The childhood of José ‘Cheo’ Feliciano was poor but happy. His parents were Prudencio, a carpenter, and Crecensia, a homemaker. Cheo inherited from them a taste for the irresistible seduction of music. On Sunday afternoons, recovering from a week's work, his parents would sing the popular boleros and guarachas of the time. Together with Raúl Manfredi and a few other boys from the neighborhood of Bélgica de Ponce, Cheo discovered the magic of Afro-Caribbean percussion. He received his first formal music lessons by Julio Alvarado, at the school Escuela Libre de Música Juan Morel Campos. ...MORE >
The childhood of José ‘Cheo’ Feliciano was poor but happy. His parents were Prudencio, a carpenter, and Crecensia, a homemaker. Cheo inherited from them a taste for the irresistible seduction of music. On Sunday afternoons, recovering from a week's work, his parents would sing the popular boleros and guarachas of the time. Together with Raúl Manfredi and a few other boys from the neighborhood of Bélgica de Ponce, Cheo discovered the magic of Afro-Caribbean percussion. He received his first formal music lessons by Julio Alvarado, at the school Escuela Libre de Música Juan Morel Campos.
The defining moment that introduced Cheo into the mambo craze and burgeoning salsa movement happened in New York, when he became the conga player with Conjunto Marianasi, led by Luis Cruz.
In his first live gigs, Cheo would imitate the famous soneros of the time. At the infamous Palladium, the mecca of mambo,Tito Rodríguez gave him his first opportunity as a singer. "I wanted to sound just like Tito," remembers Feliciano. "His perfectionism and professionalism were an example to follow. Tito was my teacher, mentor and advisor. He recommended me to Joe Cuba's sextet."
A sonero is established
During the '50s, Cheo joined the Joe Cuba Sextet and made it big. The leadership of the great orchestras of Tito Puente, Machito and Tito Rodríguez was coming to an end, and a trend favoring smaller orchestras was established.
The Joe Cuba Sextet became a phenomenon, particularly because of the intensity and versatility of the Sabater-Feliciano combination - unequaled in the history of Latin music.
Through hits such as "El Pito," "Nina" and "El Ratón" (the latter was reminiscent of his childhood, when the singer and his friends chased rodents with slings), Cheo experienced fame. Sadly, he fell victim to the temptations of controled substances.
"At the time, people weren't really aware of drugs and their dangers," he explains. "Most of us experienced all that due to ignorance. Young people are always searching for adventure. We were offered drugs, with the promise that they would make us feel good. We knew nothing of the addiction, illnesses and other consequences that lay ahead."
After he spent days wandering about the Latin barrio, Eddie Palmieri reminded him that he was a talented man - that he could stand up. Eddie gave him two tracks - Marcelino Guerra's "Busca Lo Tuyo" and "Ay, Que Rico" - on the 1968 LP Champagne.
Fortunately, Cheo was able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. He spent a week at home, deep in reflection. Months later, in December of 1969, he moved to Puerto Rico and became one of the pioneers in the drug foundation Hogares Crea.
With a little help from my friends
The final realization of Cheo as an artist, and his redemption as a human being, happened thanks to the generosity of a number of friends - Tite Curet Alonso, Tommy Olivencia, Silvio Iglesias - who made a conscious attempt to help him return to singing.
Tite and Cheo met in New York, 110th and Madison, the heart of the Latin barrio. They were introduced by Fernando Sterling, a common friend.
Back in Puerto Rico, Tite visited him frequently at Hogar Crea. He also introduced him to Jerry Masucci, who signed him as an exclusive artist with Vaya Records.
With arrangements by Bobby Valentín and Nick Jiménez, and the songwriting wisdom of Tite Curet Alonso, Feliciano recorded the album Cheo, which includes classic cuts such as "Anacaona" and "Mi Triste Problema."
