José Feliciano On 50 Years Of “Feliz Navidad”

Alek Villa

José Feliciano On 50 Years Of “Feliz Navidad”

Alek Villa

There’s no brief way to sum up a sprawling career like José Feliciano’s. One of the most successful crossover acts in music history, the Puerto Rican singer/composer is perhaps best known for his instantly recognizable yuletide hit “Feliz Navidad,” which turns 50 this holiday season and has been reimagined by musicians across generations, genres, and countries. In 1970, Feliciano had recently been dealt a then-serious PR blow, having performed a reimagined rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a Tigers-Cardinals World Series game in 1968. The moment, as you can imagine in a fractured Vietnam-era America, did not go over well with audiences.

Fast forward two years later, Feliciano had teamed up with producer Rick Jarrard to make a Christmas album. “Rick said to me, ‘José, why don’t you write a new Christmas song?,’” Feliciano recalls. “Well, at the time, the newest Christmas song was ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ with Brenda Lee. And I thought to myself, ‘Well, Rick, you’re asking for a tall order. How do I write something that’s as good as Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’?” And I have to say, I put my mind to it. I thought about it and I came up with this very simple song using the Puerto Rican instruments, like the cuatro, which my uncle taught me how to play when I was a little boy.”

Today, “Feliz Navidad” — a cheery, horn-accented anthem that abides by a classic pop song formula (simple lyrics with plenty of repetition) — has been covered by everyone from Celine Dion to Garth Brooks and enjoys nonstop radio play every holiday season. ASCAP reports “Feliz Navidad” as one of the 25 all-time most-played Christmas songs in the world, and, in 2010, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame.

To celebrate his Christmas classic turning 50, Feliciano — in conjunction with his label head Helen Murphy — has spent much of 2020 rolling out a number of projects. A lot has been in the works: A children’s book (written by Murphy) called José Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad, a career-spanning documentary José Feliciano: Behind This Guitar, and a new album (which includes a special cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”), and a newly recorded anniversary edition of “Feliz Navidad,” which is set to appear on a forthcoming Amazon holiday compilation.

Hopping on the phone with Murphy, Feliciano looks back at half a century of “Feliz Navidad,” wanting to unite people in a politically divisive pandemic year, and what makes for a successful cover song.

Congratulations on the 50th anniversary of “Feliz Navidad.” There’s a lot of ground to cover, but first off: How have you been spending your time in quarantine?

JOSÉ FELICIANO: Well, I spent my time doing interviews with people like you. I will say, I never thought in my life that my little song would cause such a furor for 50 years. When you’re singing it and you’re performing it, you’re out of the eye of the storm. But this year it looks like it’s going to be in the eye of the storm and we’ll be feeling all the ramifications.

You re-recorded “Feliz Navidad” this year. What was the process like to re-imagine such an age-old song? Did you add anything new to the formula?

FELICIANO: To tell you the truth, I wasn’t so keen at first to do another version because the original had been done so well. However, Helen Murphy talked me into doing a celebration track to honor 50 years of my little song bringing people together around the world. She convinced me because she wanted a track with superstar artists and celebrities from around the world to share their love for me and the song in a version of “Feliz Navidad” that reflects all of today’s music styles. By doing so in this way the song would be a representation of all kinds of genres of music and all cultures. So that sounded like fun! And also because we could not be together in concert for the big anniversary, the recording could be listened to by all and just bring some joy in 2020.

HELEN MURPHY: As we got through the hardest parts of the first wave of the COVID pandemic, we were all looking for some joy and happiness and we were struggling to find a way to help the world shift to celebrate some of the things for the fourth quarter of this year. And José said, whatever he did, he wanted to do something that brought more unity to the world and more joy. It started with hooking José up with the producer, Rudy Pérez, and lots of long conversations in the evening about how we could bring more joy and unity. And it got a little out of control in the pandemic and it turned into 30 artists, nine countries, and one incredible song and José, the master director of it all. José, over to you.

FELICIANO: Well, what can I say after that? I just thought that this pandemic has, in some ways, disunited people. And I thought, “Feliz Navidad” will unite people. And so I’m thankful to Helen Murphy for doing my documentary. I couldn’t have anybody else do it for me because, if you watch the documentary, it almost looks like this woman’s in love with me. [Helen laughs] I can handle it, I can handle it.

I hope that this documentary will bring joy into people’s hearts. I bet the music makes people forget the pandemic. I mean, I know one will not forget it totally, but if it makes people forget it for a little while, I think we’ll be doing our job.

I could be a wisenheimer. And when you asked me the question, “Why did you do this,” I could have said, “Because I needed the money.” But that wouldn’t be cool. So, I’m just happy. I’m really happy.

Why do you think this song continues to perform so well on the charts year after year?

FELICIANO: I think the song continues to do well because it is a simple song that brings a message of joy and love to people and anyone can sing it. I love that it teaches everyone a little bit of English and Spanish and in that way it continues to break down walls.

As one of the earliest popular crossover acts, what do you make of the ongoing Latin music explosion that has dominated the charts and streaming playlists?

FELICIANO: It’s about time that the talents of Latin America are getting the recognition they deserve. It does not surprise me. I love it.

RB / Getty Images

There’s also this new children’s book written by Helen. How did that come about, and what was the thought behind José appearing as a “musical superhero”?

