Celebrating Seniors – José Feliciano Turns 70

Blind songwriter, English/Spanish singer, composer, guitarist, baby boomer and now septuagenarian senior citizen José Feliciano turns 70 today, September 10.

jose feliciano 1970, american singer songwriter (José Feliciano 1970 Photo: Nationaal Archief, Den Haag | Wikimedia CC 3.0)

Born blind at birth (due to congenital glaucoma) in Puerto Rico in 1945, José Feliciano was among of the first wave of baby boomer babies. The Feliciano family – José, his parents and his ten brothers – moved to Spanish Harlem, New York City in 1950, where his father found work as a longshoreman. José grew up listening to classical guitarists, jazz, soul, and then finally like other baby boomers – rock and roll. As a child he first played the concertina (like an accordion) and then guitar, teaching himself by listening to records. Eventually he had classical music lessons with a disciple of Spanish guitarist virtuoso Andrés Segovia. According to a 1975 interview with Earl Wilson for the Beaver County Times, José Feliciano’s first paying gig was at The Puerto Rican Theater in New York City for $100 a week, at age 9. He left school at 17 in the early 1960’s to earn a living by playing in clubs in the US and Canada.

In an interview with Brian Fischler on cesarsway.com, José Feliciano disclosed that blindness did not prevent him from overcoming his fears and developing a love of animals, especially dogs and horses.

jose feliciano, blind singer, classical guitarist, puerto rican, baby boomer, senior citizen guide dogs, guide dog trudy, septuagenarian, 50+, mature, older, senior years, hilda perez, poquita fe, janna merlyn, janna feliciano, light my fire, the doors, hi-heel sneakers, detroit tigers announcer, ernie harwell, the star-spangled banner, 1968 world series, susan omillion, old turkey buzzard, late show with david letterman, feliz navidad, chico and the man, che sara, que sera, shake a hand, melissa anne feliciano, jonathan jose feliciano, weston, connecticutGrowing up in New York City a lot of people had dogs that would bark at you and seemed vicious. I was deathly afraid of them, and it wasn’t until I went to Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester (Hills), Michigan that I got over my fear of dogs. After getting my first guide dog, I was captivated by animals. I love horses, and have learned to ride them, and of course absolutely love dogs.

José Feliciano got his first guide dog Trudy (a smooth collie), in 1963. Trudy would appear with him in concerts, taking him onto the stage and sitting beside him. She looks as if she is a fan! (Jose Feliciano 1968 photo: mcrfb.com)

Feliciano had gotten Trudy the same year he was signed by RCA Victor. His first single Everybody Do The Click was released the following year in 1964.

jose feliciano 1970, american singer songwriter, wife hilda perezAccording to footsweb.ancestry.com, on October 19, 1965 in Brantley County, Georgia, 20-year-old José Feliciano married Hilda Perez.

An interview of José Feliciano by Ritchie Yorke (ritchieyorke.com) uncovered that Hilda also came from a large Puerto Rican family that had lived just 34 miles away from where the Feliciano’s lived in Puerto Rico.

Despite this Puerto Rican connection, they didn’t meet until he was performing at the Greenwich Village coffee house in New York City that Hilda managed, before José Feliciano started touring clubs.

(Hilda Perez and José Feliciano 1970 Photo: Eric Koch / Anefo | Wikimedia CC 3.0)

José Feliciano released two English language folk, soul & pop albums in 1965 and 1966 before RCA Victor asked him to record a Spanish language album while he was performing in Argentina.

Bolero music featured on José Feliciano’ s first hit singles in Argentina from 1966-1968, including this one below that he performs from his album El Sentimiento La Voz y la Guitarra (1966) – Poquita Fe, written by Bobby Capó, fellow Puerto Rican.

More albums and touring followed, but José Feliciano’s United Kingdom tour in 1967 was marred when his guide dog Trudy was put into quarantine for two weeks when he arrived in England. His wife Hilda helped him navigate successfully during his trip, but two years later when he toured the UK again, Feliciano petitioned to change the laws for guide dogs in England.

In 1968 José Feliciano and Hilda (now called Janna Merlyn Feliciano) moved to Los Angeles, where they lived with a menagerie of 400 birds, 22 talking parrots, plus chinchillas, and numerous dogs/puppies.

José was persuaded to record a Latin-style version of Light My Fire (by the Doors) for his album of cover tunes Feliciano! (1968). His Light My Fire single went to #3 in the US, boosting his commercial success and helping him to win two Grammy Awards in 1969 – Best New Artist & Best Pop Song. Below, José Feliciano performing Light My Fire in 1968.

