Haven't you heard of José Feliciano?!
In mixed company, I never make much of a secret. I'm not a huge fan of Christmas music.
Each year the Christmas season brings around old familiar songs that you don't hear much except for 4-6 weeks out of the year. Some you've heard so many times that you could go years before the nostalgia of hearing the song again was a positive reaction. Plus, there are artists constantly re-recording the same songs year after year. Truthfully, when was the last time you heard a well-written NEW Christmas song that you absolutely loved?
If you listen to a lot of music like me there's likely a good chance that you try to put off listening to Christmas music for as long as possible. In fact, I completely avoid the 24-hour Christmas stations on the radio and try to tune out the background holiday music while shopping in the stores.
While I don't think of myself as a Scrooge at all, Christmas music does tend to grate on my ears unlike other genres. I don't know if it's because retailers keep moving up the beginning of the Christmas season, or if it's because I have a birthday in December, but I don't like listening to Christmas music too early. I have unscientifically polled enough people over the years to know it's just not me either.
I have worked at the same building since 2008. By now, I have a running discussion with the cashier about music. She thinks it's crazy that I know all sorts of useless trivia about music. We play this little game of naming information about the song on the radio while I'm there.
This morning I was in the cafeteria and "Feliz Navidad" by José Feliciano came on the radio. We started singing the tune and talking about the song. But, I apparently looked like some sort of magical wizard of music geekdom to the folks in the cafeteria. I knew the artist, that he played guitar and that he had been blind since birth. Doesn't everyone know this stuff? This song is a classic.
Born in Puerto Rico in 1945, Feliciano started playing music at the age of 3. His family immigrated to New York when he was 5 years old and eventually he learned the accordion and then the guitar. Like every other folk singer of his generation he ended up playing in Greenwich Village and making a name for himself as a performer.
In 1968, Feliciano's Latin twinged cover of The Doors' "Light My Fire" helped to catapult his career in America when the song peaked at #3 on the U.S. pop charts and held the spot for 3 weeks. However, just as fast as his star was rising his career took a controversial turn. At the request of Detroit Tigers' broadcaster Ernie Harwell, Feliciano sang a Latin Jazz version of "The Star Spangled Banner" at Game 5 of the 1968 World Series. At the height of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam War, and the protests that surrounded it, his arrangement of the National Anthem did not go far to endear the artist to the overall U.S. public. The single release peaked at #50 on the Billboard Top 100 chart.
At the beginning of the 1970s the world started to become a different place. Sub-groups around the United States began to flex their muscle against the predominantly White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant (WASP) proletariat. The African American Civil Rights movement had been building for a decade and a half. College students were protesting the U.S. role in the Vietnam War, the GLBT community fought for their rights against New York City police in the Stonewall Riots, Native Americans formed the Red Power movement for greater identity, and the environmentalists held the first Earth Day. Similarly, a Chicano Civil Rights Movement also took hold in Western U.S. cities in the mid-to-late '60s. While César Chávez fought for the rights of farm workers in California, Feliciano along with, Sergio Mendes, Herb Alpert and Carlos Santana helped usher in Latin rhythms to popular music in the '60s and '70s.
With it's mix of Spanish and English sing-a-long lyrics and catchy upbeat rhythm, Feliciano released "Feliz Navidad" to the world in 1970 during this busy political environment. Released as the title track to his Christmas-themed album, "Feliz Navidad" is recognized by ASCAP as one of the 25 all-time most-played Christmas songs in the world.
As a kid I likely heard "Feliz Navidad" on the radio and possibly saw Feliciano on a '70s variety show or two, but I am positive that my first encounter with the Puerto Rican singer was from his 1974 performance on the children's televison program, Sesame Street. With a focus on early learning, Sesame Street depicted a melting pot of people of all different races and ethnicities coming together as friends on a block in New York City. Feliciano was a perfect fit to come perform a sing-a-song with the kids and hang out at the Fix-It-Shop with fellow Puerto Rican immigrants, Luis and Maria.
Nearly 40 years later what I learned back then must have stuck with me.
"Light My Fire" on television 1968 (Please ignore the floating graphic on the video, the sound quality and able to embed this video is the only reason this version is here.)
1968 World Series - "The Star Spangled Banner" by José Feliciano
"The Gypsy" from Sesame Street
"Feliz Navidad" Live from Daryl's House