José Feliciano Found Success With Flamenco-Style Interpretations of American Pop
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of 'Feliz Navidad," he's still recording and making listeners happy
It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas for José Feliciano, the Puerto Rican musician, singer and composer behind “Feliz Navidad,” the beloved bilingual winter staple. The song is one of Spotify’s “Top 25 Christmas Hits,” and 50 years after its debut, it still generates smiles and spurs on sing-alongs. In addition, the tune boosted Feliciano’s star power and brought him back to American airwaves in 1970, after a dry spell.
“In the very beginning, I have to say it got a lot of airplay right away. And it was great because I felt, ‘Wow, you can’t turn me off because this song is a monster,’ ” he says.
Feliciano, who is always seen wearing his trademark sunglasses, is known as one of the greatest interpreters of popular song. His soothing, jazzy cover version of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” in 1968 was nearly as successful as the original from the year before, and his take of the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’ ” was revived last year in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood. He’s a multiple Grammy winner, including one for best new artist of 1968, and he also had success writing songs for TV and films, such as the theme to the popular ’70s sitcom Chico and the Man.
And this year, he’s celebrating the 50th anniversary of his hit song “Feliz Navidad” with an all-star update that’s available exclusively through Amazon as an Amazon Original. Produced by Rudy Pérez, the new version, known as “Feliz Navidad 50th Anniversary (FN50),” features more than 30 artists, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Shaggy, Big & Rich, Jason Mraz and others, who came together remotely to rerecord the holiday classic.
There’s also a new children’s book, Feliz Navidad de José Feliciano: 50th Anniversary, which depicts the musician as a musical superhero who spreads joy around the world on Christmas Eve in a flying red convertible.
Helen Murphy, the CEO of global music and entertainment company Anthem Entertainment, wrote the book and has worked with Feliciano for years, and she says she is determined to make sure his career is recognized and exposed to a new generation.
“My mission and goal is to make sure that people have the opportunity to see his body of work and to feel it,” Murphy says. “The second mission is that the children’s book inspires kids to always believe in their dreams, and that no matter what the obstacles in front of you are, you can achieve them if you work hard.”
‘The Guitar Found Me’
Born blind and the fourth of 11 children in Puerto Rico, Feliciano grew up in New York City’s Spanish Harlem neighborhood. He found salvation in music at a young age, first playing accordion and later guitar by the age of 9, practicing up to 14 hours a day. “I didn’t find the guitar. The guitar found me,” he says. Although he played clubs and coffeehouses in the U.S. in the early 1960s and landed a contract with RCA Records, his major breakthrough came by performing at the Festival de Mar del Plata in Argentina.
“I always enjoyed the music of Carlos Gardel,” Felicano says. “He was the Rudolph Valentino of Argentina. The girls fell at his feet. They tried doing the same thing with me. They threw themselves at me, but they hurt themselves because I couldn’t catch them,” he says, joking.
He found salvation in music at a young age, first playing accordion and later guitar by the age of 9, practicing up to 14 hours a day. "I didn’t find the guitar. The guitar found me."
The forthcoming documentary, José Feliciano: Behind This Guitar, chronicles the artist’s life and career. It premiered virtually in October at the Nashville Film Festival, winning the award for best Latin film, and is currently seeking a distributor. Written and directed by Murphy and actor Frank Licari, the film also delves into Feliciano’s personal life, detailing how his first wife and manager changed her name from Hilda to Janna so that she could allegedly share in songwriting credits as “J. Feliciano.” Feliciano met Susan Omillian in 1971, three years after she started his fan club at age 14. They married in 1982 and have three children together.
Furor Over a Different Take on the National Anthem
In 1968, Feliciano, then a rising Puerto Rican pop star, was asked to sing The Star Spangled Banner before Game 5 of the World Series at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. At that time, he had a hit with his cover version of “Light My Fire,” which peaked at number 3 on the Billboard pop singles chart.
His hair long and with sunglasses on, he used the same acoustic guitar on which he had recorded that cover, but performing the national anthem his way — with his Latin jazz influences giving it a much slower and fresh spin. People in the stands had mixed reactions. While it broke tradition, Feliciano’s version also puzzled and angered others, who were used to the song being played more straightforward.
At the time, America was sharply divided over the Vietnam War. Racial tensions were escalating. And baseball has often teetered more conservative. While Feliciano wasn’t attempting to make a grand statement with his performance, many saw his rendition as a protest.
The backlash was swift. American radio stations stopped playing his songs, but Feliciano stood by his decision and still feels the same way today. And he set the stage for other artists to give the standard their own interpretations. That included Jimi Hendrix, whose scorching instrumental version on electric guitar was performed nearly a year later at Woodstock.
“I meant to wake up our population of that era to the fact that you don’t just go to a baseball game — you sing the anthem by really giving thanks in your heart,” he says. “And so that’s all I was doing. That’s how I felt then. And that’s how I feel today.”
