Jools Holland has long been a fan of José Feliciano – now the two musicians are working together. Duncan Seaman reports.
Jools Holland’s television programme Later has long been a showcase not only for new and trendsetting artists but also for legends in their own field.
Last year, for the first time, it hosted José Feliciano, the Puerto Rican guitarist, singer and songwriter famed in the 60s and 70s for the hits Light My Fire and Feliz Navidad.
Not only did the episode prove to be the realisation of a long-held dream for the piano-playing presenter – “We’ve been trying to get him on for 25 years, he’s never been in the country at the right time, or for different reasons it never worked out” – it also sparked a friendship that has led to a full album and UK tour with Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra.
“I’ve loved his music since I was a baby, since I could play. Whatever he played he just illuminated every song, he’s one of those gifted musicians,” enthuses Holland, 59. “When he came on [the show] not only was he like that but also I discovered that he was this wonderful man that was my new friend and we thought maybe we should make a record together. Unbelievably in a very short space of time all our managers and record companies worked it out and we did.”
The feeling is clearly mutual. Feliciano, 72, says of the former Squeeze pianist: “I found that Jools and I came together like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, I really feel that. I will be Jools’s friend forever.
“He’s such a great musician and it made me feel good that somebody of his calibre respected me. I respect him immensely, I’m thrilled. I call him Joolie sometimes, I say ‘thank you, Joolie, for having me on the show with you’.”
When it came to planning As You See Me Now, Feliciano presented Holland with a few songs he had written “and he decided on the ones that he liked”.
“Jools also sent me songs that he thought I should do. Some of them in the beginning I grimaced a little bit, [but] we have a Stevie Wonder song [Treat Myself] which I think was a good choice by Jools, our version was better than his and I say that unequivocally. We worked very well together, he sent me material, I let him know through my manager which ones I liked and then we went to work.”
With Feliciano’s wife Susan translating the song scores into Braille for her husband, who has been blind since childhood, “everybody played a part”.
I’ve loved his music since I was a baby, since I could play. Whatever he played he just illuminated every song, he’s one of those gifted musicians.Jools Holland on José Feliciano
In true old school fashion, the songs were recorded live. Feliciano says: “In this day and age that’s an amazing feat because everybody now records to tracks and it sounds good but when you do something live it’s different.”
Three songs on the album – including a rendition of Fats Waller’s Honeysuckle Rose – feature Holland as vocalist. He acknowledges it’s rare for him to sing on recordings but says: “If you come to see us live I’m doing half of it.”
Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad, one of the most widely performed Christmas songs that has a place in the Grammy Hall of Fame, is also rendered as a ska number.
“If you’re going to do something you’ve got to try and make your own version of it,” Holland says. “One of the things that my band has is that Jamaican influence, which is also the same influence as the whole British ska invasion thing which I was sort of part of, so the idea of crashing Jose on one of his songs into our band with a bit of ska seemed like a natural choice for madness.”
As You See Me Know also includes a new take on the Beatles’ In My Life, a song that Feliciano first recorded on his breathrough album Feliciano! in 1968.
The guitarist met John Lennon during the recording of his Rock ’n’ Roll album in 1973. “I played electric guitar on a song called Be My Baby, which was a hit by the Ronettes. When I met John it was during that mad weekend that he had with Harry Nilsson and all the gang. I was one of many guitarists because it was produced by Phil Spector and he had Jesse Ed Davis, Steve Cropper and myself playing electric guitars. It was fun to work with John and he was a nice chap.”
Lennon was tragically shot dead on December 8, 1980. “It was my brother’s birthday,” Feliciano sadly recalls. “I thought ‘Wow, I’ll never get to make up my friendship with him because some imbecile killed him’. The worst part for me is that this imbecile [Mark Chapman] is still alive and John is gone. That doesn’t go well with me.”
Holland might have met thousands of musicians during the past four decades but he sounds genuinely touched that this collaboration works so well. “I have literally spent my life saying to people ‘Can we make that sound like José Feliciano? Can’t you play a nylon string where you get that sound?’ I can’t believe it but now it is José Feliciano doing it, it’s fantastic, it’s a dream come true,” he says, recalling first hearing the guitarist and singer on the radio at his nan’s house while she was cooking breakfast. “Suddenly I woke up, I said ‘What is this?’ On that occasion it was Light My Fire. I’d heard the song before and it hadn’t meant anything to me. Suddenly hearing this it was like the best way of waking up ever. I thought ‘What is that sound, what is that voice?’ And then I heard more and more of what he was doing and it just switched more on to a whole [new sound].”
“I remember that morning not wanting to get up and suddenly ‘Wait a minute, I’ve got to get up, I want to hear this record, turn it up’. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me since actually, when you hear something so amazing you just want to jump out of bed.”
As You See Me Now is out today. Jools Holland and José Feliciano with the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra play at Harrogate International Centre on December 21 and First Direct Arena, Leeds on December 22. www.joolsholland.com