An in-depth interview with one of Puerto Rico's most beloved soneros.
Interview: Cheo Feliciano
by Abel Delgado (Abel_Delgado@descarga.com)
Vintage photos courtesy Izzy Sanabria Archives / Latin NY Magazine
Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1935, the sonero Cheo Feliciano is a living legend. In his song "El Cantante," another great sonero, Héctor Lavoe improvised the following lyrics: "Mis saludos a Celia, Rivera, Feliciano, esos sí son grandes cantores...escucha bien su cantar, aprende de los mejores." He paid homage to Cheo while putting him in some pretty fast company, namely Celia Cruz and Ismael Rivera. He's known as one of the greats for various reasons. Take your pick: an ability to improvise that ranks him with some of the nimblest vocalists in Afro-Latin music history; a streetwise flavor that put edges on many numbers, like "Pa' Que Afinquen" and "Mano Caliente"; a poetic lyricism few romantic singers can match (listen to "Amada Mía," "Delirio" and "Franqueza Cruel)"; a versatility unique even among soneros that enabled him to sing many different rhythms in many different formats; a creativity that spawned at least two classics written by him: "El Ratón" and "Como Ríen."
Descarga's Abel Delgado recently caught up to Cheo recently and talked to him about his life, his career and his latest project, Una voz... mil recuerdos.
Abel Delgado: The first thing I'd like to ask you about are the basic things about your background, your family, where you were born. Could you tell me a little bit about that?
Cheo Feliciano: I was born of a very humble family in Ponce, Puerto Rico. My father was and still is a carpenter and my mother a housewife. We come from a very humble community. But it was very musical, everything happening around us had to do in some way with music. I must have been around seven or eight years old when I established my first group. I called it El Combo Las Latas. Because it was cans, it was all latas. We didn't have any instruments so we made the bars of a guitar with a can, the conga with a can, the bass with a can, everything with a can. So we called it El Combo Las Latas. It was all kids, but at that very early age we understood about percussion, melody and singing.
AD: Where did you learn this stuff? What music did you hear that inspired you to start this particular group?
CF: At the very beginning--and it's very different from what I just said--the first group that I heard that inspired me into the forte de mi vida musical, el bolero, was el Trío Los Panchos. That was the first music I heard and I fell in love with--el bolero. But being as it is, having our roots coming from Africa, rhythm was within me and within us. So it was a spontaneous thing that we went into percussion. I never at that moment... thought I was going to become a singer. I loved percussion, I wanted to be one of the greatest percussionists, which I never got to be, even though I was at a later age a professional in percussion.
AD: Now where did the percussion come from? Did you hear people in your neighborhood, were there radio broadcasts?
CF: It was in Ponce. My town is known for one of our basic national rhythms, la plena. And many, many guys used to play panderetas, and that's the basic percussion for plena. Next to my house there was a guy who liked to play congas and he got together with other guys and they used to have rumbones, what we called rumbones, in the neighborhood all the time. So being a kid, I used to come close to them and listen to them rehearse. so I guess that got me interested in it, too.
AD: Now, the interesting thing about the rumbones is that the impression I've always gotten is that that particular style of music, rumba music, is exclusively a Cuban thing. But what you're suggesting to me then is...had that tradition also existed in Puerto Rico? Since you grew up around it, I guess Puerto Rico had its own rumba tradition?
CF: Yeah, well, there was always a relation between Cuba and Puerto Rico, even at my early age or even before that. There was always an influence of the percussion by Cuba which was really the most defined in all this that we call salsa. So I guess we come from that. But the main thing about singing, like I said, it was an accident. Because many guys like me used to love percussion, used to like to play conga, bongó, timbales, campana, but none of them sang. So when we got together a rumbón we had whatever group gathered around us to sing the coros. But there was never a lead. So I guess I began defining myself as a lead and as I was playing conga I used to sing as the coro would answer. So that's what I say it was like an accident.
AD: How old were you when you were doing this? Was this after El Combo Las Latas?
CF: Yeah. That was way after that. As a matter of fact, that was when I was, I must have been around 17 or something like that. We were already in New York, the family, at that time. It's a period called el éxodo puertorriqueño. It was a very hard time for the obreros...the basic working man. So many people left Puerto Rico looking for work. My father was one of those. I left at the early age of about 17. I was going through my second year of high school and I had more or less defined myself as to what I really wanted. And it was music. I didn't want to be anything else but a musician. So a few months, maybe a year before that, I got some basic academic musical training.
AD: Where was this at?
CF: In Ponce. It was the first Escuela Libre de Música. "Libre" because the other kids were all from poor families, no one could pay, so the government auspiced training. The school began in the dressing rooms of the Teatro La Perla in Ponce. And that's where I first got my basic training on at least reading music a little bit.
AD: Did you just study basic music composition, reading music, is that what you studied?
CF: Well, I started to because that's a very complex field and you need a lot of time, not just the little time I had. But, basically, just to lip synch the music, solfear (sol-fa), to learn to do the scales up and down, the basic things, the beginning of all that training. I wanted to be, among other things, a trombone player. But at the moment the school didn't have any trombones. They only had one, and they had 40 students assigned to that one trombone. Ironically, this is what happened: about the time when the family was going to move to New York, is when the trombones came. And there must have been about 25 trombones...two days after that the family was already moving. So I said hello to my trombones and I said good bye to them. That was the end of my basic musical training.
The other part that I was telling about the congas and my singing happened in New York. As soon as I got to New York, I was still interested in music and percussion. So New York, el Barrio, is very famous for its rumbones because there was a time when all the guys had a conga, and whether we went to the beach, to the park, or wherever, everybody was carrying a conga, everybody wanted to be a conguero. It was a very popular thing. I got into it. I started doing some lead singing for the sake of having somebody singing, not for any other purpose. But, as time went by I got my break since I was very forward in what I wanted. I spontaneously went and met all the greats with the luck that they all became my friends, like Machito, Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez, and a lot of those guys from that time.
