Feliz Feliciano

Since releasing "Light My Fire" in 1968, Jose Feliciano has been a part of pop-music consciousness. The tune, originally recorded by the Doors, became an instant smash and provided the basis for a career that's still going strong for the blind guitarist from Puerto Rico. But while the cut's star power made Feliciano a bit of a musical evergreen, another tune made him a worldwide favorite--especially this time of year. It's arguable that "Feliz Navidad," released in 1970, has become the most popular contemporary Christmas song ever recorded. Come December, the tune's joyful, Latin-flavored chorus--"I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas"--covers the world like a fresh blanket of snow.

"It's really the 'White Christmas' of the Spanish-speaking world," Feliciano says from his home in Connecticut. "I would say it's the biggest song since 'White Christmas.' I wrote it in 1969 because I missed my family back in Puerto Rico. It was really a gift to me, because I was feeling kind of alone back then. Christmas in Puerto Rico, in the tropics, is very special, even though we don't have snow or stuff like that."

Feliciano says the song was conceived one night when he was sitting around the house with Rick Gerard, who had produced "Light My Fire." "He told me I should write a Christmas song. But I thought, 'Oh, I don't know. A new Christmas song after "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" by Brenda Lee?' Well, nobody had really written anything since then. But I hummed a few notes and played around with it."

Ten minutes later, he had strung together the sugarcane melody and bilingual lyrics that have made "Feliz Navidad" a holiday anthem. The tune was released a year later as part of a Feliciano Christmas album. "We got some play when it first came out, but it wasn't a hit," he recalls. "But as time went on, 'Feliz Navidad' kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And now, of course, when Christmas comes around, it gets a ton of play on the radio. Over the years, it's sold millions."

Each season the song's popularity snowballs all over again, generating more airtime and more sales. It's also earned Feliciano choice yuletide gigs--this month he performs it at the White House for the ceremonial lighting of the national tree. "But I'm no busier now than I am during the rest of the year," he says. This summer the six-time Grammy Award winner was given a Lifetime Achievement award by the music-publishing outfit ASCAP; he joins previous honorees Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Julio Iglesias and Rod Stewart. Feliciano is currently touring in support of his latest release, the all-in-Spanish Senor Bolero, which has already sold more than 300,000 units internationally. The disc has reached platinum status in the U.S. and Venezuela, Feliciano says, and should earn similar status in other Latin lands by the end of the year.

Despite his continuous global successes, Feliciano is still seen as an oldies star by the gringos here in the United States. However, he says, "that doesn't bother me at all. I'll be recording in English soon, and I'll be back on the pop charts again." He'll also be back in Puerto Rico for the holidays, to savor the deeper meanings of the season with loved ones back home. As he says, "I have a lot to celebrate this time of year."

--Marty Jones

Jose Feliciano, 7 p.m. December 15-19 at the Casino, 2637 Welton Street, $35, 303-292-2626.

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Marty Jones

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