KTEP - El Paso, Texas

50 Years Later, 'Feliz Navidad' Still Delivers On Its Bilingual Message

Dec 14, 2020
Originally published on December 14, 2020 9:49 am

It's been 50 years since José Feliciano came up with the seasonal earworm "Feliz Navidad." The song is just two phrases of holiday cheer, in Spanish and in English, repeated over and over for three minutes.

"Musically, it's simplistic, but that doesn't take away from the charm of the song at all," says musician Bobby Sanabria, co-director of the Bronx Music Heritage Center. "'Feliz Navidad's one of those kind of songs that, like 'Happy Birthday,' it's very, very iconic. And anybody can sing it."

Now, on the anniversary of a song that became a bilingual landmark, Feliciano is celebrating with a new recording, a new children's book and a livestreamed concert on Dec. 20. For the new version of "Feliz Navidad," he sang with 30 of his friends, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jason Mraz, Gloria Gaynor and Linda Viero Caballero, better known as La India.

"It was an honor and privilege to sing for José," La India says from her home in Puerto Rico. "He's just an amazing improviser. Everyone has always been so proud of José, 'cause he never abandoned the Latin culture."

Feliciano remembers writing "Feliz Navidad" at RCA's in Los Angeles in 1970: "We didn't want to put out a schmaltzy Christmas album. So we decided to do it differently."

He sang bilingually, played the guitar and also the cuatro, a 10-stringed instrument his uncle taught him back in Puerto Rico.

"There had been other Christmas songs that were bilingual," he recalls. "For example, there was a song by Hugo Rios, 'Mamacita, Donde Esta Santa Claus?' But 'Feliz Navidad' was an entity unto itself. It was expressing the joy that I felt on Christmas and the fact that I felt very lonely. I missed my family, I missed Christmas carols with them. I missed the whole Christmas scene."

Stuck in an L.A. studio, Feliciano says he pined for his 11 brothers and their entire extended family, thousands of miles away. They had always celebrated Noche Buena, Christmas Eve, eating pasteles and lechon, and drinking rum. They went caroling in parrandas. Of course, he didn't sing about any of this explicitly in "Feliz Navidad." But he says that's the feeling behind the song.

YouTube

Feliciano was born in Lares, Puerto Rico, 75 years ago. He was just 3 when he started playing the ukulele. After his family moved to New York, he learned to play classical guitar, inspired by Andres Segovia. By 15, he was playing in coffee houses and folk music clubs in Greenwich Village. That's where a record executive spotted him.

Feliciano says RCA didn't want to sign him at first "because they didn't know what to do with me." So he went to Argentina, where he added jazz and R&B to boleros, ballads he performed at the Mar del Plata Festival. When he got back to New York, he heard back from RCA — "saying hey, you gotta go back to Argentina, you're hotter than a pistol over there."

RCA recorded several albums of his boleros, including "Poquita Fe" and "Usted." Then, in 1968, the label released his version of "California Dreamin' " by The Mamas and the Papas, in which he played his flamenco guitar and improvised en Español. "That was spontaneous," he says. "I didn't plan to sing in Spanish, but I thought, you know, this feels really good. Let me let me do this."

On the flip side of that single was Feliciano's version of the Doors' "Light My Fire," which became his biggest hit. Feliciano says he had wanted to record that song for Motown. "Dick Clark asked me, he said, 'Why did you want to be on Motown Records? That's a Black label,'" Feliciano recalls. "Well, the way I saw life, I never realized that people saw colors differently. I was never prejudice[d]. And that's one thing I appreciated about being blind."

That same year, 1968, Feliciano won the Grammy for best new artist, and he performed the national anthem at the World Series. As always, he sang it his way, with a touch of R&B and soul. But many in the stands booed.

"He played it more negro, more Black. Back then, people were not ready," musician Carlos Santana says in the new documentary Jose Feliciano: Behind This Guitar.

"It was a different time in America," producer Rudy Perez says in the film. "There was a lot of ignorance — 'This Puerto Rican Latino has messed with our national anthem.' He's thinking, 250 million people hate me."

Feliciano told NPR his stylized interpretation cost him. "I had to leave America and play in other countries because I wasn't getting any radio play after I did 'The Star-Spangled Banner.'" But for fellow Nuyoricans — New York Puerto Ricans, like Bobby Sanabria — Feliciano was a hero.

"Now everybody sings it that way, with some soul," Sanabria says. "That was a brave thing he did. Not only was he Puertoriqueño, not only was he young, not only was he hip, but he was anti-establishment."

Feliciano went on to record many more albums, as well as the theme song for the 1970s sitcom Chico and the Man. The singer now lives in Connecticut, and says he was thrilled when Quentin Tarantino used his version of "California Dreamin' " on the soundtrack of his Oscar-winning film Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood last year. But more than anything, Feliciano can't get over the fact that the simple Christmas song he wrote half a century ago has endured.

