Jose Feliciano - vocals, nylon string guitar
Years before he struck gold with his Latin-tinged cover of the Doors "Light My Fire," Jose Feliciano was dazzling audiences on the coffeehouse circuit with his languidly beautiful guitar playing and rich soulful singing voice. Blind from birth and one of eleven brothers born into extreme poverty in the Lares Mountains of his native Puerto Rico, Feliciano would overcome these obstacles and become one of the first Latino artists to successfully cross over into the American and then global music markets, paving the way for many others to follow and playing an important role in music history. His recordings would be celebrated the world over, eventually earning him no less than 16 Grammy nominations (including 6 wins) and dozens of Gold and Platinum albums. He would also be recognized as a groundbreaking acoustic guitar player, winning "Best Pop Guitarist" from Guitar Player Magazine, as well as winning best guitarist in both rock and jazz categories in Playboy's annual reader's polls.
Journey back to the dawn of Feliciano's career with this extraordinary recording from the Ash Grove archive, when he played a weeklong engagement opening for Irish troubadour Seamus Ennis in September of 1964. Recorded at the second of two performances on the Saturday evening of that run, this exceptional recording captures Feliciano shortly after the release of his debut album for RCA Records. A wondrous example of his Greenwich Village folk-circuit days, this performance on the other coast finds him easily shifting from arrangements that spotlight his intricate nylon string guitar virtuosity to material that underlines the rich soulfulness of his voice.
At a time when the traditional folk, jazz, and blues worlds were clearly divided from the popular music world and the Beatles had just arrived in America, Feliciano was way ahead of the curve, dismissing all musical boundaries and proving himself to be an extreme free soul in terms of music. As this recording so clearly conveys, right from the start Feliciano was embracing all musical genres from folk, pop, blues, soul, bluegrass, and jazz to classical, proving himself an incredibly versatile musician and an entertainer of the highest caliber.
The set begins with an unidentified instrumental, which finds Feliciano applying his distinctive Spanish flourishes to traditional blues. Despite playing a nylon stringed guitar, which was rarely (if ever!) used in a blues context, Feliciano's performance engages the Ash Grove audience. This is a testament to his abilities, since it is arguable that no audience was better educated about traditional blues. He follows with the lovely "Un Bardo," a song sung in Spanish about a child longing for a guitar in a shop window display, which gives the first hint of his captivating vocal abilities.
One of the most surprising twists surfaces next, as Feliciano pays homage to Earl Scruggs with a high velocity reading of "Earl Scruggs Breakdown," delighting the audience with a taste of traditional bluegrass applied to nylon string guitar.
Feliciano's sense of humor comes to the fore over the next several minutes, both in his introductory monologue, where he teases Ash Grove owner Ed Pearl, and during his humorous rock 'n' roll styled novelty number, "Everybody Do the Click," one of his early singles then receiving AM radio airplay. As if to prove he could make anything sound good, he follows this by singing a bit of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in an undeniably beautiful voice.
The next three numbers take a more serious turn and are clearly the centerpieces of this performance. All three are remarkable and convey the deep expressiveness in Feliciano's playing and singing, beginning with a stirring and distinctive take on the traditional folksong "Hazelwood." With the audience close to being mesmerized, he takes the opportunity to perform two Spanish numbers that are equally compelling. First is "Samba De Orfeu," which begins with percussive tapping before soaring into the flamenco flourishes that set his guitar playing apart. This would turn up five years later on Feliciano's initial live album, but this recording reveals that it was a highlight of his live performances from the very beginning. The performance of "Sambras Que Te Queiro" that follows is equally beautiful, before Feliciano winds his set to a close with the hit song that kicked off his first album, his cover of Robert (better known by his stage name Tommy Tucker) Higginbotham's "High Heeled Sneakers."
However, the performance isn't over yet, and Feliciano's encore is a tour-de-force. Anyone unconvinced of his musical vision and virtuosity need only listen to these two songs. The encore is initially inspired by a girl from the audience who inquires about the Beatles, who had begun to take America by storm just months prior. Feliciano is well aware of the group and kicks off his encore with a delightful version of "Things We Said Today," the lovely folk-based b-side of the "A Hard Day's Night" single. He would become one of the finest interpreters of Beatles songs in the years to come, and although many covered this Lennon & McCartney classic, Feliciano himself never recorded it, making its inclusion here something special. Following a final monologue in which Feliciano displays his endearing self-deprecating sense of humor and adamantly denies the flashiness of what is to come, he proceeds to slay the audience with the most high velocity take on "Flight of the Bumblebee" imaginable! This closer is a complete knockout, and despite it occurring back in 1964, Feliciano delivers a performance that would give guitarists like John McLaughlin a run for their money on speed, precision, and dexterity.
This recording is yet another remarkable find amidst the wonders of the Ash Grove archive, giving listeners the rare opportunity to hear a superlative world class performer at the dawn of his career, transcending musical boundaries and bridging musical styles in a way that has rarely ever been equaled.
Written by Alan Bershaw