I was still in bed early Thursday morning, 17 April, when I received a text that Cheo Feliciano, one of the greatest soneros in the history of Afro-Latin music, had just succumbed a few hours earlier to a car accident in Puerto Rico. The news of his death was all the more shocking because I had just been thinking of him since I just played the newest recording from Sergio George’s Salsa Giants called “Bajo la Tormenta” the previous Saturday on Jazz Safari. Those giants included Cheo, who last year had announced that he was undergoing treatment for cancer. His appearance with the Salsa Giants seemed to confirm that he had recovered and that the elder statesman of “Salsa” was back ‘on the scene’. What a thrill it was to catch the song’s video and see Cheo hanging with the collective of living legends that included Oscar D’Leon, India, Andy Montañez, Ismael Miranda, Jose Alberto “El Canario”, Willy Chirino, and Tito Nieves.
[See The Salsa Giants latest video "Bajo La Tormenta" featuring Cheo and his trademark refrain ‘Familia!]
Among the good fortunes that come with playing music on the radio for nearly four decades is the pure joy of witnessing more than a few live music experiences involving some of this planet’s greatest performers. Actually meeting and talking to those performers have heightened some of those experiences, though not all. I’ve become sensitive to the fact that after having just spent all their energy entertaining people, perhaps all some want to do is go to a ‘quiet space and chill out’. It’s akin to watching athletes, still sweating and trying to catch their breath, being pressed by reporters to analyze a game they’ve just finished playing.
One of those great joys of my life was meeting Cheo Feliciano in October 2011 following a performance at the University of Connecticut. And despite having just performed a nearly two-hour long show, and throngs of fans waiting backstage to meet him, the then-76 year old singer graciously welcomed Daisy, a fellow radio broadcaster I had just met, and me into his dressing room for what was supposed to be five minutes. It turned out to be an almost half-hour long conversation.
He smiled listening to me gush on about how his music had come into my life, and how his hometown of Ponce had been a favorite place to visit. And he shared memories of his battle with heroin addiction as a young man, about how he went into a three year ‘retirement’ to quit cold turkey and devote the rest of his life advocating for drug treatment centers in Puerto Rico. He also reminisced about visiting Africa as a member of the Fania All-Stars in 1974,when the ensemble appeared at a music festival preceding the Ali-Foreman “Rumble In The Jungle” in what was then called Zaire.
I told Cheo about buying my first album of his in the late 1970’s purely by chance, when I started collecting records of various stars of the Fania label, the major purveyor of “Salsa” in the 70’s and 80’s. It was titled “La Vida de Cheo Feliciano” and had a rather funky drawing of him on the cover. It featured a seven-plus minute long song called “Canta”.
Have you ever had the experience of hearing a song that immediately affects you in a way that no other song does? A song that is just so profoundly transforming that you want to hear it day and night, over and over again? Well, “Canta” is one of those few songs for me. And despite a limited Spanish vocabulary (that phrase about music overcoming all barriers is so true!), I virtually wore out the grooves on that portion of the album, playing that song to death.
[Listen to Cheo sing “Canta” whose rhythm blends the Cuban Danzon and Cha Cha Cha with solos from fellow Ponceña and pianist Papo Lucca, flautist Johnny Pacheco and trumpeter Luis ‘Perico’ Ortiz. It is one of the most perfectly constructed songs I’ve ever heard]
I discovered years later that I’d actually heard Cheo’s voice long before “Canta”, only I hadn’t recognized it then. It turns out his baritone was the main voice on boogaloo classics by the Joe Cuba Sextet like “Bang, Bang” and “El Pito [I’ll Never Go Back To Georgia]”, based on chant by Dizzy Gillespie’s introduction to his classic “Manteca”. Cheo was one of the two vocalists in the group, the other being Jimmy Sabater, whose fusion of Latin and Rhythm & Blues made the music accessible beyond a Spanish-speaking audience. I remember being turned on to boogaloo as a ninth grader in a school that included some New York City students who brought with them the urban, hip sounds of the city, including Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s first recordings, and helped relieve the isolation of the campus’ rural setting.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m sensitive about taking artists’ time backstage after concerts, and I knew there were so many others who wanted to greet Cheo that October evening. Though he showed no signs of wanting me to go, I eventually made way for the door to leave. But not before he earnestly offered to continue our conversation the next time I visited Puerto Rico. It hurts that I’ll never have the chance to continue that conversation with such a gracious, sweet and lovely spirit.
In his song “Trenchtown Rock”, Bob Marley sang “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain. So hit me with music.” It may be too early to listen to Cheo’s beautiful voice without feeling heartbreak, but I’m going to try to follow the chorus’ refrain in Canta that implores to “Sing and forget your pain” (Canta y olvida tu dolor). And just maybe I’ll be playing that song a few more times, again.
Mil gracias, Cheo Feliciano, y que en paz descance (rest in peace!)