Jose Feliciano can play the guitar. The man with perhaps the two most disparate hits to ever hit the top 40, the Christmas favorite Feliz Navidad, and a cover of the Door’s Light My Fire, can absolutely blaze away when he wants to. But you wouldn’t know if you’ve only heard the aforementioned hits from the 70s. The Voice and Guitar of, his first LP (RCA LSP 3358, 1966) is as much about his guitar as it is his vocals.
Like many of his later records, he covers some well-known tunes. But on this first effort his choices are surprising. Why would a Puerto Rican musician cover Mule Skinner Blues, or Flight of the Bumblebee? Maybe he picked tunes that were close to his heart, or that he had practiced a lot.
This is your chance to hear Feliciano burn on the guitar. Bumblebee, a song that demands the deftest of finger skill to play, sounds like child’s play. The absolute speed he plays the notes is astonishing. This can’t be the guy who is most famous for a Christmas song, is it? In fact, the LP is full of guitar playing skill most of us would die for…and you rarely hear on his later work.
He is of course, very comfortable singing in Spanish, on Dos Cruces (Two Crosses, written by Carmelo Larrea). Feliciano brings his skill as a vocalist to bear on this sad love song. You can hear the power of longing in his voice, a certain insistence, that you must pay attention to the lyrics (translated below):
Two crosses are stuck
in the mountain of forgetting
for two loves that have died
without having understood
There’s something about the tone of his voice that seems rooted in the bright midrange frequencies that pushes forward and grabs you by the collar. I like the way he sings Dos Cruces because he tones it down, brings it back up, then back down again. It’s very effective. Another Spanish tune, Son de la Loma (They are from the Hill) is a bit of a calypso and sounds like something you might sing on the corner of the street with friends, guitars and beers.
On I Got A Woman, Feliciano sings with some verve, and bends those guitar strings, too. Manha de Carnaval, a jazz standard, is simply played, without the kind of overt flourish that might have ruined it. About half way through, the rhythm changes from Spanish style to 4/4 jazz beat, and then goes back. It’s simple and beautiful.
Mule Skinner Blues is back to some of that flourish, skill, speed, and some hillbilly-silly vocalizations. I wasn’t sure Iiked it at first because of the whoopin’ and hollerin’, but came around to it after a few listens, especially as the tune demonstrates some super guitar work. Feliciano covers a familiar folk tune, Walk Right In (written by blues musician Gus Cannon in 1929, but it was a hit for the Rooftop Singers in 1962 and it is their version that most of us are familiar with) and does a pretty fair job of it.
I didn’t find it much different from the ’62 version, until some speedy guitar work came mid-tune, followed by lyrics in Spanish. That’s Feliciano, putting his stamp on what could have been just filler. Yea, this LP is a pretty darn good listen.
My $1.00 version of the LP was noisy, but software can cure many a click and pop. I think it’s safe to say that it was originally well recorded, with nice balance between vocals, guitar and bass. Got one minute and 19 seconds? Give it a whirl!
ENCORE! A greatest hits compilation. RCA LSP 1005 or AFL1-2824, with an interesting die cut cover. Includes Light My Fire and Cailfornia Dreamin’.