50 years later, Jose Feliciano recalls the backlash of his national anthem performance at 1968 World Series and how it all turned around
Tuesday night, Boston native James Taylor will walk out onto the field at Fenway Park before Game 1 of the 2018 World Series and sing the national anthem, two minutes of Americana that has driven a four-stanza’d wedge into this country since Colin Kaepernick first sat then took a knee during the song in protest of police brutality in August of 2016.
50 years ago, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were kicked out of the Mexico City Olympics for raising black power fists in the air during the “Star Spangled Banner” to bring awareness to the mistreatment of blacks back home. The two track stars were vilified for their actions.
But nine days before Smith and Carlos, Jose Feliciano, a blind Puerto Rican American, took the field at Tigers Stadium — invited by legendary Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell — to sing the anthem before Game 5 of the World Series between the Tigers and Cardinals and he was about to do something that had never been done before, sparking outrage across the country.
And no one knew it was coming.
Before that day, the anthem was known for being one of the more difficult songs to sing with extreme highs and lows, and it was known for something else, as well. It was always the same. But not on October 7, 1968. On that day, Feliciano, with just his guitar, put his own “feeling” into the song, creating a rendition that had never been heard before.
Back in 1968 Jose Felciano was on the come. His album “Felciano!” was dominating the American pop charts and at the Grammys that year he took home two, one for Best New Artist the other for Best Pop Song. Things couldn’t have been better for the young singer and songwriter.
That was until he took the field in front of the entire country, a country fighting a controversial war in Vietnam and still reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.
He was just 23 years old.
“I didn’t change the melody or anything like that. I just didn’t sing it in the plain way that it was written,” said Feliciano on the eve of Game 1 of the 2018 Word Series. “I put myself into it. My whole soul. Who I am. You know it’s a funny thing because when I did it, I didn’t realize some of the things I’m telling you now. I’ve been listening to it so much. That I finally realized is all I did really was try to put some feeling into an otherwise cold anthem. Really? For a country like ours? Come on, you’ve got to have the best. So I gave it my best.”
The backlash was immediate. Feliciano was booed off the field, and that was just the beginning. Radio stations stopped playing his music as the outrage grew.
“That was a tough road to cross,” said Felicano. “When people don’t hear you on the radio they think ‘maybe he retired’ It hurt me for a while…When I did it I never thought it was cause all the commotion it did.
“I didn’t mean for it to cause such a furor, but I was the first guy to ever do the national anthem with a guitar,” said Feliciano. “Everyone else had the big brass band. Nowadays it’s tracks that they sing to, but in my day, we had no tracks. And I was the only orchestra that I knew that was the best orchestra and that was me and my guitar.”
Feliciano’s career went into a tailspin. He says it wasn’t until the show “Chico and the Man” became a hit on television that things started to turn around. He wrote the music for the popular show starring Freddie Prinze and Jack Albertson that debuted in 1974.
“That kind of saved me,” said Feliciano.
50 years later, Feliciano still doesn’t understand why his performance drew so much ire, putting his career in such jeopardy.
Today Kaepernick and other NFL athletes have used the anthem to bring attention to the numerous shooting deaths of unarmed blacks by law enforcement, something Felicano has some thoughts on.
“They should do anything they want to do just as long as it’s not disrespectful to the flag or the values of the country. That’s my feeling,” he said.
Feliciano is big-time baseball fan. He loves the Yankees and remembers listening to the broadcasts of Mel Allen, Red Barber, Phil Rizzuto and Bobby Murcer. He even performed at Yankee Stadium in 2012, doing it in his now famed style.
“The audience liked it, but I don’t know what the reaction was from the Yankee front office,” said Feliciano. “But I can say that haven’t had me do it in ages. So I don’t know.”
Since Feliciano, several artists have put their own spins into the song as Felicano did. Most notably Marvin Gaye at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game and Whitney Houston at Super Bowl XXV. And there have been some notable disasters, see Roseanne Barr at a Padres game back in 1990 and most recently Fergie’s pained performance at the 2018 NBA All-Star Game.
But Feliciano was the first.
“Maybe they were thinking to themselves ‘who’s this hippie singing with a guitar.’ Who knows what they were thinking,” said Feliciano. “They were all wrong, I know that for sure… Time heals all wounds. I can live with it.”
Things are much better now. The legendary singer, now 73, still performs all over the world. And back on September 8th, when the Tigers honored their 1968 World Champions, Feliciano was asked to sing the anthem. He sang it as he did back in ’68.
“I don’t know if it’s a legacy, but I love it. In my mind and other people’s minds, they know I was the first to stylize the national anthem. And I meant no harm.”
Today you can find Feliciano’s guitar from that 1968 performance in the Smithsonian.
“For something that you were booed, now everybody has sort of come around,” he said. “I’m in a museum. I’m a relic. You become a patriot in many ways.”
But who’s rendition does he truly love, other than his own of course?