Salsa star José “Cheo” Feliciano died Thursday morning in a car accident in Puerto Rico, El Nuevo Día reports. He was 78.
At around 4:15 a.m. on Thursday morning, Feliciano appeared to lose control of his green Jaguar as he rounded a curve and hit an electric post, according to a police official quoted by El Nuevo Día. Police say that Feliciano was not wearing a seat belt and appeared to have died from a head injury.
“Father will live forever because he has given his music, his heart to his people,” Feliciano’s son José Enrique told El Nuevo Día. “Thank God we have his music to remember him by.”
The legendary salsa and bolero singer was born in the Puerto Rican city of Ponce in 1936.
“We come from a very humble community,” Feliciano told Descarga.com in a 2000 interview. “But it was very musical, everything happening around us had to do in some way with music. I must have been around seven or eight years old when I established my first group. I called it El Combo Las Latas [The Can Combo], because it was cans, it was all latas. We didn’t have any instruments so we made the bars of a guitar with a can, the conga with a can, the bass with a can, everything with a can.”
But it was in New York City that Feliciano would make his name. His father, a carpenter, joined a wave of migrants from the island looking for work in the city when Feliciano was 17.
Knowing he wanted to become a musician, the young Feliciano embedded himself among musicians like Afro-Cuban jazz legend Machito and percussionist Tito Puente, who were developing the sound that would become known as salsa. In a career that spanned six decades, Feliciano performed with the likes of the Joe Cuba Sextet and the Fania All Stars, as well as building a solo career.
His first big break came in 1955, when he sang with the Tito Rodríguez orchestra at The Palladium in New York City.
He would go on to record a series of hits as he came into his own in the 1970s, including “Anacaona,” “Mi triste problema,” “Pa’ que afinquen” and “Si por mi llueve.”
But as his success grew, he struggled with drugs, developing a heroin addiction during his time in New York.
“I was very young and I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Feliciano said of his drug habit in a televised interview. He returned to Puerto Rico, where he sought rehabilitation, according to the Associated Press, and later became an anti-drug spokesperson.
Last year, Feliciano announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer, though he said in a press release that it could be treated.
Feliciano leaves behind his wife, Coco Feliciano, and four sons, according to AP.