"I always knew that I would write a good song for Cheo," recalled Tite during an interview. "'Anacaona' tells the story of an Indian princess from the Dominican Republic. The Spaniards killed her husband, Prince Caonabo. Romantic themes were at the core of the other songs that I wrote for this album. “Mi Triste Problema” talks about couples that are married in paper, but share no love between them."
The only black man whose pores sweat honey
Mentioning the name of José ‘Cheo’ Feliciano in 2009 is talking of a veritable gentleman of the stage, an altruistic example of self-realization, and a multifaceted singer who has shone in every Latin genre.
During the mambo section of the Tite Curet composition "Trizas," Cheo points out that he is "the only black man whose pores sweat honey" - an allusion to his innate romanticism.
This collection could not be complete without "Amada Mía" by José Nogueras, and "Juguete" by Bobby Capó, boasting a string arrangement by Argentine producer Jorge Calandrelli, who became internationally famous through his work for Cheo.
"When Tito Rodríguez died, Fania tried to turn Cheo into a new version of Tito," explained Tite Curet. "It didn't work out, because Tito was sui generis, and Cheo was different. He found his way again with the album Estampas."
The voice of the salsa chronicle
If we strive to be true to the real story of José ‘Cheo’ Feliciano - the man and his music - the exercise of documenting his relationship to song demands that we underscore the fact that, just like salsa would not exist without Tite Curet, Cheo's career would not have enjoyed the prestige and credibility that it did without Tite's songs.
Tite was Cheo's "musical tailor." And without Cheo's voice, Tite's chronicles - inspired in real life - would not have transcended with such eloquence and social impact.
"Anacaona," "Pa' que afinquen" and "Mi triste problema"
A successful trilogy of songs, culled from Cheo's debut LP for the Vaya label. Released in 1971, the album was a virtual passport to the gathering of Fania stars at the Cheetah club. This was more than deserved for Cheo, since he was a veteran of the jam sessions held by the Tico and Alegre All Stars at the Village Gate.
"Anacaona". The sequel to this song is titled "Canoabo." Cheo did not record it.
"Pa' Que Afinquen" is a tasty son that finds Cheo admitting that other singers took advantage of his long absence from the music scene. However, he has no trouble recapturing the spotlight, because he sings from the heart and without skipping the clave - like a few of his competitors do.
"Mi Triste Problema" describes the tragedy of the man who lives with a lady whom he doesn't love anymore - either to keep up appearances, for fear of what people may say, or because of a contract or promise made to God.
"Armonioso Cantar" and "Naborí"
In 1973, following the album of boleros with strings La Voz Sensual that Jorge Calandrelli had produced the previous year, Tite and Cheo met again for the project With A Little Help From My Friend.
The sequel to "Pa' Que Afinquen," "Armonioso Cantar" is another delightful son where Cheo reclaims his leadership as a sonero who feels "the rhythm in his heart."
The story of a man who is exploited during the time of the Caribbean sugar plantations, "Naborí" tackles the issue of racial discrimination.
"Estampa marina" and "Los Entierros"
Two classics of narrative salsa, recorded in 1979.
"Estampa Marina" was inspired by the experiences of fishermen from the region of Vieques de Loíza, Puerto Rico, who went fishing with the uncertainty of their return - quite often, the sea would punish their humble boats, bringing sorrow and despair to their families. Tite wrote "Estampa II: El Regreso," but Cheo has never recorded it.
"Los Entierros" stems from Tite witnessing a funeral procession in the community of Nemesio R. Canales in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. The family of the deceased was so poor, that the flowers in the procession were made out of paper.
One of the greats
Today, José ‘Cheo’ Feliciano is the dean of all salsa singers, with over five decades of pure feeling and flavor.
Considering his trajectory, Cheo is clearly one of the five most emblematic vocalists in the history of salsa. In no particular order, since each one of these is in a class of his very own, Cheo is a legend - together with Ismael Rivera, Héctor Lavoe, Rubén Blades and Celia Cruz.
Just like Cheo, these artists sing truthfully, and they have always brought joy to people.