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American Composers and Musicians from A to Z: F (Part 2 – Feliciano, José)

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José Feliciano is a guitarist, singer and songwriter best known for his interpretation of the songs “Feliz Navidad,” “Light My Fire” and “Hi-Heel Sneakers.” Feliciano was born blind on September 10, 1945 in Lares, Puerto Rico. At age five, his family moved to New York. José Feliciano always liked music and started playing the harmonica and the accordion before he received his first guitar at age nine. He loved the sound of the guitar and later said in an interview that he felt that “it was like a calling” to play it.

Half-length portrait of Jose Feliciano playing the guitar. Photo from 1965.
José Feliciano in 1965.

Feliciano’s initial way of learning music was to listen to the radio and to copy what he heard. In the beginning Feliciano mostly played Spanish songs. At age 13 he would learn rock and roll by listening to Chuck Berry. At age 15 he bought himself records and continued to improve his guitar skills by imitating playing styles of guitarist Andrés Segovia and Charlie Byrd. He later learned about barre chords when, still at the New York Lighthouse for the Blind, he received lessons from a classical guitar teacher. Feliciano remembers: “I took off like a horse at the Kentucky Derby. It all clicked.”

One highlight of his youth was at age 16. Duke Ellington visited the New York Lighthouse for the Blind to engage with the children there, and Feliciano was fortunate to play music together with him. At age 17, Feliciano started playing music in Greenwich Village coffee houses. Rapidly gaining popularity, two years later Feliciano released his first album with his breakthrough recording “Light My Fire.”

In addition to playing the acoustic guitar, Feliciano also played the electric guitar with a jazz ensemble. While he experimented with various kinds of strings on the guitar, his favorite kind has become the nylon string. Feliciano stated: “I do play steel-string and the electric guitar, too, because I love rock ‘n’ roll and guitarists like Jimi Hendrix. But my bread and butter has always been the nylon-string. Very few guitarists play nylon-string. They don’t know how to get the sound out of them. That’s something I’ve spent a lot of time on.”

José Feliciano has long been an internationally recognized musician. Among the honors he received are more than forty Gold and Platinum records; nine Grammy Awards, the Billboard Magazine’s “Lifetime Achievement Award” in 1996 and a Star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in 1987. Feliciano was once asked in an interview if there was anything he wishes he could do on the guitar that he currently could not or if there was anything he would like to improve. He answered: “Everything. I hope everything. The day I stop learning and I don’t try to make myself better on the guitar, that’s the day I hang it up and say, ‘Goodbye.’ I’m always learning. I’m always grateful to the young kids who play guitar and do new things.”

Would you like to learn the guitar? Get a good start with:

Would you like to learn how to play the guitar like José Feliciano? Check out these audio lessons from Bill Brown’s series Guitar by ear:

  • Light My Fire. Taught by Bill Brown in the style of José Feliciano. Digital cartridge, DBM03819.
  • Hi-heel Sneakers. Taught by Bill Brown in the style of José Feliciano. Digital cartridge, DBM03816.

If you have any questions about borrowing materials, please contact the NLS Music Section by email at [email protected] or by calling us at 1-800-424-8567, extension 2.


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