Salsa royalty celebrates Cheo Feliciano’s 50 years in music
By ALFREDO ALVARADO
A super-class sonero, Cheo Feliciano traveled the world with Fania All Star icons Ray Barretto and Héctor Lavoe during salsa’s glory days of the 1970s.
On June 20, a dozen Latin music legends will celebrate his 50th anniversary in music, a long overdue tribute at Madison Square Garden’s WaMu Theater.
“It’s about time,” said Oscar Hernández, leader of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, who will participate. “If there’s anybody who deserves a tribute like this it’s Cheo Feliciano.”
“Cheo is one of my favorite singers,” said nine-time Grammy award winner Eddie Palmieri, who will be on hand for the celebration.
“His timbre and his phrasing, he really is one of kind,” said the veteran bandleader.
Fania mates Ismael Miranda, Roberto Roena, Bobby Valentín, Papo Lucca and Johnny Pacheco will also be part of the anniversary concert, along with singer and percussionist Jimmy Sabater.
Feliciano’s route to stardom began in Ponce, Puerto Rico, where he grew up until the 1950s, when he migrated with his family — like tens of thousands of other puertorriqueños — to New York City looking for better economic opportunities.
“It was very impressive,” said Feliciano, who was 17 when he arrived. “Back in Ponce, the tallest building was only five stories.”
He wasted no time in finding his way to the musicians union and soon was paying his dues as the band boy for the orchestras of Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez, the bandleaders who ruled the New York dance floors during the golden Palladium era.
It was Rodríguez, a singer of impeccable style, who gave Feliciano his big break.
“Tito didn’t know that I could sing and the guys in the band would tell him to give me a chance. So finally he asked me and I told him I was the world’s greatest singer,” Feliciano recalled with a chuckle.
“When he called me to go on stage, that’s how he introduced me, as the world’s greatest singer.”
For his anniversary concert, Feliciano will take his fans on a journey back to the hits he recorded with the Joe Cuba Sextet and the Fania All Stars, such as “Anacaona” and “Amada Mía.”
“We’re going to do a little bit of everything,” said Feliciano, whose first love is the romantic boleros of groups like Trío Los Panchos.
Feliciano’s next project is an album with salsero Rubén Blades, a longtime admirer of his.
“I recorded some of Rubén’s songs and he’ll record some of mine,” he said. “My part is already done, we’re just waiting for Rubén.”