José Feliciano: Artist, composer
Rick Jarrard: Producer
Susan Feliciano: Wife, fan
If you could pinpoint the beginnings of what would later be termed “crossover,” some of it would undoubtedly be found in the music of José Feliciano. In 1968, the Puerto Rican guitarist and singer captured the public imagination with his mind-bending cover of “Light My Fire,” a vocal tour de force where the voice shares as much glory as Feliciano’s guitar. One can find bolero references here, but, really, this is an homage to the Doors and Jim Morrison, performed by a Puerto Rican virtuoso whose music is as steeped in the blues as it is in Latin music. The track was produced by the man who would become Feliciano’s longtime friend and producer, Rick Jarrard.
“Light My Fire” would peak at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 that year, establishing Feliciano as a force in the business and paving the way for his 1968 Grammy as Best New Artist.
After that success, you might think that “Feliz Navidad” was part of a carefully planned strategic move. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Feliciano was working on an album of Christmas songs, with a couple of originals to be included among the covers. Jarrard suggested an original track and Feliciano came up with “Feliz Navidad” almost on a whim. The song became bilingual, he said, because he didn’t want pop radio not to play it.
To understand how revolutionary, and prescient, this decision was, you only have to look at what the future of Latin music would hold, with bilingual songs populating the charts in record numbers five decades later.
As for “Feliz Navidad,” its popularity grew slowly but surely through the years, finally attaining that rarest of standings: It’s now a classic holiday song. In both Spanish and English.
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.
My first record with José was the Light My Fire album, and that was a great, but exciting, challenge. 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.” And I loved it when he sings it because it was so emotional and so romantic. He is such an incredible guitarist and musician. I love rock, but I also love classical, and José had all those elements combined.
When Rick first met José, he went to see him perform at the Golden Bear Club in Southern California. He heard some of the stuff he was doing onstage and drew inspiration for how the album was to be based on that, just building on the obvious. So he did a number of songs that were on the Feliciano album. As it turns out, “Light My Fire” was a hit the year before and Rick said, “José, you know we have a little time left, do you want to lay down ‘Light My Fire’?”
And José said, “Oh, Rick, it was a hit a year before. I don’t think so.” But he ended up doing it almost in jest, and “Light My Fire” became “Light My Fire.” Fast-forward three years. José and Rick have an extraordinary relationship. True brothers. I’ve seen him open his veins for José. With Rick it’s real. It’s not just words. They speak every day. They have for a long, long time.
I never expected “Feliz Navidad” to be so iconic. I wrote it for a Christmas album that I did with Rick Jarrard, the same producer I had just done my English album with.
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 love Christmas, José loves Christmas. We were doing the Christmas album, and we picked a bunch of traditional songs, some of which hadn’t been done in a long time. I was at his house, and we were working together on the songs he had picked, and it’s so funny because he had parrots at the time and they were screaming. I’ll never forget that scene. It’s locked in my mind. After we worked on “Silent Night” and the other songs, I said, “José, man, it would be great if you could write an original Christmas song.” And this was such a funny scene, because we talked and talked and laughed and joked around. And he said, “How about this? ‘Feliz Navidad, feliz Navidad.’ ” 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.”
He is such a great musician. He felt the song was too simple, that it was not up to his normal level of expertise. He was totally serious about that. And I said, “José, I love it. We’re putting it on the next session.” And he said, “Okay.”
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.”
They’re working on a Christmas album, and it was supposed to be the greatest story ever told, and they were very careful in choosing the pieces and the instrumentals. It’s beautifully done. And Rick goes to José, and says, “You know, José, we need a Christmas song.” And José goes, “Oh, Rick, I don’t think so. How can I compete with Irving Berlin?” And Rick says, “Come on, José.” And fifteen minutes later they had “Feliz Navidad.”
And then I said to myself, “Well, let me make it bilingual, so the radio stations can’t turn me off.” So I did the lyric: “I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas, I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas, I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas from the bottom of my heart.”
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 that I had made it the only bilingual Christmas song ever in the world. 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 está Santa Claus? [Where Is Santa Claus?]” [a 1958 novelty hit performed by child star Augie Ríos, born in New York to Puerto Rican parents]. That was the Christmas song people listened to. Along came “Feliz Navidad” and it was something new.
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. Everything I produced for José, I always have that strong feeling that “Hey, this could be big.” But it was a long shot.
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. As I was doing the tracks, Rick was very encouraging. I wanted to put the cuatro in because it’s a very Puerto Rican instrument. Venezuela has a different cuatro; it’s kind of like a ukulele. Mexico has a different instrument called a vihuela, which they used with mariachis.
I loved José playing cuatro, and I always suggest he do so if the song calls for it. He just plays it so well and the color of it is fantastic. Not very many songs will allow you to use it, but when it calls for it, it’s great. We did not hire a cuatro player. Not when José Feliciano is around. He performs it himself and he plays incredibly. He can also play bass. You name it, José plays it.
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 song 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. It’s one big, long performance, just as if he were in concert playing in front of thousands of people. We probably recorded extremely fast and probably in a single take. The harmonies took maybe another hour. He’s such a fast worker and player, and so proficient and so incredible that it didn’t take long. There are no questions with José, man. José, let’s put a harmony on that line. Okay. Bam. And again he’s very fast. He’s one of the most accomplished, incredible musicians I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with some great ones.
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. The album was called Feliz Navidad and the packaging was an album cover with my name and a bow and holly berries on it. It was a slow burn. The first year it had a lot of play. But “Feliz Navidad” every year grew better and better and stronger and stronger.
I started José’s fan club when I was fourteen. I’m Irish and Polish and Eastern European, but I took Spanish in school. It was very important to my education and José was a big part of that. By listening to his music, I was told my pronunciation was quite good.
After school I’d take the bus downtown and go to Hudson’s department store because they had the best collection of records.
The album was called José Feliciano [it was later reissued as Feliz Navidad]. The original cover looks like a Christmas present with golden foil, a great big green-and-red bow and holly leaves for the accent on the é in José. José wanted it to be a present, because it was like a present for his followers, so RCA maneuvered a Christmas packaging effect.
It was the only song on the album that I had never heard before and I saw it was something that José had written, which was of great interest to me. It was happy, upbeat, and bilingual, and easy enough for me to remember.
The guitar I used to write it with is in the Smithsonian Institution. When I wrote “Feliz Navidad,” I didn’t give it much thought. I wrote it out of being a little bit depressed because I missed Puerto Rico and I missed my family and I missed having the lechón [suckling pig] with them. And that touch of nostalgia and happiness helped me to write the song.
This year I was in Japan, and they wanted me to do “Feliz Navidad” in the summer. And they wanted me to sing “Feliz Navidad” in China, where it’s very, very popular, even though it wasn’t the Christmas season and the Chinese don’t even celebrate Christmas; they’re Buddhist.
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.
He’s quite proud. They all are. I don’t know if it’s their favorite José song, but it’s the one that has gotten the most attention and therefore it’s the one to which they feel most connected. “Feliz Navidad” is like their baby brother. It’s part of the family. I’ve never tried to put it into words before but, it is.
Every Christmas “Feliz Navidad” seems to get stronger and always wipes out every other Christmas song on the market. And although I notice that now they play other versions of “Feliz Navidad,” it may sound conceited on my part, but the original is still the best.
Wherever he is in the world, it could be Poland, China, anywhere, if he starts singing that song, they’ll sing with him. 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.
Copyright © 2020 by Leila Cobo. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.