Left permanently blind at birth from congenital glaucoma, José never used that as an excuse not to excel. His family moved to NYC’s Spanish Harlem from Puerto Rico when he was 5. José immediately gravitated to music, teaching himself to play the accordion.
At age 8, José already was entertaining classmates on his little concertina, then taught himself to play guitar by listening to everything from ’50s rock to such classical guitarists as Andrés Segovia.
When he was 17, José had to quit school after his father lost his job. Passing around the hat in Greenwich Village clubs, he gave whatever money he got to his struggling family.
But José was clearly gifted, and lightning was about to strike. A music critic from The New York Times saw the teenager perform at Gerde’s Folk City, wrote that he was a “10 fingered wizard” and urged people to come down and see him “if you want to witness the birth of a star.”
The critic was on the money. Before José was 23, he had won two Grammy Awards for his self-titled album. His sensual rendition of The Doors’ “Light My Fire” became an international hit.
An unexpected turn soon put his career in jeopardy. José was asked to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” before game five of the 1968 World Series. His unique, Latin-influenced performance enraged some purists, and afterward many radio stations refused to play his music.
But José didn’t back down, and later said he was proud to pave the way for other personalized versions of the anthem.
José moved on to international fame. In the 1980s, he wrote “The Sound of Vienna,” which is now the official anthem of that European city.
World-renowned but still a New Yorker at heart, José was proud when P.S. 155 in East Harlem, a performing arts school, was renamed in his honor.
Now in his late 60s, José is still going strong. He will celebrate his 69th birthday Wednesday with a concert in Vienna, and will return home to perform at the B.B. King Blues Club on Dec. 5.
Later that month, when you hear the Christmas classic “Felíz Navidad” on the radio, you can thank the writer, José Montserrate Feliciano García — better known as José Feliciano.
Feliz cumpleaños, José.
Playwright Mike Vogel blogs at newyorkgritty.net.