Cheo Feliciano, a leading salsa singer renowned for both his love songs and his upbeat improvisations, died in an automobile accident on Thursday in San Juan, P.R. He was 78.
He was killed when the car in which he was driving alone ran into a light post, the police told The Associated Press. He was not wearing a seatbelt, they said.
A handsome and debonair baritone, Mr. Feliciano overcame drug addiction and became a celebrity in Puerto Rico and in the larger community of Latin music. He was equally impressive as a sonero — a singer who can improvise rhymes and melodies over Afro-Caribbean dance rhythms — and a romantic crooner, delivering suave, smoldering boleros.
During the 1970s he became a major star of salsa (the name was used by American marketers as a catchall for various Latin rhythms) when he recorded for the New York label Fania. His first solo album, “Cheo,” included songs that became his signatures: “Anacaona” and “Mi Triste Problema.”
“He was an icon, beloved by the females,” Joe Conzo Sr., a music historian and a longtime friend of Mr. Feliciano, said in an interview on Thursday. “His boleros, they had the women swooning.”
Mr. Feliciano spent several years in the late ’50s and early ’60s singing, in both Spanish and English, with the Joe Cuba Sextet, a popular ensemble that helped introduce Latin music to a mainstream American audience. He also recorded with top Latin bandleaders including Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente, and he was a longtime member of the Fania All-Stars, the group organized by Fania Records that included virtually all the major figures of salsa’s ’70s heyday.
In 1973, Mr. Feliciano was with the Fania All-Stars when they performed at Yankee Stadium. A 1975 album of that concert, “Live at Yankee Stadium,” was inducted into the Library of Congress’s national registry of recordings that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically important.”
In 2008, at the Latin Grammy Awards, Mr. Feliciano was honored for lifetime achievement. The same year, he celebrated 50 years in music with a concert at Madison Square Garden, a performance reviewed by Jon Pareles, the chief pop music critic for The Times.
“Mr. Feliciano, who turns 73 on July 3, is still a formidable singer at any speed,” Mr. Pareles wrote. “His baritone voice sounds richly assured, even when he sings, as he often does, about the pains of love. Backed with the rumbas and guaguancós of salsa dura (hard salsa), he is a sonero who volleys percussive syllables and improvised rhymes over the beat. Easing the tempo back to bolero, he is an equally skillful romantic crooner steeped in Latin ballads, with a touch of Sinatra, who’s suave yet still rhythmically unpredictable. Guests joined Mr. Feliciano for duets, some improvising their own rhymes of praise for him. None outsang him.”
Cheo Feliciano was born José Luis Feliciano Vega in Ponce, P.R., on July 3, 1935. His father was a carpenter, and the family was poor but musical. Young Cheo (a common nickname for José), who received some rudimentary musical education in a government-sponsored school, was initially a percussionist and established his first group before he was 10, calling it El Combo Las Latas — the Can Combo — because they made their instruments out of tin cans.
“Everything happening around us had to do in some way with music,” Mr. Feliciano said in an interview in 2000 with the website descarga.com. El Combo Las Latas, he added, “was all kids, but at that very early age we understood about percussion, melody and singing.”
When Cheo was a teenager his family moved to New York City, where he played congas and would sing when a group needed a vocalist. He met well-known musicians after he registered as a percussionist at the musician’s union, and he served as a band boy — a kind of errand boy and valet — to several of them, including the bandleader Tito Rodríguez, who gave young Cheo his first chance to perform in public.
Mr. Feliciano became addicted to heroin in the ’60s and by the end of the decade was forced to suspend his singing career. He returned to Puerto Rico, where he entered a program, known as Hogar CREA, to treat his drug dependency.
He spent three years in self-imposed retirement, and when he felt he was ready he initiated his comeback, signing with Fania. Over the next decades he made dozens of recordings, for Fania and other companies, and toured throughout Latin America and Europe.
Mr. Feliciano is survived by his wife, Socorro Prieto De Feliciano, known as Coco, whom he married on Oct. 5, 1957, the same day he made his debut with the Joe Cuba Sextet. The Associated Press reported that he is also survived by four sons.
In the 2000 interview, Mr. Feliciano remembered the youthful hubris that led him to take the stage as a singer for the first time. Someone, he said, had told Tito Rodríguez that a young man named Cheo could sing a little bit.
“Tito knew me as Cheo but he didn’t know they were talking about me,” Mr. Feliciano recalled. “ ‘What Cheo?’ ‘Cheo, Cheo, your valet, your band boy.’ 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.’ ”
One night shortly thereafter, onstage with his big band at the Palladium in New York, Mr. Rodríguez introduced him to the crowd.
