Random Tracks: José Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad”

In Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.

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José Feliciano- “Feliz Navidad”

PEAK: #10 on December 19, 2020

SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You

At the 2018 NBA All-Star Game, singer Fergie created a great deal of buzz and controversy for her smoldering and vocally weird take on “The Star-Spangled Banner” leading to lots of backlash and criticism to the point where she publicly apologized for the performance. That backlash is nothing compared to what José Feliciano faced 50 years earlier. 

At Game 5 of the 1968 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers, Feliciano was brought on to perform the National Anthem before kickoff. Feliciano, by this point, was quickly becoming one of the hottest new acts in music with a hit album and hit single that helped him become the first major Latin artist to crossover into the American music market. For his performance, Feliciano ditched the usual pomp and pageantry that comes with performing the anthem and instead put his own spin on it by turning it into a gentle Latin folk ditty with little recognition of the original melody.

Public reaction to the performance was less than favorable. Fans at the stadium booed Feliciano with many finding it disrespectful and at a time when America was divided over the Vietnam War, Feliciano’s take was thought to be a protest against the war and the country. For his part, Feliciano said his performance was not a protest but him showing his appreciation to America. Indeed, Feliciano’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” performance is now seen as opening the door to further individualized interpretations of the anthem by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston, and well Fergie. 

But it didn’t matter, Feliciano’s career was halted just as it was taking off with radio stations blacklisting him, record sales dropping, and an effort to have Feliciano deported even though he is a natural-born American citizen. A couple of years later though, Feliciano released a multi-language Christmas song so basic that it now overshadows the National Anthem backlash as his biggest cultural legacy.

Born in the Puerto Rican city of Lares as the fourth of eleven kids, Feliciano was left permanently blind at birth due to congenital glaucoma. At five, Feliciano and his family moved to the US mainland settling in Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem neighborhood where he first started playing music learning the accordion at seven before moving over to guitar at nine. With the guitar, Feliciano versed himself in a plethora of styles from rock and roll, soul, jazz, Latin, and classical. As a teenager, Feliciano began performing in various clubs and coffeehouses on Greenwich Village’s burgeoning folk scene. It was during one of those performances when an RCA record executive discovered Feliciano offering him a record deal.

Success didn’t come right away. His 1964 debut single “Everybody Do The Click,” a ‘60s style dance novelty track, didn’t do much in the US though Wikipedia tells me it was a #2 hit in the Philippines. For a few years, Feliciano released several albums both in English and in Spanish that sold well in the Latin market but not much else. Things started to change when Feliciano hooked up with Rick Jarrard, an RCA producer who had produced hits for the likes of Jefferson Airplane and Harry Nilsson. Together they came up with 1968’s Feliciano!, an album where Feliciano applied his Latin jazz-folk sound to then-recent American hits. One of those songs, a cover of the Doors’ 1967 chart-topper “Light My Fire,” became his highest-charting hit peaking on the Hot 100 at #3. (It’s a 7.)

Despite the backlash for his “The Star-Spangled Banner” performance, things weren’t totally bad for Feliciano. At the 1969 Grammys, Feliciano was nominated for Album of the Year and won the Best New Artist award beating out Cream and Gary Puckett & The Union Gap and Jeannie C. Riley and O.C. Smith. His next two albums after Feliciano! went gold with his subsequent singles continually charting including his “The Star-Spangled Banner” cover which peaked at #50 a month after the performance.

In 1970, Feliciano and Jarrard began work on a Christmas album. It was during the making of the album when Jarrard encouraged Feliciano to write his own Christmas song. At first intimidated by the famous Christmas songs before him, Feliciano started playing guitar chords and thought back to his own Christmas experiences creating a holiday song with a Latin rhythm and only 20 words for the lyrics, “It just came to me; there’s no rhyme or reason. The first lyric came to me, then I put the English lyric into it, not realizing I had made it the only bilingual Christmas song ever in the world. I created a monster.”

It’s hard to give any hard analysis to the lyrics of “Feliz Navidad.” It’s what the title implies. In one part, Feliciano is singing “Feliz Navidad, prospero año y felicidad” which in English translates to “Merry Christmas, A prosperous year and happiness.” In the other part, Feliciano sings in English “I want to wish you a Merry Christmas from the bottom of my heart.” He does each part three times. That said, the basic lyrics don’t make the song boring. Feliciano brings a light-hearted enjoyment in his nasal delivery that you need for this type of Christmas song. When he wishes you a Merry Christmas in both Spanish and English, it sounds like he means it. 

The music also fits the festive feel and keeps the song busy especially with the rollicking bassline and drums. There’s not too much that you can call Christmasy about the song aside from the sleigh bells though its chintzy strings and horns certainly sound like a throwback to the crooner era Christmas classics. And with its Latin guitar and rhythms, it adds a fun new twist to your typical Christmas song. I wouldn’t place “Feliz Navidad” as one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs. But for what it is, it does its job. It’s almost become like the “Happy Birthday” song or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” a song that’s so simple it feels weird to imagine a time when it was new.

“Feliz Navidad” didn’t reach Christmas classic status at first. Upon its release in 1970, the song didn’t make much of a public impact. Slowly but surely though it has grown in popularity becoming a part of the Christmas classic canon among all the songs Feliciano thought he couldn’t compete against. On the Billboard Hot 100, “Feliz Navidad” made its first appearance after Christmas 1997 in January 1998 peaking at #70. That was it for nearly two decades until the rise of streaming on the charts allowed it to come back in a bigger way returning to Hot 100 at #44 in January 2017. It has continued to grow culminating in a peak of #10 just this week, his first Top 10 hit since the “Light My Fire” cover, and with a few more weeks to go in the season it could go higher meaning I may have to update the chart info at the top of the page.

As for Feliciano, he wouldn’t make another hit after “Feliz Navidad” but he arguably didn’t need more hits. He continues to release music as a legend in the Latin community and still performs at 75 while living in Connecticut. And his music has continued to pop up. Last year, his 1968 cover of the Mamas and the Papas’ 1966 classic “California Dreamin’” was given a big spotlight when Quentin Tarantino included it in his Oscar-winning movie Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood. (Feliciano’s version peaked at #43. The Mamas and the Papas’ original peaked at #4. It’s a 9.)

In 2018, Feliciano performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” again at a Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals game in the same way he performed it 50 years earlier. Unlike that time, the crowd was much more receptive. 

This year, Feliciano has been celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Feliz Navidad” giving interviews, public performances, released a 50-year version featuring various musicians that’s available on Amazon, and on the 20th is hosting a global live stream concert celebrating the anniversary. Check it out if you’re interested. 

If there’s anything this 50th anniversary has proven is that despite our current era of divisions, “Feliz Navidad” continues to unite our cultures in the simplest way possible. That’s quite an accomplishment. 

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Feliz Navidad” soundtracking a Christmas set up montage in 2004’s Surviving Christmas:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s José Feliciano and Daryl Hall performing “Feliz Navidad” together on a 2010 episode of Hall’s show Live From Daryl’s House:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Michael Bublé’s version of “Feliz Navidad” he recorded for his 2011 best-selling album Christmas as a collaboration with Thalia:

(Michael Bublé’s highest-charting single, 2009’s “Haven’t Met You Yet,” peaked at #24. Thalia’s highest-charting single, the 2003 Fat Joe collaboration “I Want You,” peaked at #22.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kacey Musgraves’ similarly Latin style cover of “Feliz Navidad” she released in 2016:

(Kasey Musgraves’ highest-charting single, 2013’s “Follow Your Arrow,” peaked at #60.)