By Brian Fischler
He’s internationally known, and he’s known to rock the microphone. He does so in both English and Spanish, providing fans globally the pleasure of enjoying his voice and guitar playing.
For six decades, this international superstar has performed with the who’s who of the music world, including Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, and Johnny Cash, and is a nine-time Grammy Award winner.
His hit “Feliz Navidad” can be heard playing all over the world during Christmastime, and is still one of the most widely downloaded songs. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, as well as a star in his native Puerto Rico. Oh yeah — and he is blind, but José Feliciano has never let his blindness stand in his way of conquering the world. José doesn’t view himself as a blind musician. He’s a musician who just happens to be blind.
I recently spoke with José as his new album will be coming out soon, and the first single “Don’t Go Away” with Serbian artist Dragana Mirković has already been released. Most people would want to know where this legendary musician’s love of music began, but I wanted to know when his love of dogs began.
Living with Guide Dogs
“My love of dogs really began when I got my first guide dog because I was actually afraid of dogs,” recalls Feliciano. “Growing up in New York City a lot of people had dogs that would bark at you and seemed vicious. I was deathly afraid of them, and it wasn’t until I went to Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester (Hills), Michigan that I got over my fear of dogs. After getting my first guide dog, I was captivated by animals. I love horses, and have learned to ride them, and of course absolutely love dogs.”
How many guide dogs have you had?
“I had two guide dogs. The first was a smooth haired collie named Trudy and the other was a Doberman named Ebony. Ebony was more than just a guide dog to me. She was very possessive of me, kind of like my wife is.”
What helped you get over your fear of dogs?
“Just going to Leader Dogs did the trick.”
What was the best part about having a guide dog?
“It’s a tremendous experience as far as just getting around, as you can walk so much faster with a dog than you can with a cane.”
You don’t currently have a guide dog. Is there a reason why?
“It’s not that I don’t want one, or didn’t like having one, but it’s too much of a problem for the kind of job I do. Not everyone internationally is understanding of guide dogs. Additionally, not all countries would have the same dog food. I remember one time with Trudy that I couldn’t get her brand of dog food up in Canada, and our dogs are just like us if they eat something that doesn’t agree with them, well, it can be unpleasant.”
It’s been well-documented that you once had an issue traveling to England with your guide dog because of the quarantine laws. Were there other issues?
“When I had my first guide dog in New York, we hailed a cab and the cab driver was a real imbecile, as he said you can’t bring the dog in the cab. I told him it was a guide dog, and he still said you can’t bring the dog in the cab, but we got in to the cab anyway. So he took out a baseball bat and was ready to hit me!”
You’re kidding. What did you do?
“It was one of the big cab companies, so we got the driver’s license number and let the cab company know. I’m not happy about it, as I never want anyone to lose their job, but he was fired.”
The experience in England led to your hit song, “No Dogs Allowed.” Tell us a little about that.
“There’s really not much to tell. I wrote the song at the London Palladium. It was a protest song about the guide dog situation in England, and what happened to me, and I believe the quarantine laws have since been changed.”
Leader of the Pack
Tell us a little about your current dogs.
“I have a Yorkie, well actually my wife Susan has a Yorkie. We have a dog that we rescued named Stella, and we think she is a German Chow mix, and is really a great dog.”
Do you have a funny or cute story about them you can share?
“Well, Maddie is the comedian of the bunch, as a lot of times when I am getting ready to go outside, we have to be careful as Maddie will rush outside and pee, just like a boy.”
Do you ever sing to your dogs?
“Oh yeah, I sing and I play for them, and they seem to like it, although they’ve never told me so. My African grey I think likes the way I sing as she imitates certain sounds that I make.”
You’re involved with a lot of charities. What animal causes are near and dear to you?
“I really like the work the ASPCA does. I think they’re a very important organization. The Pet Rescue of New York is another wonderful organization I’m involved with as they do a great job saving dogs lives.”
We’re getting ready to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the writing of “The Star Spangled Banner.” There was a lot of controversy around the way you played it at the 1968 World Series, but now you are credited with being the first person to play the anthem differently. What does the anniversary mean to you?
“Our country has grown tremendously since then. Some consider me a pioneer for performing the anthem differently, for me though it was a bittersweet time, but I’m happy I did it.”
At the time you performed the Anthem it was very controversial, but now it’s considered a legendary performance. What’s that like?
“Hey, if I had something to do with raising the value of the anthem, I’m happy about it, as that was my intention at the time. I wanted to show appreciation of the anthem. Where else can someone like me from the hills of Puerto Rico come to the United States and have the opportunities like the ones that I have had?”
What’s the best part about having dogs in your life?
“They make us very happy. Just being around animals is a good thing.”
Along with his new album, José also has a DVD coming out. To keep up with all things José Feliciano, follow him on Twitter at @WheresJose. And don’t forget to check out José’s birthday video to Cesar.