Boy Scouts name José Feliciano a 'Distinguished Citizen'

For his contributions to the community, legendary singer and guitarist José Feliciano of Weston has been named a Distinguished Citizen by the Connecticut Yankee Council — the local chapter of the Boy Scouts of America. The award recognizes the noteworthy and extraordinary leadership of citizens across the United States.

Former Weston First Selectman Woody Bliss, who serves on the event committee for the Connecticut Yankee Council, said Mr. Feliciano has done much for many communities in Fairfield County. “When he’s not on tour, José is always willing to give his time to worthy causes,” Mr. Bliss said.

Mr. Feliciano has performed at a number of benefit concerts in the area, including one for the Weston Historical Society to help raise funds for the building of an archive facility. He was the first performer at the Ridgefield Playhouse, and every year he sings at local church events.

Mr. Bliss recalled a July 4th fireworks event in Weston when a performing group backed out at the last minute and Mr. Feliciano agreed to step in on short notice. “That’s the kind of person he is. I once brought the mayor of Bridgeport to his home because the mayor wanted to personally thank him for the work he’s done for youth,” Mr. Bliss said.

Mr. Feliciano has a strong interest in scouting. When one of his friends died, Mr. Feliciano attended and performed at the Eagle Scout Court of Honor for his friend’s son. Mr. Feliciano’s own son Michael, 16, is working on an Eagle Scout project for Troop 36 of Westport clearing trails and beautifying Keene Park. “I’m very proud of Michael going for Eagle Scout,” Mr. Feliciano said in an interview with The Forum.

But Mr. Feliciano, 66, was never a Boy Scout himself. Originally from Puerto Rico, his family moved to New York when he was nine. Blind at birth as a result of congenital glaucoma, Mr. Feliciano said Boy Scouting at that time did not allow blind boys into the program. While his brothers became Scouts, Mr. Feliciano joined Camp Lighthouse instead. “Camp Lighthouse was a very good program, and I learned how to water ski, sail, paddle a canoe and row a boat,” he said.

At a young age, Mr. Feliciano developed an interest in music and has been performing professionally since he was 17. A renowned singer, virtuoso guitarist and composer, Mr. Feliciano has had many hits both in English and Spanish. His rendition of Light My Fire earned him a Grammy award, and his 1970 single Feliz Navidad is one of the most downloaded and aired Christmas songs of all time.

Unwitting controversy

But in 1968, Mr. Feliciano unwittingly became one of the most controversial performers in America. In October, during the height of protests against the Vietnam War, Detroit Tigers baseball broadcaster Ernie Harwell asked him to perform the national anthem at Tiger Stadium in Detroit for Game 5 of the World Series.

Mr. Feliciano delivered a slow, Latin influenced and stylized version of The Star-Spangled Banner, which he thought would give it a special reverence the audience would enjoy. Instead, many in the crowd were confused about the non-traditional offering, and it drew the ire of the media that mistakenly labeled it an anti-war statement. A single of the song hit the Billboard Hot 100, but many radio stations refused to play Mr. Feliciano’s music, stalling his career.

“That was a very low and tough time when they stopped playing my music,” Mr. Feliciano said. Fortunately for him, the 1970s TV show Chico and the Man took a chance and hired him to sing the show’s theme song and gave him a recurring role on the show as Chico’s cousin Pepe. “It was my savior,” he said.

Showing how much people and attitudes have changed, on April 4, Mr. Feliciano sang the same version of the national anthem at the grand opening of Marlins Park in Florida. This time, the crowd was on its feet giving him a standing ovation.

Although he usually spends a lot of time on the road touring, Mr. Feliciano is a dedicated family man and recently took a break to spend time with his family — wife Susan, and children Melissa, Jonathan and Michael. He recently recorded a new album of Elvis Presley songs, which he is very excited about. “I think this might be some of my better work. I took the songs and recorded them in my own style,” he said.

Among the Elvis songs he recorded are Don’t Be Cruel, All Shook Up, In the Ghetto, and the lesser known song It’s Midnight and I Miss You. Mr. Feliciano has been invited to perform at Elvis’s Graceland estate in August to commemorate the 35th anniversary of his death.

For now, Mr. Feliciano is keeping himself busy in Weston with his family. He plans to attend a reception for the 2012 Boy Scout Distinguished Citizen Awards on Sunday, April 29, at Continental Manor in Norwalk, where he will also give a special performance.

In addition to Mr. Feliciano, other Distinguished Citizen recipients are the Rev. John Branson, rector at Christ & Holy Trinity Church; Dr. Alan Stolz, 68-year veteran scouter with Troop 100 in Westport; Tom Santa, CEO Santa Energy Corporation; and local Eagle Scouts.

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