AD: How did you meet them? What did you do? Did you just go up to them and introduce yourself?
CF: I found out where the musicians' union was. And it was, and I think still is, on 52nd street and 8th Avenue in New York. So I went there, and first I wanted to register myself as a percussionist. You took a little test and if you made the grade, you became a percussionist. And, at the same time, I got the opportunity to meet all these guys because they used to gather there to get the jobs, to book everybody. All the impresarios and all the musicians used to go to this place. So I met them all, I developed a friendship with all of them. As a matter of fact I became the utility boy of Machito, of Tito Puente, of Tito Rodríguez. So having developed those friendships, the guys that used to hang out with me in the rumbones, the guys that used to do all those coros and listen to my lead singing insisted one time with Tito Rodríguez to give me a break, to let me sing. Tito knew me as Cheo but he didn't know they were talking about me. "What Cheo?" "Cheo, Cheo, your valet, your bandboy." He said, "Cheo, you sing?" And I had the nerve to say "I'm the world's greatest singer." And he laughed. He said, "Well, you're going to have to prove it now." So he introduced me at the famous Palladium in New York one time with his big band and said: "Damas y caballeros, con ustedes, el más reciente descubrimiento de la escuelita." He used to call his band la escuelita, the school, because all the greats went through his band. So he gave me the maracas and said, "Sing. Show me you're the greatest." And I sang. I sang a tune popularized by Tito Rodríguez, which after that many singers have sung, "Changó 'Ta Veni". Sarabanda Changó Ta Veni (singing). And I got applause. They acclaimed me and they asked for another number. So I looked at Tito, I said, "Well, what do I do?" He tells me "Well, they're asking for another number. Do another number." And I did another one by Tito Rodríguez. That was my introduction to all this...
AD: Now, did you rehearse "Changó 'Ta Veni" with the band before you sang it or was it just completely cold? Did he just give you the mike and say, "sing"?
CF: That's it. At that time, I used to imitate (him)...like many guys. Everybody wanted to be Tito Rodríguez. Because he was style, because he was a symbol. He was the model for not only singers but for bandleaders. He had such a strict way of leading his band that he was a model. He was a very fastidious dresser and he demanded that his band look good at all times. They used to call him "Little Caesar." He was like a sergeant. He used to line them (his musicians) up before a show, look at their shoes, ties, everything. Besides that, all the singers were influenced by Tito's style.
AD: How old were you when this particular event happened?
CF: I must have been about 19.
AD: So it was maybe 1954, so you had been in New York just a couple of years?
AD: How long did you stay as a bandboy with Tito Rodríguez? Did that particular performance launch your singing career?
CF: That's where it started, right there. As I told you, I was a quasi-percussionist, some little groups started getting together and I used to play congas with all these groups, and it was by insistence of Tito Rodríguez himself that the Joe Cuba sextet, which had been recently formed and lost their singer...The group was young and they didn't have any contracts and another band listened to that guy singing and they liked him so they stole him from Joe Cuba. Now, Joe Cuba has a quintet and has no singer. So he went around the musicians' union and it was Tito Rodríguez that said, "Mira, there's a Cheo that sings chévere. Get him." And Joe Cuba, I knew him before, slightly, sent for me and gave me a test singing session. And I sang the same tunes I sang with Tito Rodríguez because I had memorized them. That was the beginning, I was accepted in the group and my life is very...I have so many anecdotes...
AD: And I want to get to as many as I possibly can. But the first thing I'm very curious about, since you were with the legendary Tito Rodríguez as a bandboy, what did you learn from him?
CF: Well, he was a powerful sonero. When he sang, there was no doubt in what he was singing. He was so sure, so positive about every line that I wanted to be as powerful as him. Truthful... you could believe what the guy was singing. He was singing about you. He was singing for you. He was connecting with you and I wanted to do that. I wanted to be able to sing, to talk to the people, to look them in the eye and make them feel what I felt. And I got that from Tito.
AD: A lot of times on Tito's recordings you hear him repeat a lot of what the chorus says and you don't hear him stretch out and improvise on a lot. In your experience, as an improviser, when he performed live, did he seem to stretch out a lot more and improvise a lot more?
CF: No. In that case Tito was limited. He was very purposeful, he was very rehearsed in what he did. He did it all perfectly. But I don't think he was really such a free improviser. He could do it, but on a limited basis. I think I learned some of it from him, you know, the perfection in whatever he was going to sing... he was perfectly rehearsed. Now, there were other singers that really improvised, like Machito, like Beny Moré, and before that, when I must have been just a little kid, names like Cascarita and many others who could really get on stage and improvise. I think I was influenced by all of them.
AD: So then you hook up with Joe Cuba. Tell me a little bit about the Joe Cuba years. What was it like, what was your impression of that era and that music?
CF: Well, I'll start it with one of the most important happenings in my life. I remember it because of two very important reasons. It was October 5, 1957. That was when I did my debut with Joe Cuba. After we had rehearsed a few weeks, the first formal gig came up and when I sang formally for the first time with Joe Cuba, October 5th, was the same day I got married with my wife Cocó, who still happens to be my wife.
AD: So you married her during the day and played the gig at night?
CF: Exactly. There was no honeymoon until after I finished the gig. Then we went to the honeymoon.
AD: So you got a chance to go away for a couple of days?
CF: Yeah. But she had to put up with the show. We had to do six hours, you know, those gigs were long. And after that we went on the honeymoon.
AD: And how long were you with Joe Cuba total? Was it until the mid-'60s?
CF: Close to 9, 10 years.
AD: At that time were you the exclusive singer for Joe Cuba, or did you do other gigs, like the Alegre All Stars? Was that during that time period?
CF: No, that came up a little later. Even though we used to do some little things. But I was formally Joe Cuba's singer. I did some of the Alegre stuff but that was within that time but later on, it must have been about, I don't know, '62, '63.
