When José Feliciano would come home from school as a young boy, the first thing he’d do was turn on “American Bandstand” and attempt to play along with the music on the Dick Clark-hosted TV show.
“I thought to myself, ‘If I can play along with these songs, then I’m a professional. I’m on the way,’” the 74-year-old singer-guitarist told HuffPost during a recent phone interview from his home in Connecticut.
Feliciano would practice hours upon hours, so much so that his mom would often find him in his bedroom, asleep with his guitar in hand. All that rehearsing paid off.
Throughout his 50-plus year career, Feliciano has so far released more than 60 albums and notched international hits including a rendition of The Doors’ “Light My Fire,” the hit holiday song “Feliz Navidad” and “California Dreamin’” ― recently heard in the Quentin Tarantino film “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.”
“I fell in love with the guitar. I heard the guitar sound — and it called me,” said Feliciano, who was born blind.
Feliciano’s passion for music comes to life in the upcoming documentary “Behind This Guitar,” which features appearances by many artists who have been inspired by or worked alongside Feliciano through the years, including Gloria Estefan and Carlos Santana. The documentary follows Feliciano’s life ― from his birth in Puerto Rico and his family’s move to Harlem, New York, to his rise playing the clubs of Greenwich Village and his eventual stardom.
“Behind This Guitar” was set to premiere at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, but was postponed due to COVID-19. The film will follow Feliciano’s new studio album of the same name, released in January. One of the set’s new tracks, “I’m America,” has resonated lately with Feliciano.
“I really liked the message that it said,” Feliciano noted before quoting some of the song’s lyrics: “I am the river. I am the rain. The lonesome whistle of a train.”
“I’m proud to be from Puerto Rico. And I love America,” he said. “And that’s why I recorded this song. Because I love America. I think it’s time that people started realizing that they love this country and that’s why I did ‘I’m America’ — to show my love for this country.”
This isn’t the first time Feliciano performed a song so directly tied to American identity. In 1968, he performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the World Series at the height of Vietnam War protests. He’s often said to be the first artist to publicly stylize the song, turning the national anthem on its head by infusing both jazz and Latin influences. At the time, the performance received a mixed response, with some calling it controversial, resulting in radio stations pulling Feliciano’s songs from the air.
Feliciano, who eventually recovered from the initial backlash, said he’s proud to have paved the way for more artistic creativity.
“Everybody sings it their own way. I think all I did was open the door for freedom of expression,” Feliciano said. “And I have no regrets. Sometimes in my show, I even do a version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ à la Jimi Hendrix. I do that because I can … I want to see it go forward. I want to see people get along. As Rodney King said years ago, ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ And I couldn’t agree with him more. I’m just trying to do my part.”
Over the years, Feliciano has enjoyed performing around the world; it’s one of his favorite parts of the business.
“I love when I would travel on the road and people would come to see me. I can tell them how much I owe them. Because I do. I wouldn’t have a career if it wasn’t for my fans and friends I’ve made.”
With his wide-ranging, long career, Feliciano is often referred to as a legend ― even receiving the 2000 Grammy Legend Award. But the modest musician is quick to dismiss that description.
“I’m not a legend. I’m just a guy who worked very hard to achieve.”