If you’re going to see Jose Feliciano at the Levoy Theater in Millville this Friday, expect to hear “Light My Fire.” Feliciano’s jazz-infused cover of The Doors’ classic has become a classic in its own right since its release in 1968, garnering two Grammys—Best New Artist of the Year and Best Pop Male Performance.
But Feliciano won’t promise to perform the equally popular “Feliz Navidad.” Where “Light My Fire” is a reinterpretation of someone else’s song, “Feliz Navidad” is Feliciano’s own creation. Over the years and the decades, the song has become his “Jingle Bell Rock,” his “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” his “White Christmas,” and he keeps a tight lid on when he brings this classic out to play.
If this were December, chances are excellent he’d put it on his set list. But this is June, and the warmth of an approaching summer will likely keep “Feliz Navidad” under wrap, under lock and key.
Then again, maybe not.
“ ‘Light My Fire’ is an old and good friend,” Feliciano says. “But ‘Feliz Navidad’ is my baby and I protect her by not overexposing her in the off-season. Once in a great while I’ll be coerced into playing it, like in China, in June, a few years back.”
Can an intimate audience in Millville coax the same reaction?
After more than 50 years as a performer, Feliciano has such a deep catalogue to choose from, in both English and Spanish, that “Feliz Navidad” might not be missed. A recent setlist from Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley in Seattle on April 3, included ”Chico and the Man,” from the sitcom of the same name, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “In My Life,” “California Dreaming,” “To Love Somebody,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and “The Thrill is Gone.” An eclectic roster of selections to be sure.
For Feliciano, a setlist is a novel idea.
“I decided to start working up a setlist to give my band a fair head-start but primarily we choose tunes relative to the venue and its audience, culturally speaking.”
Feliciano is proud of the band he’s put together, especially the part about his two sons.
“I have the best band ever,” he says. “We are six players plus our technical director. We have our keyboard player/musical director; our percussionist; our background vocalist, and my two sons: Jonnie is the drummer and tour manager and Mikey the bassist…and me.”
And with that musical brain trust in tow, Feliciano performs from 60 to 120 minutes depending on the venue and perhaps the vibe.
Music found Feliciano at the tender age of three. This was his calling, his life work even if he was unaware at that age. He admits he had no fallback positions. Born in Lares, Puerto Rico, at age 5 Feliciano relocated with his family to New York City. Young Feliciano learned to play the concertina at age 6, using a handful of records as his teacher.
At the age 8, he entertained his classmates at Public School 57, and at 9, performed at The Puerto Rican Theater in the Bronx. He taught himself to play the guitar again with nothing but records as his teacher, practicing for as many as 14 hours a day. Listening to the early energy of 1950s rock ’n roll, Feliciano added singing to his repertoire.
Hearing Feliciano perform, you sense at least two influences behind the spirit of his music. “Sam Cooke was an extraordinary singer; his phrasing and style was amazing, and Ray Charles had such soul and power in his music,” Feliciano says. “And I figured, with respect to each of them, that if they could do it, then I could, at least try.”
Hard to believe but Feliciano has been on the road for well over 50 years. Public School 155 in East Harlem was rechristened The José Feliciano Performing Arts School.
The industry has changed somewhat in that time, he says; “Travel is a bigger pain these days, but my audiences have broadened over the years and there is such a reciprocated sense of love and respect that exists between them and me….”
Feliciano shows no signs of slowing down, giving in to age despite seven Grammys to his name and an equal number of nominations. In 2020 he was the subject of a documentary: Jose Feliciano—Behind This Guitar. The film was an official selection of the SXSW festival, along with the Nashville Film Fest, where it won Best Latin film.
Last year, “Feliz Navidad” got the all-star “We Are the World”-treatment with a cast of performers that included Isabela Merced, Shaggy, Jon Secada, Jason Mraz, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Gloria Gaynor, Big & Rich, Michael Bolton, Los Temerarios, Emmanuel, Isabella Castillo, Jencarlos Canela, Pitingo, Patricia Manterola, Jesus Molina, La India, Julio Iglesias Jr., and even Rachael Ray.
“She’s a talented gal and I was tickled she could join us,” Feliciano says of Ray.
Feliciano and his wife Susan worked on a book, too. They have three children including the two boys in the band. Melissa, born in 1988 is the oldest of the siblings. They live in a 300-year-old former tavern in Connecticut. He writes and records in his home studio and enjoys all things baseball.
“I’m working with a very dynamic record company that keeps me busy in the studio with new projects,” he says. “As for my family for the first time ever, we’ve been able to be together for extended periods of time and I’ve been able to really enjoy that as never before.”