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José Feliciano: 'Music to Me was Everything'

The Grammy-winner played guitar just for the love of it and found a path to stardom

En español | My first memory of playing music was when I was 3 years old in Puerto Rico.

I played percussion on a tin can behind my uncle, who played the cuatro. Later, when I was 8 years old and we were living in New York, I went to my first summer camp.

One of the ladies who worked there put a ukulele in my hands. Not long after, I became enamored with the guitar.

As I got older, I tried to find jobs that were dignified for a blind person and I couldn't. The only jobs that were offered to a blind person at the time were making baskets and painting chairs.

I would go to Greenwich Village and hang around with all the folk musicians like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. One day I heard Ray Charles on the radio and I found out he was blind.

I thought, 'You know what, if there's room for Ray, there might be room for José.' Playing guitar was a calling, but I never realized that it was going to be a career.

It was just something I did out of love. But music became a force. … I think God himself was pushing me toward that way so I would be OK in life.

So, I pushed myself to be the best guitar player I could be.

This was very important to me because when you’re blind you don’t have too many chances for anything, whether it be for playing guitar or whether it be for your love life. If you aren’t skilled, you never get a second chance.

I knew I couldn’t be second best, and that’s what kept me going.

Watch: José Feliciano talks about his Christmas classic "Feliz Navidad" and his career

And then in 1970 I decided to release “Feliz Navidad.” I decided to release it in English and Spanish so that I couldn’t be turned off the radio, so that no one could say, “Oh, well, it’s too Spanish” or, “Well, it’s only in English.”

So I did it in both and made them eat their hearts out. During the time that I was writing it, I didn’t think that “Feliz Navidad” would measure up to songs like “White Christmas” or “Jingle Bell Rock” or “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”

Music to me was everything. It was my breakfast. It was my lunch. It was my dinner.

Music became my companion, filling in the lonely times and making me feel like I could do something that no one else could do.

Music made me feel like I was sexy. Music made me feel like I wasn’t just a blind guy. — As told to Carlos J. Queirós

José Feliciano, 73, was born in Puerto Rico with congenital glaucoma, which left him blind at birth. A guitarist, composer, and singer, Feliciano broke into the U.S. mainstream in 1968 with a cover of “Light My Fire” by the Doors. In 1970, the Christmas pop classic "Feliz Navidad" debuted and would soon become a holiday staple. Feliciano has won seven Grammy awards and in 2010 was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

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