“Every interview that I’ve done when they ask me about influences, I say José,” says Gloria Estefan, in the opening few minutes of the documentary José Feliciano: Behind This Guitar, currently screening at the virtual Nashville Film Festival. For the 7-time Grammy-winning Estefan, and dozens of other musicians too, José Feliciano’s legacy is one that goes far beyond the classic song that people sing every year at Christmas, “Feliz Navidad.”
As Rick Jarrard, longtime producer of Feliciano’s work, puts it, “The real true legacy José is leaving to the world is that you can accomplish anything you want, no matter how adverse the situation and conditions you are in, if you have a desire and the discipline and just do it.” The film, which also was part of the SXSW 2020 selection, explores Feliciano’s legacy in depth, starting from his early life in Puerto Rico to how he shook up the music world and why the 9-time Grammy winner is still making music 60 years later.
“He was one of the first to do it,” Emilio Estefan says in the film, referring to Feliciano’s trademark ability to sing in both English and Spanish, before other artists became comfortable doing so. “His music is beyond borders,” adds Rudy Pérez, fellow Cuban-American musician, also speaking in the documentary. “I’ve seen him move a crowd in Portugal, Canada, Australia, London, Buenos Aires.”
Aside from sharing Feliciano’s impact on other artists, the film traces his career and his ability to put his own spin on songs, bringing blues, jazz and Latin influences into pop and rock. Feliciano remembers musicians in the early ’60s all trying to be “little Elvises” and trying to move their hips. “Only my hips said, ‘You’ve got to learn to do something better,” he chuckles. Besides, at the time, Feliciano was more into Bob Dylan. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album changed his life. “I started to listen to Rock & Roll as it was being born. To the blues, the doo wop sound.” Feliciano’s favorite vocal group of all time is the Four Seasons, who he credits with teaching him about music. “You know, ‘Get the dream started, get it going, if you want to sound like somebody do it!’ ”
Feliciano found the encouragement he needed to “sound like somebody” and spent his career making Latin music with American stylings, as he describes his style, and releasing more than 60 albums. But, as the film shows, it wasn’t a smooth ride. “I hope my story brings hope to people everywhere,” Feliciano tells American Songwriter. “That nothing really, is impossible, if you believe in yourself and put your heart, mind and soul into your dream, whatever it may be it will come true.”
His story travels from a small town called Lares in Puerto Rico, where he was born, on September 10, 1945, to New York City, where he immigrated with his family when he was 5.
Congenital glaucoma left Feliciano permanently blind at birth. The memories he has of Puerto Rico, poor as his family was at the time, are happy ones because he, says, of the music in his life. 3-year-old Feliciano got an early start, accompanying his uncle on a tin cracker can, before going on to learn accordion at school.
From his breakthrough hit re-recording The Doors’ “Light My Fire” to his controversial jazzy World Series national anthem rendition, and the myriad of Spanish- and English-language albums he’s released, he has become one of the most prominent Latin-born performers of our time. Indeed, “Feliz Navidad” is a yearly reminder of that. The song turns 50 this year, and, all this time later, the lyrics have inspired a children’s book release. “I feel it celebrates the continuing joy its bringing to generations of families around the world,” says Feliciano. “And it is about the true meaning of Christmas — being with family, sharing good meals and music.”
The song, dubbed by ASCAP as one of the 25 Greatest Holiday Songs of the Century, continues to bring him joy, too. “My proudest memory simply continues to be those many moments when I hear people all around the world singing my song,” he says. “That blows my mind. I never would’ve imagined that could ever have been the case with one of my songs. I am so proud that it is most popular global bilingual song, written by me in Spanish and English.”
Earlier this year, Feliciano released his latest album, also called Behind This Guitar. “I love creating new music for my fans. I love the challenge of continuing to create hits and I love working with my producer, my musicians and my fans. I’m breathing, so I’m making music. It’s that simple.” A song on the album, about his pride for being American, “I Am America,” brings his story full-circle. “My longtime friend and producer, Rick Jarrard, who produced many of my most important musical contributions over the past 52 years, like “Light My Fire,” “Feliz Navidad,” “Rain,” “Che Sarà,” and so many more, brought “I’m America” to me — knowing, as he always does, that it would be an important song for me to interpret and record,” says Feliciano. “I think he was right. And my record company is called Anthem Records and I think it is a great Anthem.”