He was singing ”The Star-Spangled Banner,” but you’d have thought he’d torched the American flag right there in center field. ”I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong,” remembers Latin singer Jose Feliciano of his controversial performance of the national anthem on Oct. 7, 1968, before the fifth game of the World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers. ”I thought, Wow, what a great time to express my patriotism.”
After the 23-year-old blind musician delivered his soul-churned, bluesy rendition of the anthem, many of the 53,634 fans at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium booed; some even threw shoes on the field. Talk about a tough crowd.
Before that day, performances of the national anthem at major events had been reserved for the most traditional and dignified of singers, such as Robert Merrill, from the highbrow world of opera. It was revolutionary for any pop artist — especially a young, ”ethnic” one — to imbue the song with a cultural flavor. ”Days before I performed, I heard that Marvin Gaye was singing it,” recalls Feliciano. ”I thought, Oh, this guy is really going to put some soul into it, but he didn’t. Nobody dared. When it was my turn, I dared.”
Luckily, the artist had some equity as a popular success. Feliciano’s cover of the Doors’ ”Light My Fire” was still incinerating the charts (the following year, he would win a Grammy as Best New Artist). It was a success hard earned: Born blind and into poverty in Puerto Rico, Feliciano moved to the U.S. with his family, settling in Harlem in 1950. By the time he was 17, he was performing in Greenwich Village clubs.
But what sold in New York didn’t play in Peoria. After the game, network stations were besieged with calls from appalled viewers. Music execs salivated: The next day, RCA pressed a record of Feliciano’s rendition, which made it to No. 50 on the Billboard singles chart. ”We would have gotten to No. 1 if some people hadn’t been afraid to play it,” he says.
Ironically, Feliciano’s then-radical performance sparked a trend. Everyone from Jimi Hendrix (rebellious) to Roseanne (ludicrous) has put their signature on America’s secular hymn. And Feliciano is still doing things his own way. At 51, he has recently released a Spanish-language album, Feliciano Americano, and along with wife Susan, he’s producing a children’s record that teaches prayer through song. And to that, there should be no cries of sacrilege — unlike the anthem he reinvented 28 years ago.