JOSE FELICIANO IS STANDING ON THE THRESHOLD OF A MILESTONE YEAR:
2018 will mark 50 years since he became the first person to publically stylize the Star-Spangled Banner with his rendition of the National Anthem before a World Series game in Detroit, Michigan.
It will also be 50 years in 2018 that his version of “Califonia Dreamin'” and especially, his soulful and sultry, “Light My Fire” catapulted him to world-class recognition, with an active and beloved reputation that continues to build, even to today.
This powerful article by Danyel Smith, reprinted here, showcases these events emphatically. We thank her for reawakening us all to that time, really not so long ago, that shaped the life and career of Jose Feliciano and all with whom he’s shared his music during these past 50 years.
The Perilous Fight
Before singer José Feliciano even finished performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in Tiger Stadium to begin Game 5 of the 1968 World Series, his career was in ruins.
I had set out to sing an anthem of gratitude to a country that had given me a chance. That had allowed me, a blind kid from Puerto Rico — a kid with a dream — to reach far above my own limitations. I wanted to sing an anthem of praise to a country that had given my family and me a better life than we had had before. — José Feliciano
California’s official state song — its anthem — is a bit of 1913 boosterism called “I Love You, California.”
The lyrics were written by a Los Angeles couturier and the original sheet music features a now-extinct California grizzly bear embracing the slim state like a lover. Used in a recent Jeep commercial, the song’s waxy charm melts in the rays of the Golden State’s unofficial anthem, “California, Here I Come.”
Co-written and recorded in 1924 by singer and blackface performer Al Jolson, California, “Here I Come” was performed to its full-out extent by the Ricardos and the Mertzes in a 1955 I Love Lucy episode of the same name. The foursome is on New York’s George Washington Bridge, almost 3,000 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge, belting Open up / That Golden Gate! Mood: the American West is amazing, we want in, because all things are possible there. Cuban Desi Arnaz provides vaudevillian flourishes, Lucille Ball sings as if no one is listening, and they all look, as humans and as characters, like they are living their best lives.
A few years later, Ray Charles covered “California Here I Come” for a 1960 concept album called The Genius Hits the Road — it features his indelible “Georgia on My Mind:” Whoa / Georgia / Georgia / No peace / No peace I find. Charles sings the Hoagy Carmichael composition with the kind of hate and hope that one might harbor for a home state that happily enslaved one’s recent ancestors. Charles’ “California” on the other hand — A sun-kissed miss said, ‘Don’t be late’ / That’s why I can hardly wait — unfurls with the swag and quandary of new freedoms.
There is of course the Beach Boys’ 1965 “California Girls” and Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre’s 1996 “California Love.” Both hit singles surge with similar kinds of regional we-the-best-ness, however ironic or rebellious. When Shakur raps, Let me serenade the streets of L.A. / From Oakland to Sac Town / The Bay Area / And back down, if you are from California, and you love hip-hop, you can come dangerously close to saluting. And the beginning of his epic verse about liberty, and returning home? Out on bail / Fresh out of jail / California dreamin’.
That’s the secret of these home songs, these pledges of allegiance, these rah-rah warnings. Everybody has one. Or 10. I mean, we haven’t even mentioned “Hotel California.”
California has an actual anthem — the song about it that has mattered most since the rock era — and it’s the immortal “California Dreamin’.”
The most compelling versions of the song (and there are many) are from Hugh Masekela, The Beach Boys, Bobby Womack, the Four Tops, and a 2015 cover from Sia, for the soundtrack of Dwayne Johnson’s San Andreas. The most famous and beloved recording of “California Dreamin’” is the gorgeously folk 1966 single from The Mamas and the Papas. There’s deep comfort in the call-and-response, and in the fever dream, when lost, of familiarity. There’s also frank selfishness — If I didn’t tell her / I could leave today. And the foursome’s seamless harmonies shimmer with what can in retrospect seem to be the victory of being counter to a culture from within.
There is a bold and erudite 1968 rendering of “California Dreamin’” from José Feliciano that transcends all versions of the song. Blind from birth, the Puerto Rico-born and New York-bred Feliciano — beautiful to look at with heavy dark bangs, mod wardrobe and daddy-o dark glasses — had a massive hit with a soulfully flamenco interpretation of The Doors’ signature “Light My Fire.” He had been on the coffeehouse circuit in New York City’s West Village, then released three successful albums in Spanish. He wrote and performed the theme for the typically paternalistic 1970s sitcom Chico and the Man, and is most famous for “Feliz Navidad,” a holiday standard — itself covered by everyone from the cast of Glee to Celine Dion to Luciano Pavarotti — he wrote and recorded in 1970.
