Earlier this month, American Songwriter had the delight of catching up with famed singer, José Feliciano. (Check out the full interview here.)
But for the purposes of this piece, we’re going to hone in on one aspect of that conversation and add some good ol’ fashion research to it. In other words, we’re going Behind The Song Lyrics and talking about Feliciano’s timeless composition, “Feliz Navidad.
The song, which has been played millions of times and covered by seemingly as many artists (here is my favorite rendition), is a Christmas classic in both English- and Spanish-speaking locales.
It’s a simple tune, repeating three lines: “Feliz Navidad,” “Próspero año y Felicidad” and “I wanna wish you a merry Christmas!”
Recently, Feliciano released a version of the track that features 30 artists from around the world, from Lin-Manuel Miranda to the Jonas Brothers. The song came as part of the deluxe reissue of his 2020 album, Behind This Guitar.
For the now-76-year-old Puerto Rican-born Feliciano, the song is a staple. It was written in 1970 and released the same year. Known for its plain but heartfelt message, the track also serves as a Happy Near Year’s ballad, as Feliciano wishes listeners both a Merry Christmas (“Feliz Navidad”) and a happy new year (“Próspero año y Felicidad”).
Feliciano has talked about writing the song while feeling homesick for his family. He remembered the mood of celebrating with them, eating and drinking, and singing songs. So, he put that into the track. And from the personal comes the ubiquitous. The track has been downloaded around a million times, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It was also recognized by ASCAP as one of the most played and recorded songs of all time around the world.
But it took some twenty years for the song to reach and chart in America. It hit No. 18 on the Adult Contemporary Chart in January of 1998. Two years later it hit No. 12. In 2020, the song reached an all-time high, hitting at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Here’s what Feliciano had to say when we asked him about the song’s composition below.
American Songwriter: Do you remember writing “Feliz Navidad”—how did it feel coming out?
José Feliciano: Of course I do. I was working on a Christmas album with my producer, Rick Jarrard, who produced “Light My Fire,” “California Dreamin’,” “Che Sarà,” “Let’s Find Each Other Tonight,” “Rain” and so many others. The topic of writing a new Christmas song was brought up and I said, “Oh, I don’t know, Rick, how could I compete with the likes of Irving Berlin, Brenda Lee, and Mel Tormé?”
Rick encouraged me to give it a go and a few moments later, “Feliz Navidad” was born, just like that, really. Rick loved it and decided it would be recorded with the rest of the material we’d already chosen, but I said, “I don’t think so, Rick, it’s too simple…” Obviously, it’s reaction with the public that has really surprised me over the years; it’s hard to believe. Thank God I always had faith in my producer.
Photo courtesy 42 west