The Man Behind 'Feliz Navidad'

Jose Feliciano
Musician Jose Feliciano poses in the press room at the 2006 TV Land Awards at the Barker Hangar on March 19, 2006 in Santa Monica, California.

Jose Feliciano's song "Feliz Navidad" is a classic, right up there with "White Christmas" and "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire." In fact, this year, more than 35 years after it was written, "Feliz Navidad" gets more radio play than any other Christmas song in the country — and it's #1 on Latino song lists, too, which still astounds Feliciano.

"I never thought it would be as popular as it is and the big hit that it is — that it would be number one all across the nation," he told Sunday Morning correspondent Cynthia Bowers. "It's number one again!"

Like many great ideas, it seemed to come effortlessly. Feliciano said he began humming the tune in Spanish and thought that he could add some English lyrics to the song as well.

"So that I put 'I want to wish you a merry Christmas. I want to wish you a merry Christmas,'" he said.

Feliciano was born in Puerto Rico in 1945, blind at birth from congenital glaucoma, but very much aware of the rhythms around him from the beginning.

"My uncle used to play the Puerto Rican native instrument called the quarto," he said. "So I would accompany him on a tin cracker can. My rhythm was perfect. I didn't miss a beat."

And he hasn't missed a beat since, with six Grammys and 72 albums to his name, including his latest, "Jose Feliciano Y Amigos," featuring many of the young Latino superstars for whom he paved the way, making inroads in an industry at a time when, he said, "Latin music wasn't really popular."

"It wasn't easy."

What makes his accomplishment more impressive is that Feliciano was a poor, blind kid — one of eleven boys — who moved to New York when he was five, but made his way to the top.

"Where else could a guy like me come from absolute poverty and be successful?" he said. "You know, it only happens in America. I could make music out of anything, whether it be a rubber band or whether it be tapping. I used to drive the teachers crazy."

He went to school and learned to read Braille, but it was music, he says, that taught him to see.

At 17, Feliciano quit school, and began to play his music to help support the family, taking his unique guitar style to the coffee houses of New York's Greenwich Village.

"I used to watch 'American Bandstand,' and what I would do is I would play along with some of the songs that they were playing," Feliciano said. "And I thought to myself, if I can play those songs, I'm a professional."

He got a big break when he went on the "Ted Mack Amateur Hour," which in many ways was the precursor of "American Idol."

"I mean, with Ted Mack, you didn't win the kind of record contracts and things that "American Idol" has, but for its day it was a big show," he said.

But it was in South America that Jose Feliciano first became a star. Latino audiences couldn't get enough of him. He became the Ricky Martin of his day with girls chasing him. But in America, stardom was a bigger challenge.

"Someone said to me you should change your name to Joe Phillips," Feliciano said. "Even though I'm Latino, I'm as American as apple pie. [But] I didn't want to dishonor my father. I didn't want to Americanize my name."

In 1968, he crossed over with his own rendition of "Light My Fire," a rock song made famous by The Doors a year earlier.

"It's a funny thing," he said. "I never thought I was doing anything really different. I was just being me."

Just being himself, with a soaring voice, and a totally unique style — making the strings of his guitar sing like a violin — seemed to work for Feliciano.

"My plan always was, I want to do this song better than the original," he said.

But when Feliciano brought that unique style of his to the "Star Spangled Banner," in the fifth game of the 1968 World Series, he caused an uproar with his unique version of the national anthem.

"I never anticipated the reaction I got, because I was trying to be a patriot, but it was a thrill for me in that I made people pay attention to the national anthem," Feliciano said.

His music seems to run the gamut. He does rock, pop and blues. He refuses categorization.

"I think I'm a guy who likes to play everything," he said.

Feliciano is also a guy who likes to do everything and took an acting role in "Chico in the Man," for which he wrote the score.

These days, Feliciano likes to perform with his two sons: Jonathan, who's 15, plays the drums, and Michael, 11, plays the bass.

"I call the band Two Kids and a Blind Guy," he said. "They keep me apprised of what's going on. I think in that part of my life, they've added to my life."