“Do you know, do you realize what you’ve just done? You have created a commotion here.”
FORMER NEW YORK YANKEE AND HALL OF FAME BROADCASTER TONY KUBEK
“I owe a big debt to José Feliciano,” songwriter and Doors’ member Robby Krieger said in 1994. “When he did it, everybody started doing it. He did a whole different arrangement.” Released only a year after the Doors’ original, the song turned Feliciano immediately into a star. “California Dreamin’” was the B-side of “Light,” and radio stations played it as much as the Doors’ cover. He was a phenomenon.
The tempo of Feliciano’s “California” is far more slow than the Mamas and the Papas’ version (which itself is not quite the original). And when he says he’d be safe and warm if he “was in L.A.,” it’s a Spanish-inflected “Ellay” and calls to mind the palm trees dotting the barrios and middle-class enclaves of Central Los Angeles as much as the ones gracing Malibu, California. The original lyrics, by John and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, are, I got down on my knees / And I pretend to pray. Feliciano changes this to and I began to pray, and the song is lifted by this humility from the narrator. There’s no shame in disenchantment, in pretending to pray. While we still have it, freedom of religion is of course as much about not worshipping, or performing faith as it is about practicing it.
But to actually pray, in a state that used to be mostly-Catholic Mexico, is a knowing script-flip. As are his soulful transitions from American English verse and chorus to Español ad-lib at about the halfway mark. It’s a seamless joining. Feliciano is not Mexican, but this is a Latino singing quite literally about wanting California, and about feeling California. Feliciano moors “California Dreamin’” to the state’s pre-American era, and makes the tremulous state steadier somehow, and more true. Plus his opening chords are deeply Spanish, and as John Phillips has said about Feliciano, “The way he plays the guitar, it’s like the guitar must have been his friend.”
The stunningly beautiful song functions as a knotty take on “home,” and “country,” and the success of it, as well the success from covering “Light My Fire” — two massively popular, acclaimed rock singles — likely gave him the courage to reimagine “The Star Spangled Banner.”
José Feliciano was 23 when he walked onto old Tiger Stadium’s left field with his guitar and his guide dog Trudy. It was a sunny day, Game 5 of the 1968 World Series in Detroit — Tigers vs. the defending St. Louis Cardinals and the Cards were up, 3-1. Vietnam roiled; Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been killed; and Gov. George Wallace of Alabama had gained popularity on a platform of “segregation forever.” Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Baltimore — aflame with discontent.
Tiger Stadium, from the tape, seems an isle of white-culture-dominated America girding itself for the poli-cultural battles it would have with the future: not just an MLB in which 30 percent of the players are of Latin descent, but a president with the middle name of Hussein, a first lady who knows all the Missy Elliott lyrics, and an NBA (integrated in ’47) that is 75 percent black. That day at Tiger was a kind of bouffant and Brylcreem moment common across the United States — looks all Mad Men-ish in the photos, but was of course overripe with exclusion. And as that well-constructed vibe rots and recedes, still it pushes back, pasting itself to the future with spit and glue, a tall and janky wall in the face of progression.
José Feliciano’s version is, in his own words, “slow and meaningful.” TONY SPINA COLLECTION/WALTER P. REUTHER LIBRARY/ WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY
Batter up, though, right? But before we get started, a nice Spanish guy who sings rock songs has been invited to perform — in fact by beloved Tigers radio broadcaster (and sometime songwriter) Ernie Harwell. Detroit was still recovering from a summer of ’67 uprising that had lasted five days. Persistent segregation and police brutality were cited as causes. Forty-three people died. Harwell had booked Marvin Gaye to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for Game 4. This was Gaye’s clean-shaven, “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” Tammi Terrell era, and the hometown hero, to cheers, had taken a traditional route.