AD: How did the music of the Joe Cuba period help develop you as an artist?
CF: I was fortified by the fact that Joe Cuba became one of the most important musical groups in New York. People used to respond to us like it was the Beatles. They used to alternate us with the biggies, and not only with the biggies, they used to hold us for closing. Like, they had the names I mentioned to you, Machito, Tito Rodríguez, Tito Puente, Moncho Leña, Cortijo and Ismael Rivera and all the biggies, and then for closing the night, the Joe Cuba sextet. I remember one time when we had a big, big dance in the wintertime at the Manhattan Center in New York and they had all these people. I'll even mention more: they had Machito, they had Puente, they had Rodríguez, they had Cortijo, they had Mario Ortiz which was a band that was really coming on from Puerto Rico, and Xavier Cugat with his 40 musicians and his million Chihuahuas. (laughs). And after all that, then the Joe Cuba sextet. I think that was meant to kill us, you know? But instead, we killed them! When we started the whole place went into an uproar and it was great. I said, "Well, I belong to one of the most important groups in salsa music history."
AD: Now who would want to kill you guys as an up and coming group? Were these jealous promoters who would force you into the position of having to follow these legendary bands?
CF: Well, I wouldn't say that they didn't want us to succeed, but what they wanted to prove was that we were too young to try to compete with the masters. It was like giving us a confrontation. Be humble, you know, but they themselves got the lesson. We said, "We are humble, but we are powerful." And when they got convinced of that, then it was not in trying to destroy us but in recognizing the value, the attraction of the group. They could not put us up in front to open up a dance because we were the big attraction. Ironically, they had to hold us for last even though it may have started with a different idea. Now they knew the investment was to hold the star for the end. So we became the stars. It was incredible.
AD: What time period was this that this was happening?
CF: This must have been about 1959, 1960, 1961. This was our greatest moment. We were so powerful we did a Coca Cola commercial with one of our tunes that had become a national hit. It was "El Pito." (whistles). " Oye, ese pito!" We used to do the melody of "El Pito" to Coca Cola: "Drink Coca Cola" (singing). And we did our big video commercial at Palisades Park and it went national. So that's how big we were and then we started going around the country. We used to do contracts in Los Angeles...Cleveland, Chicago, Connecticut.
AD: "El Pito" was a really unusual song. I mean, with the whole chorus of "I'll never go back to Georgia." What brought about that particular song? How did you guys come up with that?
CF: Well, it was like a hybrid, really. We started with "El Pito," I don't know who it was that started whistling. (whistles) And the piano player followed it, and we all came in and it became like an interesting riff.
AD: Was that something you did in a rehearsal and you just turned it into a tune?
CF: No, that came right within a dance. There was a break and somebody started whistling and some of the crowd started whistling with it, so we just fell into it. And then we developed a thing with the "I'll never go back to Georgia," it was something that Dizzy Gillespie had said way before in one of his jazz recordings. "I'll never go back to Georgia." I think it was Jimmy Sabater that repeated the line so we made it a chorus line.
AD: You just liked the way it sounded?
CF: Yeah, it was like a jam session, really. There was not anything established. We just developed it right there and it became a big hit.
AD: Did you guys intentionally try to cross over at that particular time to the English language market or was it something that just spontaneously happened?
CF: These guys, even though they had Puerto Rican roots, most of them, besides me, had been either born in New York or had gone to New York when they were about a year old. So they grew within the English language and they all spoke English better than me.
AD: So it was just a natural outgrowth of the fact that they were native New Yorkers in many ways that made them want to try that style of music?
CF: Yeah. When I came into the group, they had instituted many English tunes. The other singer that I told you left the group because there was no gigs for him, Willie Torres, used to sing most of the tunes in English even though they were salsa. I think the first crossover was done by the Joe Cuba sextet. We did all the tunes because we used to cater to a Jewish crowd, to an Italian crowd, to black American crowds and to Latinos, too. So I think the crossover started really with Joe Cuba.
AD: So you were with them until the mid-sixties. Of course, it seems like it had a real profound impact on your professional life. At what point did you leave the Joe Cuba sextet and what were some of the reasons behind that?
CF: Well, I started to really reconsider my life as to what I wanted from music. I had the break of the greatest master, Tito Rodríguez, I had the confidence of him and I had the support of the fans. I thought I could make another step up of my life. I did not want to spend the rest of my life being the singer of the sextet. I wanted to be Cheo Feliciano. And even though we were on a very friendly basis, the guys were hurt that I was leaving the group, but I had a few offers. Whenever a singer became outstanding, he will get some offers. They will get you away from the group, sometimes for the best or other times to destroy you. I don't think anybody wanted to destroy me, I think they really thought I could do much better on my own and establish my own name. So I did, I told the guys it's been a pleasure, we've had a beautiful life, but I gotta go on.
AD: What year was this?
CF: That must have been, let's see...I think it was 1967.
AD: Did you immediately go and sign a recording contract and release a solo album?
CF: I didn't record, but I did have the impresarios wanting to back me up with all the different groups with which I had developed. Now I had Machito back me up, I had Tito Puente back me up, I had Eddie Palmieri back me up. They recognized me as a singer, as a soloist. Besides having their friendship, I had their respect. So all these groups backed me up. Whenever there was a dance with two or three groups, one of those groups would back me up, and slowly but surely I established myself. After that I did something which originally I was against, becoming the singer of another group. But at this time the offer I got from the bandleader was: "You're not going to be my singer. You are going to be featured in my band. You'll get all the respect and you are not going to sing all night. You're going to come at moments, special moments, and you will be the feature backed up by my band." That was Eddie Palmieri. So I was with Eddie for about a year and a half and I respect him and I love him and I thank him for everything he gave me.
AD: During that period is when you recorded the album Champagne, correct?
