As we all begin to put our 2020 holiday season in “the record books,” NO Christmas playlist is complete without the classic Feliz Navidad! The happy holiday tune is composed of just a simple phrase sung in Spanish and then repeated in English for about three minutes! Some could argue it is so catchy it stays in your head ALL day long!
It’s hard to believe the song turned 50 this year! It’s been covered dozens of times over the past five decades since its release, but no one can give it the same heartfelt joy of its creator, José Feliciano.
Feliciano penned the song at a Los Angeles studio during a season far from his home and family. As he composed, he thought of Christmases past spent as a child in Puerto Rico and Spanish Harlem in New York City, singing carols and celebrating with his brothers. Perhaps that’s why the song’s message’s warmth is carried along on a wave of sweetness and longing.
It takes moxie to create a holiday classic, and Feliciano has it. Here’s how:
Feliciano was born in Puerto Rico, the fourth in a family of eleven sons. Congenital glaucoma stole his eyesight but didn’t touch his gift for all things musical.
He taught himself to play guitar at the age of nine, locking himself away in his room for half the day listening to records over and over again. By the time he was a teenager in the 1960s, he had dropped out of The Light House School for the Blind and began playing coffee houses in Greenwich Village to help support his family. His virtuosity on the guitar caught the attention of recording executives, and his career as a singer/songwriter began to gain traction. Soon, Feliciano played music festivals worldwide, covering other artists’ work with his own interpretive twist (“Light My Fire” by The Doors is a classic take) and writing his own hits.
But touring and performing was a challenge. His guide dog, Trudy, was refused entry into the United Kingdom in 1967 unless she was quarantined for six months. Feliciano turned his frustration and disappointment into a musical statement with the song “No Dogs Allowed.”
Moxie takes risks to blaze new trails.
The Star-Spangled Banner nearly ended José Feliciano’s career.
Feliciano was at the height of his career when he was invited to open Game 5 of the 1968 World Series with the national anthem. The Vietnam War was raging, and protests were widespread. Feliciano settled behind the microphone with his guitar in hand and offered up a Latin-infused, folky rendition of a song usually delivered with much pomp and circumstance.
“When I did the anthem, I did it with the understanding in my heart and mind that I did it because I’m a patriot. I was trying to be a grateful patriot. I was expressing my feelings for America when I did the anthem my way instead of just singing it with an orchestra,” he said. “I got tired of seeing people rush through the national anthem so they could have their popcorn and get to the game. Nobody ever sang the anthem with soul. It was always done clinically, and they always stuck to the original. I put feeling into it. I sang it in a soulful manner.”
It was the first time an artist took liberties with the national anthem, and the crowd — perhaps even the nation — was not ready. The boos and backlash began immediately. Feliciano’s version seemed downright sacrilegious, though he meant it to be an homage. Feliciano’s career took a hit in the weeks and months to come.
Moxie sparks hope.
Like many of us this year, Feliciano celebrated the season at home. For the past several decades, he’s lived in Connecticut, far from the island breezes and crowded boroughs of his youth. His travels have taken him around the globe, and perhaps one day, they will bring him to Louisville. If they do, I hope to get a chance to interview him.
I’ll ask one of my favorite questions: “How do you want to be remembered?”
He’ll certainly be remembered for his holiday hit, but he’ll also be remembered for having moxie and inspiring others, too. A documentary of his life, “José Feliciano: Behind the Guitar,” is now making the rounds of film festivals. Feliciano said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times earlier this year that he hopes the documentary will inspire those who have a physical impairment.
“I want to inspire them to get up and do something constructive with their lives,” he said.
Jose Feliciano’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jos%C3%A9_Feliciano
Feliz Navidad’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feliz_Navidad_(song)