Decades later, Feliciano has been invited back to perform his rendition, including in 2010 at a Comerica Park tribute in Detroit after the death of famed Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell (who had suggested that Feliciano, then 23, perform in 1968), and in 2012 at the opening of Marlins Park in Miami.
In the more than 50 years since, he’s witnessed similar controversies related to the national anthem, from performances by Jimmy Buffett and Fergie to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee in protest of police brutality. “I get a feeling of sadness,” he admits. “And I say, ‘Why do we have to go through this again?’ And then, you know, I say to myself at the end, the Lord does work in mysterious ways.”
His wife, Susan, echoes that sentiment. She later adds that Feliciano’s Concerto Candelas guitar, built for him in 1967, was donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, along with other artifacts from his career.
“Now it lives in the Smithsonian, so that’s a total full circle,” Susan Feliciano says. “So we don’t look at it so much as a controversy but as a life experience.”
Continuing to Connect With Listeners
Feliciano, however, isn’t always serious. Though he’s known for his soulful and earnest singing, in conversation, he’s a bit of a jokester, peppering his answers to questions with quips.
When asked how he’s dealing with being locked down during the pandemic, he says that he misses socializing. His wife, Susan, who has joined us on the call, says they’re talking to Siri and Alexa and listening to the birds. “Listening to the birds puts me in a fowl mood!” Feliciano quips.
And he continues to record today. His most recent album, Behind This Guitar, had him working with longtime producer-arranger Rick Jarrard, who also manned the mixing board for “Feliz Navidad” and “Light My Fire.” It was Jarrard who suggested Feliciano try his hand at Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” on the album.
“He really does know me,” Feliciano says. “I feel like our relationship is like that of the Beatles with George Martin. Rick is my George Martin.”
For Feliciano, it was and still is all about making a connection with his listeners: “If my song made you sad for awhile, I hope at the end of the song, it made you happy. That’s very important.”
Jose Feliciano’s holiday favorites
In his reflective playlist for AARP, the Puerto Rican musician, singer and composer behind “Feliz Navidad” chose songs that signal that the holidays have begun.
Read about his picks here, then scroll down to listen to the playlist on Spotify.
Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree performed by Brenda Lee
“I was always and still am a Brenda Lee fan. I’m amazed that she still has the greatest gift, and that is her voice. She can sing. There’s a lot of power behind her singing.”
Silent Night performed by André Rieu
“When I was a kid — and you’re going to think I’m foolish — I thought it was ‘salad night.’ I like what it’s announcing. It’s like when I listen to the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’ It elevates me. It fills me with hope.”
Carol of the Bells composed by Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych
“I like that one musically because it’s in a minor key. [He starts to vocalize the notes.] It’s beautiful.”
O Holy Night performed by Josh Groban
“I like his interpretation. He showed a lot of power, and it’s great what he does with it. It’s incredible. He’s a nice person. I’ve met him. He thought I told him I was Irish, because he thought I told him I came from Long Ireland.”
Good King Wenceslas performed by the Irish Rovers
“It’s very Christmas-y. If I want to be honest, being that I’m not Swedish, it doesn’t do it to me, but the music does. I like songs that are jolly sounding.”
It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas performed by Bing Crosby
“I always respected Bing Crosby’s singing, as a kid. One day I had the fortune of working with him. It was casual and friendly, and when I did some things on the guitar, I think the man was really taken aback. That got to me, because being a fan of Bing Crosby’s and seeing that he thought I had talent, I was amazed.”
The Christmas Song performed by Mel Tormé
“I enjoy that song because I heard it as a youngster. One time, Mel Tormé came to Gerde’s Folk City [in Greenwich Village], and I met him. But I didn’t know then that he had written that song. Later I found out. I was amazed. He could play drums, he could play clarinet and saxophone.”
Jingle Bells performed by José Feliciano
“There are songs that are made for singing and then there are songs that no matter what I did vocally to them, they wouldn’t sound right in my voice. So I decided to do an instrumental.”
On This Christmas Night performed by José Feliciano
“That song was written by [my producer] Rick Jarrard.” Feliciano’s wife Susan adds: “The producers of Hamilton found it on Spotify and chose to use it as their curtain-call encore during the holiday season a couple of years ago.”
Feliz Navidad performed by José Feliciano
“It came from listening to loads of aguinaldos [Christmas carols]. People would go caroling in Puerto Rico in the town where I was born. They brought out food and they would have a joyous time, and it extended Christmas for a few days more.”
How to add playlist directly to your smartphone
Every playlist on Spotify has its own unique code, similar to a QR code. Called Spotify Codes, these bars make it easy to add a playlist to your Spotify app on your smartphone. To use, open Spotify, click on the Search field in the middle bottom of the screen. Click in the Search field and when you see the camera icon on the top right, click on that. Aim your camera at the code and it will bring up the playlist. To save the playlist, click on the heart.
Renew your membership today and save 25% on your next year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.