CF: Right. That's when I did "Busca lo Tuyo" and other tunes...matter of fact, one or two tunes that I wrote myself: "Ay Que Rico" and "Mi Palo de Mango." It was a very formative stage of my professional life, because I was establishing myself as a composer, too.
AD: So that would be around the mid-sixties. But I have an album of yours called Cheo from 1972 with "Anacaona." And in the liner notes from that album, if I'm not mistaken, Tite Curet Alonso talks about the album being sort of a comeback for you...as if you had gone through an experience. I don't have a lot of information about that, I was wondering if you could fill in the picture between gigging with Eddie Palmieri and doing Champagne and doing an album which, in 1972 was sort of a comeback. What happened in that period of time?
CF: That was a hurtful, destructive stage in Latin music. Many singers and musicians became involved with drugs. I was one of them. I was using drugs, but...I did not recognize that the drugs were harming me. I was using heroin, and even though I was singing I was going deeper and deeper into the habit, into the dependency of the drug. So after the time while I was still going under this influence I was still singing with Eddie Palmieri but I recognized something had to give...I had to do something with my life because this thing was holding me back towards whatever I had to do in the developing of my personal life, my family life, my professional life...everything. I saw I was going down the drain. So there was a moment when I retired. I came back to Puerto Rico, looking for help, and I found the beginning of an institution which today is very important a nivel mundial, Hogar Crea de Puerto Rico. It's a home for the reeducation of addicts. So I came to Puerto Rico at about the end of 1969, as a matter of fact it was Christmastime 1969. I said, "No more, I gotta take off, I've got to separate myself from everything and concentrate on myself." So I spent about three years voluntarily in that institution, getting to know myself well, what was wrong with me, what I had to change and what I had to do with my life. So I spent about three years in the institution, always having the visits of guys like Tite Curet and some of the musicians in Puerto Rico like Tommy Olivencia, Roberto Roena, el Gran Combo. And Jerry Masucci, he was always interested in me, but they had told him, "No, let him get through with the drug thing and then when he comes out, if we wants, sign him up with the Fania label."
AD: So the other musicians were the ones who would tell him this, correct?
CF: Yeah. Many guys. I have to be especially thankful to one guy who had all the confidence in me and who told Jerry: This guy can be a monster for us, for the Fania All Stars, you have to sign him up. That was Ray Barretto. I love him and he had la confianza. He believed in me and if Jerry Masucci offered me a contract it was because of the suggestion by Ray Barretto. So that happened while I was still in the treatment. I used get visits from Tite Curet, and Jerry Masucci once in a while used to come in and bring me cigarettes and whatever I needed. And he said, "Well, whenever you're ready, let's talk business." I told him, "Well, I'll let you know when." And there came a time when I decided, "Let's get it together," and he came over to Puerto Rico and we signed the contract, the original contract with Fania and that's when that record came out. That was my comeback.
AD: Now, at the time you were in the rehabilitation...this was something voluntary then...and you lived there the whole time. What kind of activities did you have to do while you were in Hogar Crea?
CF: Well, it was the beginning of a concept. It was not an established institution. It was done by some ex-addicts that said "Well, if we get together, we can help ourselves. So let's put our experience together, let's see what we did wrong, what we can do right, and establish a philosophy and let's try to help ourselves." So I caught it at the beginning. The treatment itself was not defined, it was slowly defining itself. We had to confront ourselves, we had some big fights, too, you know. When you're there, if you're looking for reality, you want to be sincere, you have to talk outright. So we used to talk outright and we used to have some fights and confront each other. But that was something we hadn't done before. The addict is always escaping. Being an addict, whatever you're an addict to, is nothing but an escape. Escape from your problems, trying to hide reality within the mists of narcotics or whatever. So we had to talk about reality, and we used to call each other all kinds of names. "You're a son of a bitch, you're this, you're venom, you're no good, you should be dead," and whatnot, that's how the treatment really works...talking reality. That fortified all of us and as we went through this development we established a more formal kind of treatment which has become the most important institution in helping addicts a nivel mundial. Hogar Crea at this moment has over 80 houses in Puerto Rico, has houses in all Latin America, has houses in Pennsylvania, in Connecticut, everywhere. It has become the most important treatment center for addiction.
AD: Are you still involved with activities at Hogar Crea at this point?
CF: Yes, I visit them, we get together, sometimes we get together therapy groups, I lead them. Sometimes I do conferences. Sometimes I do testimonials. What I've been talking to you about I talk about in churches, in universities, in colleges, everywhere. We talk about it...We have to responsabilizarnos en ayudar, give of what we got. So I myself am committed to this indefinitely. I will always be there to try to help the young people to understand, to not to be influenced by this and see the harm...it's against the development of any human being.
AD: Now, it's fairly well documented that a lot of salsa stars of your generation, people like Héctor Lavoe and Ismael Rivera, had substance abuse problems as well. Given the fact that you had this experience with Hogar Crea, did you ever try to counsel these stars so that they would not take that path of drugs?
CF: Well, we all came from the same school. We developed the habit about the same time. We all fought it at the same time, so I was one of the first ones that came out of it. And I tried to confront these guys, my fellas, my friends, as to "I saw the light. I think this is good for me and I think it's good for you." But when you're an addict you may hear a million and one consejos, like I did. Because I was a few years into the addiction and people used to tell me, "Cheo, get out of there, that's no good for you." And this and that and the other. But I didn't listen to it. I heard it, but I didn't listen. Now when I did make the decision at that time was when all these million consejos hit me all at once. And I said, "They are right. I have to change my life." That's a decision you have to make. And these guys used to listen to what I said but they said, "That's good for you, but when I feel it's my time I'll do it myself."
AD: So you actually spoke and had conversations...Did you speak specifically to Héctor Lavoe and Ismael Rivera themselves?
