How Jose Feliciano's 'Feliz Navidad' Got an Epic Reimagining for Its 50th Anniversary

José Feliciano
Alex Villa

José Feliciano

José Feliciano readily admits he wasn’t thinking of writing a Christmas classic 50 years ago when, almost on the fly, he first sang: “Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidad, próspero año y felicidad.”

It happened during a recording session for a Christmas album with Rick Jarrard, who would become his trusted producer and friend over the years. At the time, it was Jarrard who floated the idea of a Christmas song in Spanish. And Feliciano, in the middle of recording in the summer, wrote what would become one of the most enduring Christmas songs of all time.

“It just came to me; there’s no rhyme or reason,” he says today. “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.”

As “Feliz Navidad” turns 50 this year, it remains one of the top 10-performing hits in the decade-plus history of Billboard's Holiday 100 chart. It has drawn 3.8 billion in cumulative radio audience and 306 million on-demand streams and sold 925,000 downloads in the U.S. through Nov. 12, 2020, since Nielsen Music/MRC Data began tracking each metric.

The simple ditty, crafted literally in minutes, has indeed become a monster at a global scale.

"'Feliz Navidad' is a beloved holiday favorite for listeners around the world. Over the last year it was performed in nearly 90 countries, from Argentina to Canada, Norway, Israel, South Africa, India, Japan and New Zealand, to name a few,” says Gabriela Gonzalez, ASCAP’S VP of Latin Membership for U.S. Latin & Latin America.

That it happens to be a bilingual song in Spanish and English at a time when music in Spanish is getting unprecedented attention made the notion of revamping it 50 years later all that more appealing. And so, on Nov. 20, Feliciano released his first-ever revamped version of “Feliz Navidad” featuring 30 artists representing a multiplicity of genres and styles. They include CNCO, Isabela Merced, Shaggy, Jon Secada, Jason Mraz, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Rachael Ray, Gloria Gaynor, Big & Rich, Michael Bolton, Los Temerarios, Sam Moore and Styx.

Produced by longtime friend and producer Rudy Pérez, “Feliz Navidad 50th Anniversary (FN50)” was released by Anthem Records as an Amazon exclusive that lives in a special Jose Feliciano Feliz Navidad Amazon hub that also houses a Feliz Navidad children’s book, a stuffed bear called “José Bear” and other merchandise including T-shirts.

The track was recorded  in July, in the middle of the pandemic, but had been planned since last year.

“I was mulling for the last couple of years how could we celebrate ‘Feliz Navidad’'s 50 years,” says Anthem Entertainment CEO Helen Murphy, who signed Feliciano to Anthem Records in 2018.

Things clicked in her mind when she read The Latin Hit Maker, the 2019 memoir written by producer Rudy Pérez in which he talks extensively of Feliciano and the influence he had on his career. When she ran into Pérez a few months later, she said: “I can’t believe how profound an effect José had on you. Let’s do something together.”

That something morphed into a “Feliz Navidad” remake and it snowballed from there. “We were all sick and tired of COVID, and here is Jose going to the studio at 75 years old. I said, ‘You know what? The world needs a celebration. Let’ s do a celebration track on top of the amazing vocals.' And people flooded in.”

The resulting track is surprising; so simple and yet complex, as every voice individually comes in.

“I enjoy working with Rudy, but I always do,” says Feliciano, who recorded remotely. “Rudy and I had some of the best Latin albums anywhere. I learned to become a better writer because of Rudy.”

Once the track was done, after Labor Day, Murphy approached Amazon.

“As an independent company producing a lot of content, we needed one place to launch an integrated campaign for ‘Feliz Navidad,’” she explains. Products include the aforementioned José Bear, and also, a beautiful children’s book, José Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad 50th Anniversary, written by Murphy herself and illustrated by Brandon Wei.

George Napolitano/FilmMagic
Jose Feliciano attends the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting at Rockefeller Center on Dec. 2, 2009 in New York City.

The final touch is a "Feliz Navidad" livestream event that will be held Dec. 20 at 7 p.m. ET, for which tickets are available at Featured guest artists include Haley Reinhart and Kalsey Kulyk.

It will be a welcome respite for Feliciano, who usually tours during Christmas. This year, though, he’ll spend it with his family and has plans to cook what he calls a “Pavechón”: turkey (pavo is turkey in Spanish) cooked with the same condiments as a traditional Puerto Rican lechon.

As far as gifts go, “I have everything,” says Feliciano. “All I want is for my wife to give me another 40-something years together.”

You can listen to the new version of "Feliz Navidad" here: