Power Pickers
of the '60's

Musicians of the Flower Generation


Jose Feliciano Challenged Me to a Guitar Duel!

My first exchange with José Feliciano-I guess technically it was with his manager-went something like this:

Me [from the stage of a folk music club]: “Requests?”
José’s Manager: “Yes. Play the fastes’ thin’ you know.”

I played and sang a famous railroad song at, for me, too fast a clip. There were clams aplenty, but I don’t think many people cared, because I got a good hand from everybody in the audience except the manager. She just looked daggers at me and then held her nose.  And that was my welcome to José Feliciano’s world.

It was 1965, the club was the Ash Grove, LA’s number one roots-music venue, and I was accompanying an ancient, alcoholic Uilleann piper named Seamus Ennis. The headliner on the bill was José. It was three years before his giant hit covering the Doors’ “Light My Fire,” and, outside of Latin America, he was almost unknown except to pop-folk fans and other guitarists.

Among the latter he was getting a reputation for having a deadly accurate ear and a pair of the fastest hands around, at least in “our” circles. Understand that our circles didn’t include nylon-string guitar players because of differences between their instruments and ours too vast to go into now. Suffice it to say they just didn’t play the same music we did.

But Jose sometimes seemed to transcend the difference. It’s not that he ever sounded like a Bluegrass flat-picker trying to muscle a big, steel-strung, high-action Martin Dreadnought around. But what he played didn’t sound half bad. And he was fast. Very fast. And in our circles speed was the holy grail of guitar picking.

I was opening the show’s run as well as the night, and I was warming up for my set with Seamus in a small alcove off the club’s kitchen, because José had been given the club’s one dressing room (Yeah, right. Anyone who tried dressing in that dark broom-closet would have come out with their clothes on backward, blind or not).

Ed Pearl, the Ash Grove’s owner, knew much of American genre music came directly out of Scots-Irish instrumental tradition. He thought having a local Bluegrass player pick some tunes on the guitar would be a good change of pace from the dark sonorities of Seamus’ Uilleann bagpipes.

So I’m sitting in this corner within earshot of everyone in the club, because there was no sound insulation in the building, trying to grab a bunch of guitar notes that were just a bit beyond me when Ed Pearl tells Seamus and me it’s time to go on. It’s a middle-sized audience, but growing larger as the time for José’s draws nigh.

We’re about ten minutes into the set when I hear this heavily-accented Latina voice from a row near the stage-I can’t tell exactly where because of the footlights-goes, “Let the guitar player play!”

Seamus either doesn’t hear or pretends not to. We play the next song, him piping and moaning some lament, me strumming along, the audience applauding politely, and we hear the female Hispanic voice call out again, “Listen, man, let the guitaris’ play, okay? We wanna hear the guitar player, you know?”

Now Seamus says, “I hear you madam. Just as soon as I’ve finished celebrating Cuchulainn’s defeat at the blah blah blah, etc., etc..”

We finish the next song, a real dirge, and she’s at it before Seamus can set his pipes on the floor. “You promise’, mister ‘ccordion man.”

“Yes, madam, so I did and so I will,” says Seamus to the voice. Then, projecting to the audience, “I think nowwould be a propitious time to call on my old friend, Country Al, to play-”

“You promise’, man!”

“And take it, Country Al. Please.”

By this time I’m used to the footlights, and I can’t help noticing the guy sitting next to the Latina, coiffed ala the Beatles and wearing shades in a room as dark as a movie house.

I pull the mike closer, murmur something about guitarists Doc Watson’s and Clarence White’s effect on the folk music environment, blah, blah, blah. “So,” I say, “if anyone has a favorite tune-”

“Play the fastes’ thin’ you know,” says the voice.

I really cannot believe she says that. “What?!” I say, looking straight at her. She was attractive in a hard-edged way, a talent-peddling mujer who probably came up the hard way, with a ravaged complexion, possibly a memento of some Third World plague. Some schmuck at the club described her as looking “like someone put out a fire on her face with a hammer.”

“I’ve never heard a request like that,” I say.

“So now you ha’. What are you gonna play? Everyone wanna know.”
I look at her for a long moment, for audience effect-they’d become completely still by this time-before saying, “Okay, ma’am,” [long pause] “here’s something I learned from Doc Watson just a couple weeks ago.” I take one more dramatic beat, then tear recklessly into “Wabash Cannonball,” faster than I can comfortably handle it.

“Cannonball” is a song that has lots of resonance with almost any audience you play it for, country or otherwise, don’t ask me why, it just does. And if my frantic, if flawed, rendition of it didn’t bring down the house, the applause was at least extended. I know I heard one whistle, maybe two.