CF: Sure. We had friendships together. Héctor, he was, besides the superstar he was, I consider him my son. When I had done the change in my life, when he felt that his problems were filling up his cup, he used to come to me for help, "Cheo, please, háblame, help me, help me I want to get out of this." And he used to come to my office in Puerto Rico when I had my record company, Coche Records, he used to come, talk to me, he used to spend hours with me there, as I spent them with Ismael Rivera, as I spent them with Frankie Ruiz. I tried to give them what I got, but like I said, it's a decision you have to make personally.
AD: And unfortunately, I guess that message never got across to those particular musicians.
CF: Well...at the end Héctor...really was not using drugs anymore. He was compensating with methadone. At the time he wanted to really get off the thing. But when you compensate for a habit with another habit, which is what methadone does, you have to break the methadone habit. And that was the process Héctor was into. Of course, he was acting much better, he was performing much better, because methadone does not give you a high, it just pacifies you and lets you think, lets you perform. So he was doing pretty good but he had problems, you know. Many problems that hit him all at once which I don't wish on any human being.
AD: Absolutely. I remember reading about some of the tragedies he suffered in his life. Was Ismael Rivera ever able to come to grips with his problem, or did that pursue him until the day he died?
CF: At the end he had overcome it too. He had at least left the strong thing,, the heroin. He used to drink a little bit and whatnot. But what happened with Ismael is that he had all the concepts wrong. Whenever he would spend a night or two nights in bohemia, en singing and rumbón and vacilando all this, at the end of one or two days of that, your body is tired. What your body's asking for is...sleep... But Ismael had the concept wrong. He thought that by running, by doing exercise, he would feel better. So how can you do that if you punish your body for one night or two nights, then, instead of going to bed, you go run on the beach and do 10 miles?
And that's what killed him. He burned his body out doing exercise. He died in his mother's arms, clean, he was not using drugs. He was clean. But he was burnt out. His heart failed him right in front of his mother.
AD: That's a terrible tragedy, especially considering his stature as an artist. Fortunately, you were able to come out of that situation in 1972 with Cheo. Could you tell me about the way that album was shaped? It's probably gone down as one of the classic albums of all time in this style of music.
CF: It was a thing that surprised me. When I went into the treatment, I said, "Well, people have seen me, the way I have acted with the influence of drugs, I don't think they love me any more, I don't think they care about me because I didn't appreciate what I had. So I don't know what's going to happen. But I want to sing. I want to change my life and try again." And that's when I got the break from Jerry Masucci. The big surprise was that all these people were waiting there for me. They said, "Cheo, welcome back, we need you." That gave me such an injection, wow, un suero. I said, "Wow, they still believe in me. I think that recording is one of the most important I've done because each and every tune in that recording became a hit. Not just one cut, two cuts, but all the numbers became hits. That was my comeback. That was really my strong comeback. Luckily enough, it was within the time of the first Fania All Stars movie, Our Latin Thing. So that gave me a double opening when I did "Anacaona," because now it became un hit mundial.
AD: What was that era like, the Fania All Stars era?
CF: Well, that was a get-together. That was shop, that was el taller, the get together of the fellas. That was like my beginning when I went into this musician's union that I started meeting all these superstars, all these famous musicians, all the guys del barrio. Now, the Fania All Stars was la reunión. At the beginning, some of them were together with me, aspiring. Now we were all professionals. So whenever we got the Fania All Stars together, it was like family, you know. It was like an interchange of experiences, emotions and all kinds of...it was great. We used to get together and be on tour for two, three or four weeks and it was great times. Great times.
AD: When you guys did "Quítate Tú Para Ponerme Yo" on the Fania All Stars Live at the Cheetah album,was that something you worked out beforehand or was it just a live performance?
CF: That was a live performance that came out of the movie when we did the Cheetah concert. That was spontaneous. Whatever we said came out naturally.
AD: Did you feel a certain pressure because you have to go, you have all these people listening to you, you have your contemporaries like Héctor Lavoe and all those guys doing improvisations before you?
CF: No, I was very happy. I was a fish in water. I was back in my element, very happy, not scared. On the contrary, I was ready to go with them because I knew the quality of these interpreters and we were retando (challenging) each other, "Give me the best you got and I'll give you mine." And it was enjoyment, really.
AD: Who do you think got the best out of that particular exchange?
CF: Laughs. I think everybody did well. Because it was all interpretation, the way each one feels.
AD: This reminds me of when jazz musicians used to have cutting contests. Somebody would take a horn solo and another guy would come up and try to cut him. Miles Davis went head to head with Kenny Dorham on several occasions. In Cuba today, in clubs like Casa de la Música and El Tropical, there's a tradition today where the young soneros will try to cut each other. Did you participate in anything like this when you were growing up?
CF: Oh yeah, there was competition. You could not do worse than the last guy. You had to do at least as well as him or better. It was a machismo thing, an attitude like, "I'm the greatest, man, and I'm the one that knows about this..." It was interesting. So whenever a guy came back to you and gave you another one, that gave you a takeoff point for the next line. Which is good, because this demands your creativity. It keeps you awake, it keeps you aware, in contact.
AD: Are there any famous names that you battled with? Did you ever battle Pete el Conde?
CF: Yeah, Pete and I...Héctor, all the guys. Because we used...not to fight each other...but get the best out of you by giving you the best out of me. So it was a friendly fight, but it was a great fight because it demanded that you bring out your talent, your creativity. We do it every time we get together and I'm sure we'll do it again.
AD: To get back to the Fania era, did you ever get the sense that the stuff you were doing was going to be historical and have the big impact that it did?
CF: At that moment, no. I saw the reaction. As soon as we released our records, we started getting all these international presentations, as far as Africa, Japón, Europe, everywhere. We said, "Wow, we are important." And then was the fusion. Jerry Masucci, as the great businessman he was, he made a mixture of other rhythms or other influences to integrate within our salsa thing. Especially in my tune, "El Ratón," which is one of one of the tunes that I wrote at the very beginning. He included Jorge Santana with his guitar and that was a fusion of rock and salsa (see note 1). And that was great...
