Ernie Harwell, the great longtime Detroit Tiger’s radio announcer didn’t know that when he was asked to pick the three singers for the 1968 World Series at Tiger Stadium, one of his selections would almost cost him his job. Ernie had written some recorded songs in his spare time and General Manager Jim Campbell entrusted him with the search for singers. Jim Campbell was a very conservative don’t rock the boat type of General Manager. One of the performers that Ernie picked was Marvin Gaye and Gaye was specifically told to keep his singing as straight as possible to how everyone else had sang the song. Margaret Whiting was also picked and she did a traditional version. The third person Ernie picked was somewhat by default. He wanted Eddie Arnold to do the anthem before game 5 but Eddie had another engagement and couldn’t make it. Ernie was told by a friend in the record business in Hollywood about Jose Feliciano. “I saw this guy and I think you will really love his rendition!” Feliciano had a big hit at the time, his rendition of The Doors “Light My Fire.” He was a young Puerto Rican man and he was blind.
Feliciano was born in Lares, Puerto Rico, on September 10, 1945. He was permanently blind at birth as a result of congenital glaucoma. His family was very poor as his father, a farmer could barely support them. He was exposed to music at a young age and always loved it! When he was five, his family moved to Spanish Harlem, New York City. He started in music playing the accordion until a family friend gave him a guitar. With that guitar in hand he practiced sometimes as much as 14 hours a day as he listened to 1950’s rock n roll. He developed his own style and at age 17 he quit school to play in clubs with his first professional performance in Detroit. In 1963 he played in clubs around the USA and Canada, most notably at Greenwich Village New York and British Columbia. In 1964 he came out with his first single “Everybody Do The Click” which became the #2 hit in the Philippines and in 1965 he recorded his first album.
By 1968 Jose had moved to Los Angeles and had a big hit “Light My Fire” which he did in a Latin style. By the summer of 1968 it had reached #3 on the US pop charts with over a million copies sold in the US market!
Harwell contacted Feliciano and Jose was thrilled to be picked to do the song! Jose loved America and the wonderful opportunity he had here. He came here a poor boy and was seeing the success and rewards that only in America he could have! He was determined to put everything he felt for a country that he loved into his song! He would sing it with soul and feeling because that is how he expressed himself! The only problem that he had was his schedule. He was playing late the night before but that was OK! He was so thankful for the opportunity and for what this great country did for him that he took the red eye flight and arrived early that morning! Ernie met him, his wife, and his seeing eyed dog at the airport and drove them to the stadium. He visited the Tiger clubhouse and sang little songs to the Tiger players. He was playing the Light My Fire song and adding his own Tiger words like “Cmon Kaline light my fire. Gotta take the Tigers higher.” The players loved him and the time passed quickly.
Before he knew it game time was near and he was being led out to the outfield with his dog to sing the National Anthem. He strummed his guitar beautifully as he sang the song with feeling and soul, but it was different than what people were used to. Although Jose was just putting himself into the music many fans complained. From coast to coast complaints came in that he was being disrespectful of the flag and the song! The controversy came directly to Harwell who was asked time and again why he chose Jose. Harwell defended Jose saying that it was a different rendition but it was done with the utmost respect for our country. However we were going through different times that year. We were in a war and people were very sensitive to anything that seemed out of line.
Ernie got reprimanded by Campbell but didn’t lose his job. Jose on the other hand went through a down time in his career for a couple of years. He had a hard time getting his records played. Over the years Harwell and Feliciano stayed in touch. Ernie actually introduced Jose to his wife he married in 1982. They are still together today! When Ernie revealed that he was suffering from terminal cancer in the Fall of 2009 Jose and his wife Susan sent him a beautiful boquete of flowers! Ernie in turn wanted to right a wrong that had happened so many years ago.
In September of 2009 after Ernie had learned of his terminal illness he had a meeting with owner Mike Ilitch and team president Dave Dombrowski at his house in Troy. Ernie was at peace with himself and the fact that he was secure in where he would spend eternity. The one thing on his mind though was the circumstance years ago. Jose Feliciano should have been appreciated for his rendition of the national anthem instead of the boos he heard. He made a suggestion almost in jest to have Jose Feliciano come back and sing the national anthem again. To the Tigers credit that is exactly what they did. It was just after Ernie’s death and they were paying tribute to him before the game. As a tribute to his lost friend Jose came! Just as he was excited the first time to sing about a country that he loved, this time he was excited because he was also singing it in memory of a friend he had grown to love. He sang the same song in the same unorthodox way with so much feeling! It was almost a duplicate copy of his first rendition forty two years earlier, yet this time he got a standing ovation! What made the difference in the way his 2010 rendition was received? It was our realization all of these years later of the true intent of a young blind singer so many years ago. He wasn’t disrespecting our country or the flag! He was giving them his ultimate respect as he put his heart and soul into the song! Jose Feliciano was blind and yet it was the ones who had their sight in 1968 that had the affliction. Being blinded to the truth is far worse than being physically blind. The standing ovation forty two years later showed that the truth has been embraced and we are not living in darkness anymore.
Click below to see a video nobody would have dreamed we would see forty five years ago!