“Thank you very much,” I say, looking sideways at Seamus, who was either playing possum or actually asleep. He was capable of doing that on stage. “Seamus,” I said, pulling on his jacket sleeve as we’d rehearsed, “Seamus, it’s ti-”

“Tha’s not your fastes’ thin’, mister guitar man,” comes the voice now nasally because la mujer is holding her nose. “I heard you play faster before, when you were practicin’. You afrai’ to play your fastes’ song for us?”

I just look at her. And by the way, all this time, Shades is chuckling away and not trying very hard to hide it. He certainly wasn’t stopping her. I looked at the audience. I should not have done that. They saw the brewing showdown as a referendum on their own feelings.

“Go ahead, Country Al, blow ‘er away,” someone shouted. “Yeah,” another voice yelled, “don’t let her get away with that bullshit!” People love a street fight, even in your Kumbayah folk music clubs.

“You heard ‘im, Cawntry Al,” rasps the voice, “don’ let me get away wi’ tha’ bullshit.” Now, Shades is laughing openly, so I’m sure to see it.

I look at Seamus once more. He rolls his eyes in tedium, and I am sure he is going to come to my aid with some tart riposte or dismissive wave of the hand. But instead he turns his palms up and shrugs. So much for “Get us a half-pint of Sandy Mac, old son, and I’ll have ‘em call a street in Dublin after ye.”

Fiddle tunes adapted to the guitar range from very easy to really hard to play. The trick in going for pyrotechnics is to split the difference between the two. For you guitarists it’s all about finding a piece that sounds like you’re all over the fingerboard but still takes advantage of open strings. Black Mountain Rag is such a tune.

I am now resigned to my fate, whatever it may be. “Okay,” I say, “here’s a little tune my Lithuanian great-grandmother often heard on her way from the shtetl to the potato fields,” I say. “The local townspeople would dance to it every time a Jew was drafted into the Tzar’s army. I hope you like it.”

Black Mtn. Rag has four parts that gradually build to a dramatic closing run that starts on the guitar’s low E string, works its way up the scale and ends with a fancy fiddle flourish. I play the song three times, faster each time, with a mistake-tolerance ratio of about 1/25, low enough for the piece to sound like recognizable music to most.

The audience seemed appreciative, if hoots, hollers and guffaws counted for anything. It took awhile for Seamus to get them back into his embrace of pain and depression. And two seats in the second row had become conspicuous by their emptiness.

* * *

I never gloat over these things when they occasionally go my way because they often don’t, as every musician knows. José certainly did, and nodded, smiling, when he and his manager, Maria (not her real name), were introduced to me after his set. She was stone silent and looked the other way whenever I tried to talk to her. José was cordial. We exchanged a little guitar talk-“Have you played the Martin D-35?”-and then went our separate ways, me to my off-kitchen nook and him and her back to their dressing room.

The last set went smoothly enough for both our acts. José had a loving and noisy crowd, and he knew just how to play to them. He was, and still is, a superlative performer, sometimes mesmerizing.

But as I walked by the thin-walled dressing room on my way out at the end of the night I could hear a long, familiar guitar run with a fiddle arabesque at the end being practiced. It was well executed but didn’t sound quite right on nylon strings.

One-liner Notes:

Barney Kessel, heavyweight LA ’60’s session -and- jazz guitarist, on being told about a scary new player on the block,  young George Benson : “Thank God I’ve got Blue Cross.”

  1. allan Says:


    Thanks for the comment; most people don’t know that I really need those.

    And yes, there will def. be something cool about the Agency. Here’s an absolutely exclusive scoop just for you. When I was doing the Johnny Cash stuff for STP Cash and I developed a great
    relationship based largely on that I could play country music. But when we got into the studio, all the starfuckers from the agency, and there were a ton, wanted to be in the control booth on the talkback “producing” Johnny Cash and his band to do what
    they did better than anyone else in the world. Finally, Ken Duskin bellies up to the recording console, grabs the client mike out of my hand and starts producing the spots. Johnny listens for a couple beats, and then says something like, “You know, you folks [all the agency “producers”] are sure telling me a lot of stuff I didn’t know, and I do need to know it. So, why don’t y’all appoint Country Al to come out here and sit with me and the boys and help us translate. Country Al, why don’t you come on in here and set down with us. That way we’ll know we’re gettin’ it right.”

    Duskin never talked to me again, and I ended up playing with Johnny Cash and his band on the STP spots. You can’t make this stuff up.


  2. coco Says:

    I loved the anecdote but it sure makes me glad I never got into the music business. I always like Jose; now I wonder…

    Also I had to read the first sentence/paragraph a few times to get it.

  3. Martin Guitars Says:

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  4. Dec Says:

    A great story from the mists of time. Dec

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