Arts / José still lighting musical fires

“I’VE been a classical music fan since I was a child,” José Feliciano tells me by phone from the US, “but I never played Mozart on guitar before.”

José Feliciano… “To play Mozart on the guitar when I couldn’t read the music is something.”

He’s recorded nearly 70 albums and now, to celebrate the 50 years since Feliciano recorded his soul take on The Doors’ “Light My Fire” in 1968, the singer-guitarist has been working on a collection of five limited edition albums in different genres. So far these are “Djangoizing”, “Happy Birthday, Les!”, “My Latin Street Vol. 1”, “José Feliciano – Feliz Navidad!” and – wait for it – “Mozart’s Castrato Arias”.

The latter inclusion may come as a surprise to Feliciano fans, who would hardly expect him to record a guitar collection of operatic arias for castrati by the divine Amadeus with members of the Sofia Symphonic Orchestra and male soprano Arno Raunig.

“My manager Helmuth [Schaerf] got me playing Mozart – he’s Viennese,” he says by way of explanation. Schaerf, also a long-time friend, came back on board in 2013 and has supported this huge recording project.

It’s not quite so surprising to this writer, a fan since uni days, when I saved for weeks to buy a copy of his “Fireworks”, based on Handel’s “Fireworks Suite” – “one of my favourite albums,” he says.

Feliciano is nothing if not eclectic in his musical tastes, equally at home performing tributes to jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and jazz, country, and blues guitarist Les Paul or Sting, saying: “I play the guitar, I like all kinds of music”.

Awarded more than 45 gold and platinum record awards and nominated for 19 Grammys, he is still best known for international hits, including his interpretation of “Light My Fire” and the best-selling Christmas single “Feliz Navidad”, once placed among the 25 greatest holiday songs of the 20th century.

“But, I think the arias by the castrati is one of my biggest accomplishments,” he says.

“To play Mozart on the guitar when I couldn’t read the music is something.

“I had to be taught the music… I didn’t have Braille music or any such thing and I never did.”

Feliciano is coming to the Southern Cross Club soon and says he’ll be doing some of the things that people know him by, but including some new songs.

“I like to keep them as a surprise,” he says.

“I aim for a wide age group, from kids to the adults you know, it’s quite beautiful.”

Blind from birth, he was already playing music when, in 1950, he came to New York City from Puerto Rico aged five. He was initiated into rock music by listening to rock ‘n’ roll pioneers such as Fats Domino.

His is a rags-to-riches story. At nine he performed at the Puerto Rican Theater in the Bronx. At 17 he quit school and starting playing in coffee houses in Greenwich Village, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago and Denver. Then, in 1966, after a spectacular performance at the Mar del Plata Festival in Argentina, RCA executives in Buenos Aires picked him up and made Feliciano a household name in the Latin market. RCA in Los Angeles suggested he record “Light My Fire” and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now in 2018 he’s enjoying the fruits of his labour living with wife Susan and their children in rural Connecticut while recording, appearing on local radio and sometime touring. It particularly pleases him his two sons are musicians, one playing drums and the other bass.

As he says: “I have three children, I have a wonderful wife, I’m living the life I love.”

José Feliciano in concert, Southern Cross Club, 8pm, Wednesday, March 7. Bookings to cscc.com.au or 6283 7200.

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