José Feliciano’s 1968 cover of Hi-Heel Sneakers (written by Tommy Tucker) that same year made it to #25 on the US Billboard charts. Below, José Feliciano’s sings Hi-Heel Sneakers.

Broadcaster Ernie Harwell (the voice of the Detroit Tigers baseball team) invited baseball fan José Feliciano to sing The Star-Spangled Banner in October at the opening of Game 5 of the 1968 World Series. Critical backlash mixed with praise for José Feliciano’s soulful Latin acoustic rendition of the The Star-Spangled Banner national anthem boosted his release of a single of The Star-Spangled Banner all the way to #50 on the 1968 US Billboard charts. Below, José Feliciano sings The Star-Spangled Banner.

13-year-old Susan Omillion of Detroit was in the audience for the game and liked his performance so much she tried for months (unsuccessfully) to contact José Feliciano through his record company. Finally she contacted Detroit announcer Ernie Harwell, who gave her Jose’s contact information, and without meeting José Feliciano in person, she set up a fan club for him in 1969.

Numerous appearances on US musical variety shows followed in 1969; for some of these, José Feliciano used the pseudonym Werbley Finster. Using the Werbley Finster name, he recorded the single So Long Paul (referring to rumours of Paul McCarney’s death). Five José Feliciano singles made the US Top 100 Billboard charts in 1969, and he also recorded Old Turkey Buzzard for the theme song to the Quincy Jones western movie Mackenna’s Gold (1969). José Feliciano’s recording of Old Turkey Buzzard  was a recurring “bit” on Late Show with David Letterman, and he appeared on the show 38 years later (below, in 2007) to sing it.

Fresh on his successes of the late 1960’s, José Feliciano wrote and recorded an album of original Christmas music called José Feliciano (1970) which contained the hit single Feliz Navidad (1970). The Feliz Navidad single reached #10 on the US Billboard charts and that year and has become a staple of the Christmas season, one of the most-played and more recently, most-downloaded Christmas songs in the US; the album was renamed Feliz Navidad in 2001 (with 3 new songs added) and is available every year at Christmas time. Below, José Feliciano performing Feliz Navidad with Daryl Hall

José Feliciano wrote and jointly composed (with wife Janna Merlyn) the theme song to the hit 1970’s TV show Chico and the Man; Feliciano even guest-starred on Chico and the Man playing singer Pepe Fernando, Chico’s (Freddie Prinze) cousin. This kick-started his career of acting in and composing for other television shows and movies (MacMillan and Wife, Kung Fu). Feliciano. Below, José Feliciano performing live on Chico and the Man the theme song, and Light My Fire.

José Feliciano’s 1971 versions of the Italian song Che SaràQue Sera in Spanish and Shake a Hand in English, were top ten hits in Europe and Latin America, although they didn’t chart in the US. That year, Ernie Harwell finally introduced 26-year-old Jose to 17-year-old Susan Omillion, his fan club founder; they became friends. 

José and Hilda Feliciano divorced in January 1979 and three years later, Susan Omillion became Susan Feliciano when she and Jose married in October 1982. They moved to the Weston, Connecticut in 1990 and live in a renovated 18th century inn (the former Old Banks Tavern) with their three children – daughter Melissa Anne (born 1988), son Jonathan José (born 1993), and son Michael Julian (b. 1995). 

Since the 1970’s José Feliciano has continue to record albums in English and in Spanish, and tour across the world. Although his English language albums didn’t reprise his successes of 1968-1969, José Feliciano’s Spanish-speaking audience continued to support him. From 1987-1994 he had 11 Top 100 Hit singles on the US Latin charts.

The year he turned 50 (1995), Public School 155 in New York city was renamed The Jose Feliciano Performing Arts School. Now in his 50+ years, José Feliciano appeared in a cameo role in the movie Fargo (1996) and continued performing and recording in Spanish and English. When interviewed in 2001 by Graham Reid (elsewhere.co.nz), José Feliciano had this to say about his career and aging:

Now that I’m older and more mature I think I sing better and play better, and of course my writing is much better…When you’ve had a chance to live some experiences then you can really write.

60+ José Feliciano was presented with the Grammy Legend Award in 2000 and released Soundtrack of My Life, his first English language album written and composed by him, in 2007.

jose feliciano 2010, american singer songwriter, older, senior citizenAs he approached his senior citizen years, José Feliciano released the Spanish language album Señor Bolero, and was rewarded with his 8th Grammy Award for it. As an official senior citizen, he was awarded with the Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement award in 2011. Through his professional recording career thus far (1965-2012), José Feliciano has released 38 English-language studio albums and 28 Spanish-language albums. His most recent album was the English language The King, Jose Feliciano Tribute to Elvis Presley (2012).

