José Feliciano’s classic “Feliz Navidad” turned 50 years old this year, a milestone that was celebrated with the first major reimagining of the song, a merchandise line, a children’s book and an upcoming Christmas special. This week, “Feliz Navidad” rose to No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 songs chart — its first top 10 appearance on the chart ever (last holiday season it went to No. 12 ), a breathtaking achievement for a 50-year-old track in its original version.
So important is “Feliz Navidad” to the history of Latin music overall that it’s the opening chapter of my upcoming book Decoding Despacito: An Oral History of Latin Music, to be published by Vintage Books in English and Spanish on March 2, 2021. The book features 19 songs that have shaped the history of Latin music, their stories told by the artists, the songwriters, the producers, the managers, the executives, the arrangers, and sometimes the wives and husbands who brought them to life.
Those 19 songs start with, yes, “Feliz Navidad” — arguably the first-ever Spanish-English hit. In honor of the song’s anniversary, of its new chart achievement, and, of course, Christmas, here is a condensed excerpt of the “Feliz Navidad” story.
José Feliciano: Artist, composer
Rick Jarrard: Producer
Susan Feliciano: Wife, fan
We’ve been friends for so many years. We’re brothers. He calls me every day and every night and we end up having a Grand Marnier or something over the phone. A little salud. I’m a great admirer of Latin music. Man, I love percussion. And that’s one of the reasons I loved José and I always tried, even from the first album, I’d say, “Hey, José, let’s toss a little Spanish in there.”
I never expected “Feliz Navidad” to be so iconic. I was feeling kind of lonesome for my family in Puerto Rico, and Rick and I were doing the Christmas album, and Rick said to me, “You know, José, you should write a Christmas song.” And I looked at him a little bit bewildered and said, “Rick, I don’t know that I can write a Christmas song that’s as good as the ones that are already out there. Like songs by Mel Tormé and his cohort.” Rick said, “No, man, just write the song.” And I wrote the first lyric of the song: “Feliz navidad, Feliz navidad, prospero año y Felicidad [Merry Christmas, merry Christmas, and a happy and prosperous New Year].”
I said, “Man, I love that!” And he said, “Ricky, that is so simple, no one will ever like this song.” I said, “José, we are recording that on our next session.” That’s one thing about José: We’ve always worked together and respected each other immensely. And if I want to try something, he’ll try it. And if he wants to try something, I’ll say, “Okay, let’s do it.” And he was open to that and we put that on the next session, and, lo and behold, we got “Feliz Navidad.”
And then I said to myself, “Well let me make it bilingual, so the radio stations can’t turn me off.” I created a monster. Because this song has become the iconic Christmas song. Oh, most definitely. The only “Latin” Christmas record that you heard in English was “Dónde Esta Santa Claus [Where Is Santa Claus]” [a 1958 novelty hit, performed by child star Augie Ríos, born in New York to Puerto Rican parents]. I didn’t know if we would get any kind of airplay on the song at all. So I prepared myself and made it so the radio stations wouldn’t have any excuses. And now every Christmas they have to turn me on.
No one else was recording in Spanish and English. They were not. José was really the first Latin artist in my estimation to have hits around the world, something that’s been an overlooked fact, in my mind. When we recorded “Feliz Navidad,” it felt like a hit single to me. But, of course, the odds were really against it because all the standard Christmas songs were out already, and it was a long shot. But it felt like something incredible to me and I always had that hope.
Rick and I went to the studio in California and we recorded the track. At the time I had my Brazilian drummer, Paulino, and he did the drums. I played the bass, the guitar, and the Puerto Rican cuatro [a small guitar, common in Puerto Rico], and I also played the guiro [a musical instrument made from a gourd, with a serrated surface scraped with a stick]. I did a duet with the bass and the cuatro. Listen to it and you’ll see what I mean. The arrangement was really between me and me.
I loved José playing cuatro, and I always suggest he do so if the song calls for it. We did not hire a cuatro player. Not when José Feliciano is around. He performs it himself and he plays incredibly. We recorded at RCA Studios in Hollywood in the middle of summer, so it’s a tough deal to get in the Christmas mood. José had just moved out here from New York.
I always cut José with a very basic track: very basic drums and maybe percussion and then we start overdubbing things with him. I do that so he can be free to really perform and not be locked in by a big orchestration. José is one of those artists who has to be free. So we did it that way and then we added percussion and the cuatro, and then built it up from there, adding the vocals and the harmony. We added the strings and the horns at a later date, and I just tried to change the various sections of the songs using the horns or strings.
José recorded the guitar and vocals together. Sometimes we do it separately — the guitar first and the vocals later. But recording together is usually the best way to get a great performance from José because that’s the way he does concerts — guitars and vocals. He’s one of those guys who records the song from top to bottom versus recording line by line, like I’ve seen a lot of artists do. No, no, no. We do that song from top to bottom, and he performs the song, and that’s how you get that great soulful feeling from José.
Nobody told me from the record company whether they liked it or not. They just put it out and I have to say, the song did the rest.
That phrase was not known in the English world until José did that song. And now, it’s become standard. You see everyone walking around and saying, “Feliz Navidad.” And if you say “Feliz Navidad” to them, they understand. It’s become a part of their lives.
We have three children who have grown up with it and it’s something that they wear proudly. Johnny [Jonathan Feliciano is Feliciano’s son as well as his drummer and tour manager] has a T-shirt that says, Feliz Navidad: It’s not a song, it’s an attitude.
–Leila Cobo is the VP/Latin Industry Lead for Billboard.