As ‘Feliz Navidad’ turns 50, José Feliciano wants to wish you a Merry Christmas online

The simple song with only 20 words in English and Spanish has been covered by everyone from Celine Dion to Garth Brooks to Los Lobos.

SHARE As ‘Feliz Navidad’ turns 50, José Feliciano wants to wish you a Merry Christmas online
Jose Feliciano

José Feliciano says “Feliz Navidad” remains a perennial holiday hit because “anybody can whistle the tune.”

Alex Villa

The list of 20th century holiday hits is long and far ranging. Among the seasonal staples you’ll find “White Christmas” (Bing Crosby by way of Irving Berlin) “Jingle Bell Rock” (as sung by Bobby Helms), “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (Brenda Lee) and “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (Mariah Carey).

Another standout on this list is José Feliciano’s joyful yuletide hit “Feliz Navidad,” written in 1970 and now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Regarded as the first bilingual Christmas song, it will be celebrated in a livestream event, “José Feliciano & Friends: ‘Feliz Navidad’ 50th Anniversary Concert,” at 6 p.m. Dec. 20. Guest artists include Colombian singer-songwriter Andres Cepeda, soulful singer Haley Reinhart and country artists Austin Jenckes and Kalsey Kulyk.

Jose Feliciano

José Feliciano & Friends: ‘Feliz Navidad’ 50th Anniversary Concert

When: Livestreams 6 p.m. Dec. 20

Tickets: $13

Info: feliznavidad50th.com


Each holiday season the beloved favorite returns for new generations of fans. According to ASCAP, it is one of the 25 most-played Christmas songs in the world. In 2010, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Feliciano credits the song’s success to its simplicity and joyous upbeat rhythm. It was a technique he says he learned early on by observing the success of singer Perry Como, who had a 1957 hit with “Catch a Falling Star.”

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“That song was very simple and a big hit at the time,” Feliciano says. “I think the reason ‘Feliz Navidad’ has done so well is because anybody can whistle the tune, and if it’s that catchy it can be a hit and have a long life.”

Feliciano and producer Rick Jarrard were working on a Christmas album in 1970 when Jarrard suggested the singer-songwriter try his hand at an original holiday song. Feliciano says he was at first apprehensive of trying to compete with the likes of Irving Berlin (“White Christmas”) or Johnny Marks (“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”).

“Rick told me not to worry about it and just see what I could come up with,” Feliciano, 75, recalled. “I started plinking around on my guitar and this is what came out.”

A simple song with only 20 words in English and Spanish, “Feliz Navidad” has been covered by everyone from Celine Dion to Garth Brooks to Los Lobos. Feliciano infuses the song with Puerto Rican instruments, like the 10-stringed cuatro, and cheerful horns.

Feliciano recently released his first-ever revamped version of “Feliz Navidad” (available on Amazon Music) produced by his longtime friend Rudy Pérez and featuring 30 artists representing a variety of genres and styles. They include CNCO, Isabela Merced, Shaggy, Jon Secada, Jason Mraz, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Rachael Ray, Gloria Gaynor, Big & Rich, Michael Bolton, Los Temerarios, Sam Moore and Styx.

Feliciano wanted the new version to continue to “bring people together” and “represent all kinds of music, all kinds of cultures. And Rudy came up with a great version of the song.”

Feliciano, who was born blind, is widely recognized as being the first crossover Latin artist to break into the English market. A native of Puerto Rico, he was raised in New York’s Spanish Harlem and became interested in music at an young age. In the early ’60s, he began to gain recognition playing in coffee houses and folk clubs including Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village, where he was discovered and signed to RCA Victor in 1963.

(This was the same venue where he did a Bob Dylan imitation, not knowing the singer was in the audience. “It was done in good spirits. I was a great admirer of his music.”)

Feliciano was the first Latin American to win the best new artist and best contemporary pop vocal Grammy Awards and is celebrated today as the first artist to perform a stylized version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

However, this national anthem interpretation at a Detroit Tigers baseball game in 1968 nearly derailed his career. At the time, Feliciano’s non-traditional, Latin-infused version was not received well with angered baseball fans and radio stations alike. “Feliz Navidad” was the hit that put him back in everyone’s good graces.

Jose Feliciano

“José Feliciano: Behind the Guitar,” a documentary recounting the singer-songwriter’s career, is likely to be released next year.

Alex Villa

“It was strange to be booed one time and then applauded for doing it again years later,” Feliciano recalls of the performance that trail blazed a path for future performers, most notably Jimi Hendrix who at 1969’s Woodstock Music Festival unleashed his electric guitar on the anthem.

Feliciano would go on to create a vast catalog of original songs as well as notable covers of the Doors’ “Light My Fire,” his biggest hit, and the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’.” The latter was included on the great flashback soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino’s 2018 film “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.”

“I nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard that,” Feliciano says with a laugh. “It sounded great.”

Another milestone for Feliciano is a career-spanning documentary, “José Feliciano: Behind the Guitar,” originally scheduled for a premiere at this year’s canceled South By Southwest music festival but now making the rounds of film festivals with a wider rollout later next year.

“When José asked me to do his documentary his objective was to inspire people,” says Helen Murphy, the CEO of Anthem Entertainment, Feliciano’s label, who led the project.

Adds Feliciano: “Especially those people who have any physical impairment. I want to inspire them to get up and do something constructive with their lives.”

As 2020 winds down, Feliciano says he’s looking forward to relaxing in his Connecticut home and spending the holidays “indoors sitting by the fire with my family.” He recognizes that hope has been in short supply lately and offers “Feliz Navidad” as a simple cure.

“If ‘Feliz Navidad’ gets people out of a rut, out of feeling like there’s no hope, then it’s done its job. It’s about making America joyous again, to unite people, and that’s important.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.

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