(José Feliciano 2010 Photo: Mgersh | Wikimedia CC 4.0)

During a 2012 interview with Joe Bosso for musicradar.com, when asked why he still plays hundreds of shows every year, he replied “

I love it. I can’t see stopping. Maybe when I get really old and my hands get fucked up from arthritis or something. But it’s like when I played at school: When I do concerts now and the audiences go crazy, I’m playing and I’m thinking, Wow, Jose, can you believe that after all these years people still want to hear you? They still love your music? That’s a thrill that never gets old. And I never take it for granted.”

José Feliciano has performed concerts in support of guide dogs for the blind in different countries, and also works with the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). He embarked on a world tour in 2014 and in 2015 he can be seen performing in Germany in August, Colombia in September, and for his Canadian fans in Markham, Ontario in October 2015.

2 thoughts on “Celebrating Seniors – José Feliciano Turns 70”

  1. Esme' Carriera Wilson says:

    This phenomenal, incredible man. I remember watching his show in P.R. as a young girl, and never ceasing to wonder, “Lord, you made this fantastic human being on a day You wanted to show the world that we have no limits, no limits at all, regardless of what others may think.” I am hoping someday that someone in Hollywood or the TV stations wake up and realize what an incredible movie his life would make. I am from Carolina, Puerto Rico, and like Jose have lived most of my life on the US mainland, so proud of him, so very honored to live in world he has made beautiful with his music. Muchas gracias, don Jose, muchas gracias, compatriota. * Has everybody heard him singing with Arno Raunig? When a blind Christ-child with the hands of an angel meets a man who sings with the voice of a beautiful woman, what can happen but magic?

  2. Joe Delaney says:

    Jose is his own man! He has so many unique and diverse chapters in his life there is a reflection of all things good in his work. He was worried about the day his hands would fail. He’s made it through a fantastic career. Now,s the age and time you play for the love. Hand dificullities, and doing things you used to do and realizing you can’t is frustrating to the artist, especially a sensitive and moderately tempermentle. I had like 2 Oscar Peterson piano solos nailed at 12. I was self taught, but I new the notes and somebody showed me a minor chord vs. a major, etc. Than I slowed the stero from 33 to 16, because it’s exatly (almost) half. Then saw all the notes or the scales in the chord apearing in patterns. It took me from 3 to 6 to get from ear to chords then the big revelation at 12, copying a solo. Anyway, it’s scary. However Jose has so much talent, and understands every kind of music, and he’s got the Latin influence to infuse into American Popular music. You can’t buy that. When I was 8 my Dad brought home my first Jose album the opening tune was Jose at 10. Ha I think we dug that the most. I remember my Dad saying listen to that cats phrasing, but that’s culteral. He reminds me in background, even though quite different, just a few miles away. Jon Lucien is from the Virgin Islands, we could see PR from his house. But he had a Calypsonian influence as well as a Spanish influence. Only because, even when I lived there throughout the 80’s, there were 4 TV channels, 2 from PR and 2 from the USVI. Jon’s dad was blind as well and he had everyone of his boys playing with him at one time or another. And there dad had to play music just to eat, so when a gig came in, his boys better be around and he’d tell them what instruments to play that night. Jon, started w/guitar, but sometimes he had to back up his dad on upright bass, when he was real young he had to play bass standing on a chair. Anyway my point is all these influences hitting Jose. I’d love to hear him do an American songbook album with arrangers from America, like Johnny Mandel cats. As well, with his gift for melody, he should pen a couple new ‘Standards’. He has a soulful American sound to his voice as did Jon, bigining at Nat Cole, to Johnny Hartman. Jose is a very very unique gift to music. I can still draw tears dancing with my wife to “Senior Bolero” Actually I’m not sure which is making me cry. Im 56 I just had to bag a steady gig with the biggest and last remaining singer in show biz. I’m having my Ulnar Nerve, operated on this week. I’ve been playing piano by muscle memory for 3 years. So tell Jose never to worry about his hand’s just worry about his heart. Man, you can tell he’s a warm hearted cat from sense of humor. It’s not forced he’s just a funny and intelligent guy. I’d like to drop him a fan letter. If anyone has a mailing address. I would have it translated to brail if I had to. My friend who lives just north of me in Sarasota, is also a pianist is blind and would do it for me. Hell I let him drive my car in snow storms in Boston, back in the day when Malls were closed on Sundays. I heard Jose lives in FL. as well, I’m in sleepy Ft. Myers. If anyone has a mailing address I would like very much to drop him a serious letter. Thank you. Joe

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