“He gave me the maracas and said: ‘Sing. Show me you’re the greatest,’ ” Mr. Feliciano said. “And I sang.”
José Luis Feliciano Vega (July 3, 1935 – April 17, 2014), better known as Cheo Feliciano, was a Puerto Ricancomposer and singer of salsa and bolero music.
Feliciano (birth name: José Luis Feliciano Vega) was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, where he was raised and educated. His parents were Prudencio Feliciano and Crescencia Vega. As a child, he was nicknamed "Cheo" by his family - a colloquial version of his name José, normally used by close friends and family. However, the name stuck and became part of his everyday name (using the nickname avoids confusion with José Feliciano, another major Puerto Rican singer to whom he is not related). At a young age he was influenced by the bolero music of the Trio Los Panchos. When he was only eight years old he formed his first group with his friends and named it "El Combo Las Latas". They were so poor that their musical instruments were made out of cans. After finishing his primary education, Feliciano attended the Escuela Libre de Música Juan Morel Camposin Ponce, where he studied percussion.
Musical career and singing debut
In 1952, Feliciano moved with his family to New York City and settled down in Spanish Harlem. Here he auditioned as a percussionist in the "Ciro Rimac's Review" band - giving him his first professional musical job. Bandleader Tito Rodríguez, heard Feliciano play and offered him a job in his orchestra. He accepted, but after playing for some time with Tito, he left the band to play the conga for Luis Cruz. Despite leaving, he always remained on friendly terms with Tito. Feliciano also played percussion for Kako y su Trabuco orchestra. He was also a roadie for Mon Rivera.
In 1955, Rodríguez found out that Joe Cuba was in need of a singer for his sextet. Aware that Feliciano was also a talented singer, he recommended Cuba that he try out for the position. Feliciano auditioned and became a vocalist for the Joe Cuba Sextet. He was the rare baritone among salsa singers, and his deep voice and quick wit as an improviser made him a favorite among the Latino public.
On October 5, 1957, Feliciano made his professional singing debut with the Joe Cuba Sextet, singing the song "Perfidia". He remained with the sextet for 10 years. In 1967, he joined the Eddie Palmieri Orchestra and sang for them for two years. However, at the same time he began using drugs at 21 years old. His increasingaddiction led him to heroin, which in turn threatened his life and career. He decided to quit drugs "cold turkey" and eventually joined Puerto Rico's rehabilitation center, Hogares CREA. Feliciano credits Tite Curet Alonso, the author of most of his hits and his best friend, with pushing him through his rehabilitation. As a result, he was a vehement anti-drug spokesperson, who volunteered to assist in the rehabilitation of fellow salsa artists who fell prey to drug addiction.
Return to music
In 1972, Feliciano came back to music with the album Cheo, his first solo recording. The album, which featured compositions by Feliciano's friend Tite Curet, broke all sales records in the Latino music market. The album included:
- "Anacaona" and
- "Mi Triste Problema"
During the 1970s, Feliciano recorded fifteen albums for Fania Record Co. and had hits with "Amada Mia" and "Juan Albañil". He also recorded one of his first albumsbolero music titled La Voz Sensual de Cheo. The album was recorded in Argentina, with a band directed by Jorge Calandrelli. Feliciano also participated in the first salsa opera Hommy.
In 1982, Feliciano started his own recording company called "Coche Records". In 1984, he was honored by artists like Rubén Blades and Joe Cuba in a concert entitled Tribute to Cheo Feliciano. The next year, he became the first tropical singer to perform at the Amira de la Rosa Theater in Barranquilla, Colombia. In 1987, he landed the role of Roberto Clemente's father in the musical Clemente. Feliciano also became a hit in Spain, and was a regular in the Tenerife Carnival. He also sang in the 1992 Universal Exposition in Seville.
In 1990, Feliciano recorded another album of bolero music, titled Los Feelings de Cheo. He also traveled all over Europe, Japan, Africa, and South America. In Venezuela, he had a reunion with Eddie Palmieri. In 1995, Feliciano won a Platinum Record Award for La Combinación Perfecta.
In 2000, Feliciano recorded Una Voz, Mil Recuerdos as a tribute to various Puerto Rican singers. The album was listed among the 20 outstanding recordings of the year by the National Foundation of the Popular Culture of Puerto Rico. In 2002, he recorded Cheo en la Intimidad. In 2012, Feliciano and Ruben Blades released a collaboration album titled Eba Say Aja where both artists performed each other's previously recorded songs. In the same year, Feliciano became part of Sergio George's group called Salsa Giants whom he was touring with at the time of his death. Feliciano was very active and continued traveling and performing all over the world until his last day.
