Jose Feliciano’s Star-Spangled Honor

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of many historic moments: the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. Student revolts at Columbia University, and in France. The tumultuous Democratic convention in Chicago. The election of Richard Nixon.

Less remembered, a bit less significant — but as long-lasting in its repercussions — was a rendition of the national anthem. Jose Feliciano — coming off his 1st American hit, a remake of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” — performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Game 5 of the World Series in Detroit.

The Puerto Rico-born guitarist — just 23 years old — infused the anthem with his trademark Latin jazz style.

No one had ever performed America’s anthem like that before. The country was used to straightforward, quick renditions of a very difficult song.

Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock performance was a year away. Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston, Lady Gaga — their memorable “Star-Spangled” performances, and those of so many others, were decades in the future.

All owe a debt to Jose Feliciano’s ground-breaking interpretation.

It did not go over well.

Last year — looking back at the controversy — the New York Times wrote:

Taking liberties with Jim Morrison is one thing. Taking liberties with Francis Scott Key proved more contentious.

Feliciano went on the field with his guide dog and an acoustic guitar. He was quite free with the song’s melody, giving it a slower folk tempo and adding extra syllables and different stresses. What resulted was an anthem that to today’s ears is mellow and expressive.

Many ears in 1968 heard it differently.

Boos were heard from the stands, but the real blowup came afterward.

“It was a disgrace, an insult,” a baseball fan, Arlene Raicevich of Detroit, told The Associated Press. “I’m going to write my senator about it.”

“It sounded like a hippie was singing it,” said another Detroiter, Bernie Gray.

For several years, Feliciano was blackballed. Last year, he told Deadspin:

Some people wanted me deported—as if you can be deported to Puerto Rico. All I know is, from 1968 until the 1970s, radio stations stopped playing my records. It wasn’t the fans—the fans were with me. But the program directors didn’t play my songs. I don’t think I deserved that.

He got back in America’s good graces with “Feliz Navidad” — one of the most popular Christmas tunes ever — and the theme song to “Chico and the Man.”

Now — finally — the longtime Weston resident gets his historical due.

This Thursday (June 14), Feliciano will be featured at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s annual naturalization and donation ceremony.

Roger Kaufman — a 1966 Staples High School graduate, Westonite and fellow musician, who helped arrange the event — says that the Smithsonian celebrates creative, open-minded, groundbreaking musicians who have become part of American history.

Friday is, of course, Flag Day. The ceremony takes place in Flag Hall — where the original banner that inspired Francis Scott Key’s 1814 song proudly hangs.

Just as proudly, Feliciano will deliver a keynote address. He’ll donate artifacts — including his custom 1967 guitar — to the national collection.

And then he will sing — as only he can — our national anthem.

BONUS FEATURE 1: Click here for a New York Times retrospective of Jose Feliciano’s World Series controversy. Click here for Marvin Gaye’s national anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star game. Click here for Whitney Houston’s rendition at Super Bowl XXV in 1991. Click here to hear Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969.

BONUS FEATURE 2: In 2010 — 42 years after Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell invited Jose Feliciano to perform the national anthem — the now-legendary musician returned to Detroit, in a tribute to Harwell who had died a few days earlier. One of the sportscaster’s last wishes was to have Feliciano sing again.

8 responses to “Jose Feliciano’s Star-Spangled Honor

  1. Tom Feeley Sr

    Great links👍🏼
    Gaga did a very nice rendition in a RED pantsuit 💕

  2. Susan Iseman

    Bravo! Much better than Barr’s interpretation IMO.

  3. Hanne Jeppesen

    I remember the summer of 1968 very vividly. I was an au pair from Denmark in Westport, and was basically having the time of my life. The day Kennedy was shot I had a day off. That night I went to the “Ships” with my Swedish girl friend. It was a popular hang out for college kids. Several people we knew was there, including someone I had been dating off and on, he invited my girl friend and I to a party the next day, we would double date.
    The next day Robert Kennedy died, I don’t remember if it was ever mentioned that he might survive. We went ahead with our plans. My date worked in New York and we picked him up at the train station. When he got off the train, it was obvious he had had a few too many, he was feeling no pain. We went to the party, and later ended up in the “Ships”. Reading my journal many years later I was a little baffled that we didn’t seem to discuss the shooting, or changed our plans, given the severity of the events. However, these many years later it strikes me, that the Kennedy assassination coming just 2 months after MLK, and 5 years after JFK, it was too much for 22-23 year old to take in. So we dated, went to parties and had a few drinks.

    I know we were not immune to issues of the day, as we often discussed them, especially the Vietnam war, as several of our friends had been to Vietnam and others were going.

  4. Stephanie Bass

    50 years: still great, still relevant.

  5. I had the pleasure of briefly meeting Mr. Feliciano at the Church of the Assumption Clam-Bake last summer. We were new to the community at that point and as we watched the musical act getting ready to perform. Someone said “that’s Jose Feliciano” I was pleasantly surprised and impressed. You could not meet a more modest and down to earth gentleman. Refreshing in todays world of mediocre talent desperately attempting to draw unmerited attention. This guy’s been a star for decades and doesn’t need to shout “Look at Me”…Class Act!

  6. Jeffrey Wieser

    Fabulous post. Love the bonus features. And so relevant today. Thanks

  7. I remember being in 5th grade at Saugatuck Elementary looking at the daily newspaper clipping on our classroom bulletin board of Bobby K lying on the floor with a busboy leaning over him. I felt moved to tears as an 11 year old. We had already seen JFK murdered years earlier, and my Westport memory as a first grader walking home on Main Street from Bedford El– no buses that day as we were let go early — and I found my parents crying in the kitchen on Richmondville Ave. And I remember so clearly Jose’s Light My Fire during that time. I cannot believe it is 50 years ago! Love the Westport memories. They move me to this day.

  8. Jeff Shikowitz

    While Whitney’s rendition may be BOAT I still think about Smokey Robinson’s version during the 1986 World Series. Have a look and see what you think. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZUoV_iw0II