AD: I remember "El Ratón" as being part of an album you did with Joe Cuba. You're talking about a different version of this song?
CF: It was a different version. That's the first tune I ever wrote, "El Ratón," never thinking that it was going to become what it did become. Even though when we started singing it with Joe Cuba, people started reacting to it positively. But I thought it was going to be a transient hit, something that would go away after a while. And it became a classic. Then we did the new version with the Fania All Stars and I've done it a couple of times more...
AD: What is that song about? The gato is mad because he can't sneak out at night?
CF: It's a doble sentido thing. It's really talking about a man and a woman, but it's talking about animals-cats, el gato. Mi gato se está quejando...which is probably me, I'm the gato, que no puede vacilar, porque dondequiera que se mete su gato -su mujer- lo va a buscar. Y cada vez que el tipo está guarachando, aparece la mujer: "îyeme, te cogí." But I made it like a funny type of thing, with double entendre and I think that besides that, what really has the appeal is the rhythmic thing about the coro: "chacuchacuchucuchachucá." That has an appeal to a crowd that does understand Spanish but they understand the concept of "chacuchacuchucuchachucá" which is sound, which is...rhythm. And I think that's what really made it a hit a nivel internacional.
AD: Was that something autobiographical? Was it taken from your personal life?
CF: It happened with the group of Joe Cuba, the six guys, we were all married, I was the last one to get married, as I told you when I began with Joe Cuba. The rest of the guys were all married, but we used to go on gigs, travel, on our own, and the wives got together and that's when the gossip started. "Ey, el marido tuyo, he's going out with this chick, and this guy's messing up, you gotta watch out." That's how I got the notion for this tune.
AD: Is it tough, based on that song and the kind of environment you're in as a musician, is it tough to keep a marriage going on under those circumstances?
CF: I think the hardest part is really on the wife because we are the professionals, we have to do our work, for ironically, usually the musician has an appeal on the feminine side, and it doesn't have anything to do with you being beautiful or not. You're a musician, you're a singer, you have appeal. And women respond to us. And sometimes we do respond to them. And I think it's harder on the wives because they have to put up with all this, we have to be away from home for a long time and they have to keep the fort. I think the strongest effect is on the wife, really.
AD: You've been together with your wife for 42 years. What has helped you make that marriage a success in a time when so many people get divorced?
CF: Well, I think it's really the love she has for me. She has put up with me, really made me part of her life. She knew my shortcomings but she knew about my positive side and mostly she loves me a lot. So she has put up with a lot. And I really I have to agradecerle a mi mujer all the treatment, all the love that she's given me for so many years, all that confidence in me. And recognizing that we're weak and those are gajes del negocio. Even though I tried never to make things like that obvious, but it's a concept that is there, you're a musician, women will be around, and I think that's what mostly causes these divorces. The wife cannot put up with that. And my wife was great, I think. I don't know how she did it, because I really at a time was going crazy...even though I never stopped loving her. But she put up with it, and it's her love that has really made this marriage strong.
AD: How many kids do you have?
CF: I have four.
AD: Are any of them musicians?
CF: They all directly or indirectly have to do with show business. For example, my son, my oldest, José Enrique, he's a great recording engineer. My son Richie has always wanted to be an actor. My daughter Michelle graduated from college with a major in production and communications and my youngest one, he's a drummer, he sings, he's a drummer within rock or reggae but he likes to sing a little salsa. So they all indirectly have to do with it.
AD: In terms of your career from 1972 on, what were some of your most significant experiences from that time? What stands out most in your memory?
CF: Well, one of the most important, was my beginning with Fania, after those first two recordings, that I had the opportunity, in a big way to do the love of my life: bolero, el romance. Jerry Masucci, Johnny Pacheco, Santitos Colón and I went over to Argentina to do a bolero album. I did a whole bolero album with a great string band from Argentina...directed by the great Jorge Calandrelli, who's now a big name in Hollywood. And I did 10 boleros. Not only did 10 boleros, but was backed up by 14 violins, a great frame of music behind me. So that reestablished me as a bolero singer, which had never changed. I still loved the bolero and I had done a lot of it.
AD: What was that album called?
CF: La Voz Sensual de Cheo. The tune it featured was "Juguete," which did become the biggest tune in that recording. I've done boleros with la Rondalla Venezolana, I've done boleros with Armando Manzanero, I've done all kinds of boleros. As a matter of fact, at this stage of my life I want to concentrate more on the bolero.
AD: Now, that's interesting that you have that particular proclivity to sing that because a lot of the great soneros are not particularly known for being great boleristas. How come you have that particular proclivity towards singing boleros? What's the attraction there?
CF: Well, as I told you, my beginnings, I was listening to Trío Los Panchos, I was listening to bolero, real bolero. The percussion thing was a natural thing in me, but I preferred always el bolero.
AD: You have an interesting approach to boleros in many ways because you seem to concentrate more on the actual phrasing and you really don't go out of your way to hit a lot of high notes or lows. You sort of stay mid range, at least in the majority of the recordings I've heard. Is that something you would agree with and what's behind your approach to boleros?
CF: I recognize I am not a tenor. I am not a great voice singer. I'm a feeling singer. I interpret it. I think of a bolero as when you whisper to a woman in the ear, you talk, you bring through the message. I think bolero should be in between singing it and talking it. So whenever I go into words like "amor" (in a breathy voice), talk about it, not just "amoooorrrr." I don't consider myself a singer. I consider myself an interpreter. And people have said that: "Cheo does not sing the bolero. Cheo talks the bolero."
AD: Luis Miguel has become famous in recent years with that string of bolero albums he's put out. What do you think of Luis Miguel's work?
