Jose Feliciano has 39 Gold albums to his credit. He's sold more than 85 million records worldwide. Jose has won 3 Grammys, including an award for Best Latin Pop Performance for his “MeEnamore” LP. He has gathered heaping handfuls of best guitarist awards (including honors from Guitar Player and Playboy Magazine) and is widely considered one of the finest guitarists on the contemporary scene. He has performed on albums of such recording legends as Joni Mitchell, John Lennon, Bill Withers and Minnie Riperton. He has also performed with symphony orchestras around the world. His version of the Doors' "Light My Fire" was an enormous hit and is regarded in some corners as the definitive rendition of the song. Jose wrote the theme songs for TV's " Chico and the Man", "Affirmation," which was a major record for George Benson, and "Feliz Navidad", which has become a Christmas standard throughout the world.
We spoke with Jose Feliciano about his illustrious career in the spotlight.
Q - Jose, is there anything you'd like to do in music that you haven't already done?
A - I would like to try and win Grammys for Best Instrumental Album in Jazz. I'd also like to be the first contemporary artist to write contemporary classical pieces for guitar and symphony, which I have done so far to a small extent, but I think I can get the young people to enjoy the classics. I don't mean the old classics, but by writing new classics, get them into classical music.
Q - Your first records were recorded in Spanish and intended for the Latin market. This year we've seen Julio Iglesias enjoy tremendous popularity. Why has it taken America so long to discover the Latin American musical influence?
A - It's like anything you know, it happens at the time it's supposed to. When I was recording Spanish records back in 1967, even though I'd recorded an English album on RCA, I did 3 albums before I did any Spanish. The three albums were "Voice and Guitar" - Jose Feliciano, "Bag Full of Soul" and "Fantastic Feliciano", which was an album that was kind of more ballads and kind of done in a big band sound, which wasn't my idea, but producer Danny Davis'. Then I was sent by RCA on a promotional tour to Latin America - Argentina and I went and I appeared in the Festival. They didn't know what to do with me in so far as recording, so I said, "Why don't I go into the studio and get me some musicians and I'll do some things I used to know, some old songs. I did, and they became hits. Then in '68, "Light My Fire" came out.
Q - Just the year before Jim Morrison and The Doors saw that song go all the way to Number One. Why do you think your version also clicked?
A - I think "Light My Fire" was a unique sounding record in the sense that if didn't employ any drums, like your Rock 'n' Roll records of that time period. I think that's why I made it. It was guitar, conga drum and Ray Brown on bass. It was just the right elements at the right time.
Q - You were the second of 12 children. You grew up in Spanish Harlem. Today, you're outselling Julio Igiesias in the Latin American market and Michael Jackson in Spain. Did you ever think you'd enjoy great popularity and success?
A - I used to be a dreamer in school. I never, in all my wildest days, would ever think I'd become kind of a Latin idol to the women in Latin countries or a hero to young kids. I never thought of that. My main interest really was playing music. I was always fascinated by the sound I could get out of things. I’m just a very lucky person, that God gave me the chance to do what I'm doing.
Q - How do you decide what song you're going to cover?
A - I look for songs that nobody has covered, because they don't know how to cover them. That's the only secret to that. I've been avoiding that, because people sometimes forget that I'm also a composer. I almost had a big hit with the song "Let's Find Each Other Tonight." I know that one of these days I'm going to get a hit with my own composition.
Q - What kind of music do you listen to?
A - I like Kool and the Gang. I like Peabo Bryson's new record. I like Duran Duran a little bit, not a lot, but I think they're alright. I like Michael Jackson. I think he's very talented. He's hooked into a musical thing 'cause he's a dancer. He's not a physical musician. His dancing enables him to write tunes because he's a good singer.
Q - Do you listen to heavy metal or hard rock?
A - I listen to some of it. I like Van Halen. I think he's a super technician on the electric guitar. He's what you call a combination of what Hendrix used to be like and himself. He's really talented. I like Journey.
Q - But how about the harder acts like Judas Priest?
A - Not really. To me, and I'm not an authority on music because sometimes I don't give it a listen too much, but those groups are too loud. Who the hell can hear them? (Laughs.)
Q - How’d you come to write "Feliz Navidad"?
A - I wanted to write a new type of Christmas song. Even though I like "Jingle Bells" and all of the Christmas things, I wanted to write something new. Again, when you write these things, you don't think, "Oh, geez, it's gonna be a big hit." I never thought it was gonna be the second most popular Christmas song since "White Christmas""
Q - Did it take you a long time to write that song?
A - Naw, about 5 minutes.
Q - What record did you make with John Lennon?
A - Well, I played on an album of his that was never released, because they never finished it. It was during his "Weekend in LA" trip. I did a song called "Be My Baby", where I just played electric guitar on it. To tell you the truth, it was really a non-creative session. Nobody knew in what direction to go. John didn't know where to go because he had a Fifth in his hand at that session. Being from England, the Lads from Liverpool, they drink a lot, you know? They were bickering among themselves. They had so many musicians, extras they didn't need.
Q - So we will probably never get to hear the record?
A - Probably. Yoko's the only one that has those tapes now.