José Feliciano will sing the national anthem at a naturalization ceremony for 20 new U.S. citizens which will take place at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History on June 14, Flag Day.
At the ceremony, Feliciano will gift his bespoke Concerto Candelas guitar, that he played during the recording of his breakout hit “Light My Fire,” to the Smithsonian, along with other items from his personal archives. The artist is celebrating 50 years since the release of his Grammy-winning cover of the song by The Doors, which took him to No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. The track appeared on Feliciano!, the enduring album of Latin-tinged covers which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 albums chart upon its release.
That success resulted in an invitation for the Puerto-Rican singer-songwriter to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” during game five of the 1968 World Series at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium.
Feliciano, who was 23-years-old, sat on a stool coffee house-style at the side of the field, and performed on the guitar he is donating to the Smithsonian. The blind musician wore dark glasses and was accompanied by his guide dog.
His personal take on “The Star-Spangled Banner” reflected the singer’s involvement in New York City’s folk scene. It also ignited a controversy that reflected the tense atmosphere in the United States in the era of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement – Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated earlier that year.
Boos could be heard in the audience, and many television viewers called in to NBC to complain about Feliciano’s “hippie” version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“Some people wanted to report him because he’s from Puerto Rico and he had dark glasses and long hair,” said the artist’s wife, Susan Feliciano. “They were not paying attention to the fact that he also had a guide dog.”
In an interview with Billboard, José Feliciano said that radio stations stopped playing his songs after the performance. “Now everybody has been doing the national anthem in their own style, but in 1968 I was the one that took the heat,” the crossover pioneer said, “It cut my career for quite a while.” He also recalled some anti-Latin sentiment in the mix of complaints about the performance. “People will say it was a flamenco version. But it was not. It was a gospel, soulful version.”
Feliciano’s label, RCA, countered the complaints about his World Series performance by quickly releasing Felicano’s version of the song as a single. The track was picked up by rock stations and even reached No. 50 on the Hot 100. But still, Feliciano refers to the World Series episode as a “disaster and nightmare.”
One result is that he began touring outside of the country, fomenting the audience for his music in Europe, Asia and Australia which remains strong today.
It also had an impact on Feliciano’s recording of a Christmas song. He said that when he wrote “Feliz Navidad,” which was released in 1970, he felt that a Christmas song with Spanish lyrics could also alienate American radio programmers, so he made the song bilingual.
“If I had left it Spanish only, then I knew the English stations might not play it,” Feliciano told Billboard in a previous interview. “So I decided to write an English lyric, ‘I want to wish you a merry Christmas.’ And then there was no way the stations could lock that song out of the programming.”
Feliciano, who was born in Lares, Puerto Rico, moved to New York’s Spanish Harlem with his family when he was five years old. “I went through the immigration thing,” he said. “But when I got to New York it wasn’t so tough for me. I went to school. I went to P.S. 57, then I went to the Lighthouse for the Blind on 59th St. “I guess being blind is a great leveler,” he quipped.
While Feliciano spoke English at school, he grew up in a Spanish-speaking home. “My parents did not want us to lose our culture and our language,” he recalled. “And that was a good thing.”
On June 14, Feliciano is set to appear at the Smithsonian’s Flag Hall, where an exhibition documents the making of both the American flag and the national anthem. The display includes a copy of the song hand written by its composer Francis Scott Key. During the Citizenship and Immigration Service ceremony, Feliciano will speak to immigrants from 17 countries gathered to officially become Americans, and then sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“I could be a sarcastic bastard and say it’s too little too late,” Feliciano says, referring to the initial reaction to his “Star-Spangled Banner.” “But I’m grateful to the Smithsonian. this is a beautiful thing.”
José Feliciano is one of the artists slated to perform Aug. 12 as part of “Music + Revolution”: Greenwich Village in the 1960s” a concert at Central Park Summerstage in New York City.