CF: A nivel professional, a nivel de cantante, estoy muy agradecido a la obra de Luis Miguel. Es un gran cantante y es un gran intérprete. What he did was save the bolero for the younger generation. Like all these kids before Luis Miguel, when they used to listen to bolero, they used to say: "Ah, esa es música de viejos." But when Luis Miguel did it, a young guy, they became interested in bolero. They listened to this tune: (singing) "En la vida hay amores que nunca pueden olvidarse." "Inolvidable." (note 2) And they said, "Did you hear that new tune? That new tune, you know, 'Inolvidable'." They didn't recognize this tune is 50 years old. So Luis Miguel has saved el bolero for the youth.
AD: I guess that's something that still interests you very much, because you recently recorded the all-bolero album Un solo beso. Is there a favorite bolero over the years that you still like to do above all other boleros?
CF: There is one which has always been my favorite. It's one of the shortest boleros, word-wise, but the message and the melody are great. Since I heard this tune many, many years ago, I was impressed. I heard it in the voice of a cantautor from Cuba, José Antonio Méndez and even though the tune was not his, it belonged to César Portillo de la Luz (note 3) , I heard his interpretation of it and I fell in love with it. If there's a favorite, that's it. "Delirio." Tú, mi delirio. (singing) "Si pudiera expresarte como es de inmenso, en el fondo de mi corazón, mi amor por ti..." Yes. Es mi favorito.
AD: Well, you've also been a part of the salsa movement and you also have a lot of experience as a sonero. What would you say are the qualities of a good sonero?
CF: That's the only thing there's not a school of. Either you got it or you don't. You can go to school and learn how to sing, how to control your voice, how to get the best out of your abilities, to compress the air, bring out the high tones and all that, but to improvise you have to be a natural. If you are a natural, you will be spontaneous, listening to the naturals, the way they carry a thought, the way they reflect what they see, talk about what they see and convert it into melody and rhythm. That cannot be learned in school. To be able to improvise is to be privileged, it's to be lucky that God gave you that talent because really, there is no school of soneros.
AD: Are we losing the tradition of the sonero?
CF: There is a danger of losing it because the young people have been influenced by other rhythms, other international things like rap, reggae, rock, and many things that come out. And that's okay. But I don't see what I used to see when I was young. For example, when I established my Combo Las Latas, we thought rhythm and if we didn't have an instrument we used to bang on top of the car hoods or on a chair or on a trash can and we used to go spontaneously into it. I don't see that anymore. I used to see guys like me when I was young that I was impressed by, the salsa singers, and I tried to do what I did accomplish later, to improvise. "Ey, pero me gusta esta rumba..." (singing) I did it spontaneously. I don't see that spontaneity anymore.
AD: With your style of music that relies so much on tradition and being able to improvise, and the singer being more of a force rather than just singing a balada with some rhythm to it, which is how you could describe a lot of modern salsa, given that, has it been difficult for you to make a living and to perform?
CF: It has, and there are many reasons for it. First, you're not creating anything when you do a balada. Many tunes that are done in salsa were popular tunes in the other modality. So it's like winning half the war before it's even begun...I think they exploit a great tune, a great melody, it was a ballad and it became salsa. But these guys are not exponents of salsa. They can only sing the tunes and then try a couple of lines of not really improvisations because those are written lines. I don't see the naturalness in it. I myself as an interpreter have had kind of a hard time to keep up with the crowd that responds to these guys. They are the new faces, they are the pretty faces, it's more important to have a pretty face than to have a pretty voice. But no me quejo because internationally I keep my stature and I do work throughout the year pretty well.
AD: I know you just recently went to Cuba and you performed live and there was a live album that featured your performance over there. What was that experience like? Could you tell me a little bit about that?
CF: Well, it was the dream of my life. I learned a lot about percussion and soneo from a lot of Cuban singers and musicians. There was a big influence of Cuban music in my life. So my great wish was to one day go and see la mata, la tierra donde nació todo esto. Finally after 40 years, I accomplished it, and it surprised me that the Cuban people were so conscious of my work, that they had such regard for me. So I was really impressed by the welcome of the Cuban people, the way they accepted me as one of them. It was a great experience.
AD: What did you think of the bands that are playing in Cuba currently? Is there anybody in particular that's working there that pleases you, whose albums you would buy?
CF: Sure. There's one guy, that I was even lucky to get one thing together with him, Isaac Delgado. He's a very good sonero and within one of his productions he included me with him in one of the tunes. It's called "Amigo."
AD: One of the things I was reading about was that there was some sort of backlash against you because of the fact that you went to Cuba. Has that actually occurred? Has it been a problem for you from a professional standpoint?
CF: No, no. So far it hasn't. I was surprised because of what had happened to my colega Andy Montañez when he welcomed one of our musician friends in Puerto Rico and embraced him in a very friendly and very real embrace. I was worried that the fact that I went to Cuba, I was gong to get some kind of reaction possibly like he got. I didn't get any (note 4). Their only, possibly if it was there, reaction was to a contract in which they wanted me to go to Miami and do a presentation at a club that brings cubanos, música cubana, and there is always a protest against it. I thought I might get some of that so I told the guy, "No, I don't think it's the time for me to go there." But I never got proof that that was so.
AD: So you think you can go and play Miami and not have any problems there?
CF: No, I don't think so. As a matter of fact, many Cubans, when they heard my record, they said, "Gracias for going to my land because I can't. But you went and you represented us." So I got some positive reaction to it. I haven't gotten any proof that there's anything negative towards me.
AD: I'm glad to hear that because I think it would be quite a ridiculous thing if there was. Could you tell me a bit about this new project that you have going?
