk was there."

It was at Gerdes that he got his major break, when an RCA rep came to see a group, but signed Feliciano instead. His 1965 debut, The Voice and Guitar of Jose Feliciano, established him as a powerful, wholly original interpreter of songs, and it's a quality that still strikes you throughout his spectacularly varied set at the Jazz Cafe - how true to the essence and yet independent of the original his interpretations are.

Songs such as "Jealous Guy" or "Light My Fire" are so familiar that it is almost impossible to imagine them anew, but José does it. His reimagining of a song leaves no stone unturned. "I always say, if you can't interpret a song better than the original, don't do it." It's a process that's a million miles from the karaoke spirit of the tribute band, and there can be few, if any, interpreters of song to match him today.

Rocking back and forth into the heart of his music, Feliciano is a compelling performer. Switching effortlessly from a dramatic bolero via some mariachi to stunning versions of "Sunshine of Your Love" and "Purple Haze", he deserves the adulation of his audience. "My voice is better than it was in those early years," he says. "People forget that I was just a kid."

Those original albums are long out of print, and though a definitive compilation of his English-language material is due next year from RCA, the label that first signed him, Feliciano is critical of the plethora of best-of albums that fill the shelves. "They should release albums in their entirety," he says, "rather than picking a song from this one, another from that one. I hate compilations."

Only a handful of Spanish songs are included in the evening's set, but his Spanish albums of the late Nineties have been some of the most significant of his career, as he returned to his musical roots with the two Mister Bolero albums. "I first sang boleros on record in 1966," he says. "I was in Argentina for a music festival. RCA had invited me, and they didn't know what to do with me. I didn't fit the profile they wanted. So I said, let me record these Spanish songs. They did, and man, within a week of putting it out, it was José mania. I couldn't leave my room for screaming girls!"

He still can't quite believe it. "I was surprised and embarrassed. This happened to Sinatra and Elvis and The Beatles. Not to José."

Today, as well as doing about 120 gigs a year, from classical concerts to club dates, Feliciano continues to write and record at his home studio in Connecticut. "I'm working on an album of American classics," he reveals. "But I'm doing them with Latin flair. There'll be a big difference. Songs like 'Night and Day', 'I'm a Fool to Want You'... But then, I've always done things different."

José Feliciano plays the Jazz Cafe, London NW1 until Sunday; 'A Mexico... con Amor' is out now on Universal Latin

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