Jose Feliciano Played The National Anthem At The 1968 World Series, And Nearly Wrecked His Career
Puerto Rican musician and singer Jose Feliciano performs live on stage in 1968. (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)
In 1968, Jose Feliciano was on top of the world. He had a #3 hit with his cover of The Doors' "Light My Fire," and he had the #2 album in the country, but on October 7 all of the goodwill he accrued with his flamenco-folk take on American pop music was nearly lost forever after a disastrous performance of the National Anthem before game five of the World Series in Detroit.
The disaster that we're talking about here wasn't Feliciano's rendition of the National Anthem, but the response to his soulful, folky take on the song that's played before every sporting event in America. At the time there were hippies in the streets protesting against the Vietnam War, the Haight was exploding with free love, and here comes this blind Puerto Rican singer who slows down what was apparently All-American sports fan's favorite song in 1968 and turns it into a folked out hippie groove.
Jose Feliciano turned Game Five of the 1968 World Series upside down
In 1968, Detroit Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell was tasked with booking acts to sing to the National Anthem before the game. Harwell says that the onus of booking opening acts was on him because he was an aspiring singer-songwriter, so if anyone in the Tiger dugout was keyed into the music scene it was him. Games three, four, and five were booked to be played in Detroit and Harwell did his best to book artists that reflected a diverse set of tastes, but it turned out that his taste was just too diverse for sports fans in 1968.
Game three saw Detroit native Margaret Whiting, a nightclub singer, open the game with a classic version of the song, and game four had none other than Marvin Gaye opening the festivities. According to Harwell, he was asked to make sure that Gaye sang the song "straight," without putting too much soul into the track, which is honestly such a strange request. However, for game five, Harwell booked a singer that he only knew about tangentially. He told WBUR that he'd only heard about the blind Puerto Rican singer songwriter, but he didn't know that Feliciano had a rebellious streak.
It's for the best that Harwell didn't ask Feliciano to tone things down
Harwell says that he never spoke to Feliciano about his performance of the National Anthem or even heard what the Puerto Rican singer was going to do on the field. Feliciano told WBUR that if he was asked to change something or play it "straight" the same way that Gaye was instructed to it would have only made him dig in his heels even more:
He didn't have a chance to talk to me, which I'm glad of. Because if I'm told not to do something, I'll do it anyway.
Feliciano continued, stating that an earlier version of the song was much more out there, and that the version he performed in '68 was the version that he felt listeners could handle:
I had been working on a version of the anthem ... oh, at least a year before that. But it was totally radical and different than what I did. And I said, ‘Well, José, you know what? Maybe you shouldn't be so radical and do it a little bit easier for them to listen to — and know that you weren't messing around with the anthem.’
The audience nearly rioted
When Feliciano approached center field with his service dog, and found his way to the stool in front of a microphone with no one was expecting a solemn, jazzy protest song. The performance lasts less than two minutes but it completely horrified the audience in 1968, something that Feliciano wasn't expecting. He told NPR:
After I sang it, it was really strange to hear me being booed, as well as yay'd, and I didn't know what happened... I did it to show my appreciation to America for what they had done for me. I love this country.
That's not how sports fans in Motor City took the song. Older viewers and veterans thought that Feliciano was disrespecting America, and they felt he was taking the spotlight to thumb his nose at the country at a time when things were more politicized than ever. Officials who worked for the Tigers at the time claimed that they received tons of angry calls and that people were throwing things at their TVs as he played the anthem, a response that feels a teensy bit over the top.
Feliciano was tired of the same old Anthem
When Feliciano strolled out to center field in 1968 he didn't think that he was doing anything groundbreaking or that he'd be blacklisted from radio following the performance. He just thought that he was sparing the audience another boring boring rendition of the same old song. He told WBUR:
I was sick and tired of hearing it the old way and the audience, kind of, not being into it. Get to the end of the song, and the audience would start clapping as if to say, ‘Thank God this thing has passed.’ And I got tired of that. I did. I really, really did. And I said, ‘I'll fix it.’ Well, it fixed me for a while.
The audience at the time may have flipped their wigs over Feliciano's take on the song, but he opened the door for artists like Jimi Hendrix and Whitney Houston to put their own unique spin on the anthem.
Feliciano was blacklisted for the performance, but he persevered
Following his performance, Feliciano's singles dropped from the charts as disgusted radio programmers removed him from rotation. That didn't stop him from performing, and his biggest hit came two years after the disastrous performance. In 1970, he released "Feliz Navidad," which was a huge Christmas hit and remains one of the most popular holiday songs of the 20th century.
In 2018, Feliciano was honored at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History where he donated the Concerto Candelas guitar that he used to play the National Anthem in 1968. When donating the guitar he said:
[I want to convey] what it’s like for me to be an American, and they’re in for a treat. If they work hard, they’ll have no regrets. I have no regrets, though I was the first artist to stylize the national anthem, and I got a lot of protests for it. I have no regrets. America has been good to me. I’m glad that I’m here.
Tags: Jose Feliciano | Major League Baseball | World Series
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