In this era of assassination and pressured integration and — Stop / Hey / What’s that sound? — black music continuing to prove itself the sound of young America, what could go wrong when it was Feliciano’s time to be an artist and interpret a poem written (by a man with a strong distaste for blacks) in 1814 and set to music in 1931? What could go wrong if Feliciano, who “wanted to sing an anthem of praise to a country that had given my family and me a better life,” chose to resist the rockets’ red glare?
Feliciano’s lean and gloriously singable version of the national anthem is, in his own words, “slow and meaningful.” It’s also yearning and plaintive. He is America Dreamin’ and he nailed it, as Trudy the smooth-haired collie stood by. The Tigers and the Cards were along the baselines, and the small band crowded behind Feliciano appears only mildly confused as he plays his guitar and sings with an intentional lack of bombast. The rendition has been described as “groovy,” “notorious,” “a fiasco,” “Latin-tinged,” “personal” and “controversial.” People complained that his version was “unpatriotic, a desecration.” The Detroit Free Press called Feliciano’s performance “a blues version” that hit an “unresponsive chord.”
In truth, it’s ethereal. Feliciano’s October 1968 version of the national anthem is too fine for this world. And when he arrives, beseechingly, at the home of the brave, it’s as if he wants us all to live up to that historic or imagined courage — and you can hear no applause or other kind of affirmation from the stands. Instead a kind of mass, low grumble emerges from the crowd. There was loud booing.
“Before I had finished my performance,” Feliciano said in an undated interview, “I could feel the discontent within the waves of cheers and applause that spurred on the first pitch — though I didn’t know what it was about.” Veterans apparently threw shoes at televisions. “Soon afterwards I found out a great controversy was exploding across the country because I’d chosen to alter my rendition of the national anthem to better portray my feelings of gratitude.”
“Do you know, do you realize what you’ve just done? You have created a commotion here,” former New York Yankee and Hall of Fame broadcaster Tony Kubek said to Feliciano right after the performance. “The switchboard was deluged by calls. I mean you’ve created a real stir.” Feliciano said he was surprised. “Tony patted me on the back and said, ’Don’t worry, kid, you didn’t do anything wrong. I really enjoyed the way you did ’The Star-Spangled Banner.’”
“After that happened,” Feliciano said, “everything that I was doing, stopped. Radio stations stopped playing my records. It took me a long, long time, and even to this very day…” The tape ends.
Feliciano doesn’t say what it took him a long to time to do. He doesn’t mention, that Harwell — a former Marine who was called a traitor and a draft dodger and a communist, and who came close to being fired for the booking — said at the time that “a fellow has to sing it the way he feels it.” Feliciano doesn’t mention on camera that an unauthorized recording of his rendition hit Billboard’s charts. And though the major Detroit stations didn’t play his version of the national anthem, within two weeks, the song had sold almost 50,000 copies in Detroit alone.
Perhaps Feliciano means that even to this very day he can’t believe how people responded as he sang his 23-year-old heart out. Maybe he means that even now, in his 70s, as he lives in Connecticut with his wife and continues to record and tour, that he can rest on laurels that include 85 million albums sold worldwide. He can bask in the glow of eight Grammy awards — including for Best Pop Song for his “Light My Fire,” as well as for Best New Artist in 1969. Perhaps Feliciano was about to say that it took him a long time to realize his own influence on interpretive artists such as Jimi Hendrix in 1969, Gaye in 1984, and of course Whitney Houston in 1991. Maybe he was going to tell people that he is an artist, and he is sensitive about his “Feliz Navidad.”
Best would be if he was about to remind folks that he takes pride in creating art about home being a never-ending quest for that which may never be truly seen — or even felt — except for on our most glorious or horrific days. And maybe, just maybe, as he stood at AT&T Park on Oct. 14, 2012 before Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, Feliciano thought to himself that this might be heaven, or it could be hell. It was forty-four years later — San Francisco Giants vs. the St. Louis Cardinals — and he was singing again at a postseason game our official national anthem in the manner of his very own self. And there’s no doubt José Montserrate Feliciano García heard the voices calling, from far away. The cheers for him at AT&T park were loud, proud, and unceasing. Those voices matter not nearly as much as one’s own, but can as a chorus of belated praise feel deliciously sweet. Almost as if one is dreaming. It’s a lovely place. It’s a lovely place.
Smith is an American magazine editor and journalist and the culture lead for The Undefeated. Danyel is a 2014 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. She is also writing a history of African-American women in pop music.