FELICIANO: Well, that, I think, was more Helen Murphy’s idea. I’ve never been a hero and I don’t want to be a hero.

MURPHY: Sorry, José. I’m just going to interrupt you because, Rachel, you probably see that he’s very humble. You look at how José’s journey has been for 50 years and in each decade, achieving new heights in different areas, whether it’s television, film, music, breaking boundaries for other Latin artists around the world. That takes a superhero.

I never set out to put together a children’s book, an animated video, a 30-artist celebration, but something caused it to happen and I think that’s one of the positive things that came out of COVID. Because the 50th anniversary isn’t coming again, and there’s very few songs worldwide that are bilingual and unite people around the world. The story of “Feliz Navidad,” if you think about what it is, it’s not about presents, it’s not about gifts. It’s about…

FELICIANO: The feeling.

Going into making the film, what about your life did you primarily set out to accomplish and capture?

FELICIANO: When I asked Helen to do my documentary I really just wanted to share my story and inspire young people that if you dream big and work hard you can do anything you set your mind to. Never give up. I also wanted the people who helped me in my career to be part of it. People who worked with me like Jack Somer, who discovered me in Greenwich village, and my producers Rick Jarrard and Rudy Pérez who have been my friends for over 50 years. I also wanted Gloria and Emilio Estefan, who are close friends and who I have performed with many times, to be involved — as well as the incredible Carlos Santana. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to work with these great talents in my career.

MURPHY: The documentary was produced by Frank Licari, myself, Khoa Le, and José. What I wanted to capture there was what an inspiration José has been. How through the most treacherous periods of his career — being booed at the 1968 World Series for stylizing the National Anthem in such a beautiful way and having him exiled as a result of that — to the perseverance of his journey, coming back time and time again, and really never being angry or retaliatory, but continuing to spread love and joy through his music. In fact, out of his adversity and his perseverance came his greatest achievements. I don’t know any artists that can sing and chart number one in three languages, in many continents at one time, as he did with, say, “Qué Será.”

Yeah, speaking of your covers, José, what prompted you to cover Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” this year?

MURPHY: [Producer] Rick Jarrard brought “The Chain” to José. What did you say when he brought you “The Chain,” José?

FELICIANO: Just like I did when I did “Light My Fire.” And “Feliz Navidad.” I said, “Rick, I don’t know if people will like this, it’s too simple.”

MURPHY: Then he would go, “Just try it.” There’s a bad pattern here. And that’s why, Rachel, I labeled José “The Bear.” That’s why we have José Bear in the book. José Bear in the book is a teddy bear with the superhero, but the real José in the studio is quite the bear. When he doesn’t want to do anything or when Rick proposes to do things that maybe José’s not interested in, he becomes a mother bear and bites the head off. Outside of the studio he’s a real teddy bear. Anyhow, José, do you have anything to say for yourself about this?

FELICIANO: No, except that I hope when people listen to “Feliz Navidad,” they listen to it with a different perspective. And that if they have any sorrow in their hearts, any sadness, that my song makes them melt away. Because, now that I know about my song, it melts my cares away and I keep praying for people who are poor and don’t have a chance of having a turkey dinner this year and I hope with all my might that they do.

So many people have covered “Feliz Navidad” — everyone from Garth Brooks to Celine Dion and Kacey Musgraves. Is there a cover version of “Feliz Navidad” that really resonates with you, José?

FELICIANO: When I hear a band playing “Feliz Navidad” with iPhones, it’s amazing. And I enjoy Celine Dion. I hope that the song brings Celine, especially, brings her joy because at the moment she needs joy. Her husband passed away, unfortunately, and if “Feliz Navidad” could make her happy again, I’ll be happy.

MURPHY: The letters that José receives from people all over the world is remarkable. The best part is those stories, those people and they’ll send tapes or you’ll see them on YouTube and it’s just simple. And that’s where it all came from, the simplicity of José’s heart.

They always say that simplicity is the key to a great pop song.

FELICIANO: Well, it’s funny because one of my favorite groups used to be a group called Simple Minds. [Sings “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”]

I think you just found your next cover song.

FELICIANO: There you go. I may do that.

As someone who is so well known for covering famous songs, what do you think makes for a successful cover?

FELICIANO: Well, that is a very hard question. I only cover songs quite bluntly — sorry! –that I feel I can do better than the original. Or why bother? So I love all the songs in my career that I have covered like “Light My Fire,” or “California Dreamin.’” It would take an idea better than the original. Because if you can’t, don’t cover it.

Fair! Well, we’ve touched on how the pandemic affected your decision to re-record “Feliz Navidad.” That said, a lot of people have struggled to maintain personal relationships this year in such a polarizing political climate. What advice do you have for people hoping to regain a sense of unity, regardless of their political leanings?

FELICIANO: Well, whatever you do in life, stick to your guns, and you’ll never go wrong. When I did “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it wasn’t my intention to create such an uproar, but I remember sitting in my seat at Tiger Stadium and having [baseball player] Tony Kubek come to me and say, “Do you know the commotion you have caused. All of the phones are ringing.” And I said, “Why, Tony, what did I do?” He said, “Well, people are just upset,” he said, “But let me tell you something. I enjoyed it.”

Well, now that you’re closing out a huge anniversary year, what are your plans for 2021?

FELICIANO: Why don’t you ask God? He would know better than I.

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