CF: This is a concept I've had for many years... it's called Una voz... mil recuerdos, the voice being mine and the recuerdos ellos. Several singers were part of my evolution and I wanted to sing in memory of them because they are part of the la química de Cheo Feliciano...Daniel Santos, who was a romantic bohemio. Beny Moré, Felipe Pirela from Venezuela, a great romantic singer...Tito Rodríguez, who had all the parts...one of the greatest singers of boleros of all times, Gilberto Monroig from Puerto Rico...Santitos Colón, romántico...Ismael Rivera, who was great at our folk music and salsa...Mon Rivera.
...They were my personal friends, all of them, and some of them were my mentors, my fathers, and others were my sons, like Héctor Lavoe and Frankie Ruiz. So they all became part of mi química and I wanted to honor them. But not imitate them. I wanted to interpret the tunes that they made famous but singing them my way. So I think I accomplished that....
AD: So we're going to hear a variety of different rhythms on this record?
CF: Yes, and I tried to include some of the elements they originally used in their recordings to identify them and bring it to today's music but with a bit of influence of what they did.
AD: When you did this recording, I'm kind of curious as to your approach. A lot of times in romantic salsa they do a recording where they'll lay down a conga track for the whole album and manipulate it in the computer so that the same basic conga track is used throughout the album and the same thing with the trumpets, etc. In other words, the band doesn't record together. What kind of approach did you take to record this album?
CF: I always like the original, natural approach. I never did appreciate that computer thing. I liked to feel the band directly there. Sometimes we do it in sections. Sometimes we do the rhythm section and then add the trumpets, for instance. But nothing computerized. Everything is arranged, everything is prepared. Sometimes we try to record it in one shot with the whole band. But that's more complex.
AD: Did you do that on this new recording? Is there a track with the whole band straight through?
CF: Not really, because it was different. It's different combinations. Sometimes you get a sextet, sometimes you get a trio, sometimes a big band, sometimes a conjunto. We got all different kinds of instrumentations which...people will appreciate, the different sounds you get in this recording in particular.
AD: When you recorded in the old days, wasn't the whole band recorded at once?
CF: Yes, that's how we did it.
AD: What was it like during the Fania era (in the recording studios)? I spoke to Sergio George in an interview and we were talking about the role of the salsa producer. He's very involved in directing the sound and telling the people in his groups how to sing, what to sing, etc. But he said this is very different from salsa in the '70s. He said in the '60s and '70s the salsa producer's role was to keep people in the studio from killing each other.
AD: Did you ever have an experience like that? What was it like when you got all these guys together to record?
CF: Sure, it was like a jam session. We did not look for perfection. What we looked for was for interpretation, for feeling, for vibes. So we used to go at it once. If we failed in some way, maybe two or three times. But always the full body. We didn't mind little mistakes, little kinks, here and there, if the general final product was good. That was the idea, to convey the feeling of the whole group at one time, not looking for perfection, but feeling and I enjoyed that very much.
AD: When did you start recording in sections? Were the classic albums like Cheo and The Singer and Sentimiento Tú recorded with a full band all at once or were they also in parts?
CF: At that moment I did not have a band, so this was all arranged and they were looking for near perfection (note 6). So we recorded the basis of it, bass, piano, drums and then we were adding by section. So if anybody makes a mistake, you don't have to erase the piano any more, we have that. The trumpets go at it, and since it's only trumpets they can repeat a few times until they get it perfect. Then we get the coros. So they were looking for perfection. Production wise, that's okay if you want to bring a polished, shiny, product that people will respond to. But sometimes I prefer a spontaneous thing even though you might get a little gallo here or whatever kink. But if the center of it is conveying a true feeling of spontaneous music making, I like it.
AD: Are there any recordings with that raw sound that we should go and buy?
CF: I think everything we did with the Alegre all Stars is a good example of it. As a matter of fact, we did it without arrangements. We just got together, got a line and let's go. That was a real jam session. I loved all the Alegre recordings.
AD: Well, we're kind of running out of time here. To close the interview, in terms of your legacy as an artist, is there any way in particular that you would like to be remembered? What would you like people to think about when they think of Cheo Feliciano in years to come?
CF: Well, yo soy el amigo, el cantante sentimental...I would want them to know that my way of singing is sincere, that I won't sing anything that I do not feel...Everything I sang is part of me, it's part of my química, and I feel very lucky that God made me an instrument of His creation.
1 Cheo is referring to a 1974 Fania All Stars album called Latin-Soul-Rock that offered some interesting experiments in the fusion of funk, salsa and rock. Jorge Santana is also known as Malo. He is Carlos Santana's brother and led a successful group of his own in the 1970s.
2 This is a classic bolero composed by pianist Julio Gutiérrez, who incidentally also was behind the legendary Cuban Jam Sessions albums.
3 Portillo de la Luz was one of the leading exponents of the fílin movement in Cuba. "Fílin" is "feeling" with a Spanish pronunciation. Musically, fílin was about blending bolero and jazz. Besides Portillo de la Luz, other famous exponents of fílin include Frank Domínguez and Omara Portuondo.
4 This refers to an incident that occurred in 1997. Singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez is loved in Cuba but reviled by many exiles because he actively supports the Castro regime. Rodríguez went to Puerto Rico for a concert and there met with sonero Andy Montañez, who hugged him. This outraged many Cuban exiles and Montañez was dropped from the annual Calle Ocho festival in Miami.
5 Cheo was to perform at a club in Miami that brings in Cuban artists from the island to perform, among them Issac Delgado and NG la Banda. Occasionally these performances spur protests from Cuban exiles who do not want to see the Cuban government profiting by bringing its artists here. Interestingly enough, such acts of musical repudiation are common under Castro. For instance, Celia Cruz's music is banned. So were the Beatles during the 1960s. The irony of coming to the U.S. for freedom and then imitating Castro's repression is often lost on those who make these protests.
6 Cheo is referring specifically to the 1972 recording Cheo, when he had just come out of Hogar Crea and did not have his own band and therefore recorded the album with an all-star cast that included Ray Barretto, Orestes Vilató and Johnny Pacheco, among others.