Feliciano met Socorro "Cocó" Prieto León in New York, when she was 15 years old. They married in October 5, 1958 and had four children together. Feliciano dedicated his 1993 album, Motivos, to his wife.
In June 2013, Feliciano confirmed that he was suffering from liver cancer and was already undergoing chemotherapy treatment. Doctors discovered the illness when they were treating him for a dislocated shoulder. Earlier this year, Feliciano celebrated being "cancer-free".
Feliciano Vega died in the early hours of April 17, 2014 in a single car accident on Highway 176 in the San Juan’s barrio of Cupey, after losing control of his vehicle and hitting a light pole. His wife, Coco, told reporters that Feliciano did not like to wear a seat belt. Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla declared three days of national mourning.
A memorial service in honor of Feliciano was held at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan on April 20, 2014. The service was attended by thousands of people from all the island. Many fellow artists paid their respects to Feliciano with songs and by keeping guard by Feliciano's coffin. Artists and groups like Danny Rivera, José Nogueras, Fania All-Stars, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Rubén Blades, Víctor Manuelle, Andy Montañez, Tito Nieves, and others were present. The next day, his body was taken to the city of Ponce, where he was born. A public service was held at the Ponce Convention Center, led by Governor Alejandro García Padilla and Mayor María "Mayita" Meléndez. After that, a private ceremony was held for the family and close friends inside La Piedad Cemetery. Although the public was not allowed entrance at first, the gates were opened once the family finished their memorial.
Feliciano's petition was to be buried at the Panteón Nacional Román Baldorioty de Castro. Puerto Rico Department of Health does not allow for burials at the Panteon, but interment of remains are permitted after five years. Ponce Mayor Maria Melendez stated she would issue a municipal order to transfer Feliciano's remains to the Panteon, if possible after one year.
Through his career, Feliciano was recognized as a pioneer in the Salsa genre, and many artists considered him an influence. Gilberto Santa Rosa, Ruben Blades, Alex D'Castro, Jerry Rivas (of El Gran Combo) and his son Gerardo (of NG2) are among some of the singers that mentioned Feliciano as an influence. Rivas referred to him as "my inspiration", while Blades has admitted that he began his career copying Feliciano's style and tone.
with Joe Cuba Sextet
- Cha Cha Cha's To Soothe The Savage Beast (1958)
- Steppin' Out (1962)
- Hangin' Out (1963)
- Diggin' the Most (1963)
- El Alma Del Barrio (1964)
- We Must Be Doing Something Right (1965)
- Comin' at You (1965)
- Bailadores (1965)
- Red Hot and Cha Cha (1966)
- "A las Seis" (1962),
- "El Pito" (1967)
- "Busca lo Tuyo" (1968), Eddie Palmieri
- "Anacaona" (1971)
- "Mi Triste Problema" (1971)
- "Salomé" (1973)
- "Nabori" (1973)
- "Mapeye" (1973)
- "El Ratón" (1974), Fania All Stars
- "Canta" (1976)
- "Los Entierros" (1979)
- "Amada Mía" (1980)
- "Juan Albañil" (1980)
- "Sobre Una Tumba Humilde" (1980)
- "Ritmo Alegre" (1981), Eddie Palmieri
- "Trizas" (1982)
- "Yo No Soy Un Ángel" (1991)
- "Mentiras" (1991)
Awards and recognitions
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- 1975 - The Golden Cup - Venezuela
- 1976 - "Most Popular Artist" by Latin New York magazine
- 1977 - Daily News Front Page Award for "Best Latin Vocalist"
- 1985 - Owl of Gols (Panama); The Silver Chin Award (Miami, Florida)' Golden Agueybana Award (Puerto Rico)
- 1983 & 1984 - Honorable Son of Ponce
- 1999 - A tribute in his honor from the Puerto Rican Senate
- 2008 - June 20 declared Cheo Feliciano Day in New York City
- 2008 - Grammy for Excellence in Music at the Latin Grammy Awards
- In Ponce, he is recognized at the Park for the Illustrious Ponce Citizens.
Received news about the passing of Cheo Feliciano. I had never heard of Cheo Feliciano and I probably am too late to appreciate his artistry. However, perhaps there are some among us who may have some understanding of his artistry and his impact on World Music. If so, please enlighten us. In the meantime, please read about Cheo Feliciano at
and please listen to him at