"You bet your sweet bippy," he says. "I'm still surprised."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's been 50 years since Jose Feliciano came up with this seasonal earworm.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FELIZ NAVIDAD")

JOSE FELICIANO: (Singing) Feliz Navidad. Feliz Navidad.

MARTIN: Now, as NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, Feliciano is celebrating the anniversary with a new recording.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Feliz Navidad is just two phrases of holiday cheer in Spanish and in English repeated over and over again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FELIZ NAVIDAD")

FELICIANO: (Singing) Feliz navidad, prospero ano y felicidad.

BOBBY SANABRIA: Musically, it's simplistic, but that doesn't take away from the charm of the song at all.

DEL BARCO: Musician Bobby Sanabria is co-director of the Bronx Music Heritage Center.

SANABRI: "Feliz Navidad's" one of those kind of songs that, like "Happy Birthday," is very, very iconic, and anybody can sing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FELIZ NAVIDAD")

FELICIANO: (Singing) I want to wish you a merry Christmas. I want to wish you a merry Christmas.

DEL BARCO: Jose Feliciano remembers writing the song in 1970 at the RCA Studios in Los Angeles.

FELICIANO: We didn't want to put out a schmaltzy Christmas album, so we decided to do it differently.

DEL BARCO: He sang bilingually, played the guitar and also the cuatro, a 10-stringed instrument his uncle taught him back in Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSE FELICIANO SONG, "FELIZ NAVIDAD")

FELICIANO: There had been other Christmas songs that were bilingual, "Mamacita, Donde Esta Santa Claus?" But "Feliz Navidad" was expressing the fact that I felt very lonely. I missed my family. I missed Christmas carols with them. I missed the whole Christmas scene.

DEL BARCO: Stuck in an LA studio, Feliciano says he missed celebrating Noche Buena, Christmas Eve, with his 11 brothers thousands of miles away. So for this new version, he's assembled 30 friends, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jason Mraz and Gloria Gaynor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FELIZ NAVIDAD")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Spanish).

DEL BARCO: Linda Viero Caballero, known as La India, also sings on this new version.

LA INDIA: He's just an amazing improviser, and everyone has always been so proud of Jose because he never abandoned the Latin culture.

DEL BARCO: Jose Feliciano was born in Puerto Rico 75 years ago. He started playing ukulele at 3, and by 15, after his family moved to New York, he was playing guitar and singing in coffeehouses in Greenwich Village. That's where a record executive spotted him.

FELICIANO: RCA didn't want to sign in the beginning because they didn't know what to do with me.

DEL BARCO: So Feliciano went to Argentina, where he added jazz and R&B to boleros, ballads. After several albums of those, in 1968, RCA released his version of a song by The Mamas & the Papas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALIFORNIA DREAMIN'")

FELICIANO: (Singing) California dreamin' dreamin' (singing in Spanish).

I didn't plan to sing in Spanish, but I thought, you know, this feels really good. Let me do this.

DEL BARCO: On the flip side of that single was Feliciano's version of The Doors' "Light My Fire."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIGHT MY FIRE")

FELICIANO: (Singing) Well, you know that it would be untrue and you know that I would be a liar if I was to go and tell you, mama, we couldn't get much higher.

DEL BARCO: It became his biggest hit. Feliciano says he wanted to record that song for Motown, but he was told it was, quote, "a Black label." He responded this way.

FELICIANO: I never realized that people saw colors differently. I was never prejudice. And that's one thing I appreciated about being blind.

DEL BARCO: That same year, 1968, Feliciano won the best new artist Grammy, and he performed the national anthem at the World Series.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FELICIANO: (Singing) Oh, say, can you see by the dawn's early light?

DEL BARCO: For his interpretation, Feliciano was booed.

FELICIANO: I had to leave America and play in other countries because I wasn't getting any radio play after I did "The Star-Spangled Banner."

DEL BARCO: But for fellow Nuyoricans - New York Puerto Ricans - like Bobby Sanabria, Feliciano was a hero.

SANABRI: Now everybody sings it that way (laughter) with some soul. That was a brave thing that he did. Not only was he Puertorriqueno, not only was he young, not only was he hip, but he was anti-establishment.

DEL BARCO: Jose Feliciano went on to record many more albums and the theme song for the 1970s sitcom "Chico And The Man." The singer now lives in Connecticut, and he can't get over the fact that the simple Christmas song he wrote half a century ago has endured.

FELICIANO: You bet your sweet bippy I'm so surprised.

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FELIZ NAVIDAD")

FELICIANO: (Singing) Feliz Navidad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.