A recent “06880” story on the death of Hal Holbrook noted his 1959 Halloween appearance — as Mark Twain, of course — at Staples High.
I wrote: “The school had just opened its modern North Avenue campus. The PTA had an active arts program, bringing musicians, dancers and actors to the new auditorium stage. Hal Holbrook might have been the most famous name of all.”
Staples High School auditorium in its first year: 1959.
He sure had competition. As John Kelley notes, in those early days of the new high school, Ottilie Kaufman — who lived right next to the south entrance — organized and produced a one-of-a-kind, first-ever performing arts series at Staples that included (in addition to Holbrook) the Weavers, Marcel Marceau, Ferrante and Teicher, Odetta, Sir John Gielgud , Andrés Segovia and others.
Segovia — a world-renowned Spanish classical guitarist — died in 1987, at 94. But his legacy — and his visit here — lives on.
Soon after another legendary Latin musician — José Feliciano — turned 75 last year, our Weston neighbor received a gift: Segovia’s footstool.
Autographed. And from that March 1960 Staples concert.
A page from the 1960 Performing Arts series program.
The back story: Prior to his show, Segovia came to the Kaufmans’ home next door to the high school. He warmed up in the living room using that footstool. Many classical guitarists do that; it supports the instrument, as they play seated.
Growing up in Spanish Harlem in the 1950s, Feliciano was highly influenced by the skills and intrigue of Segovia’s delicate flamenco style.
The antique stool sat in the Kaufman family’s attics for decades — first on North Avenue, then at Ottilie and Zenn’s son Roger’s house. A guitarist, singer and founder of Old School Music’s concerts, promotions and events, he’s as famous locally as Feliciano and Segovia are internationally.
The stool seemed a fitting present for Feliciano, who always sits when he plays. Now the “Feliz Navidad” and “Light my Fire” Latin/jazz/blues/soul/rock musician is sitting pretty with Segovia’s stool in hand — er, under foot.
From left: local drummer Tyger MacNeal, Jose Feliciano and Roger Kaufman, with Andres Segovia’s footstool. The 75th birthday presentation was at Sakura.
In the fall of 1970, José Feliciano needed one more song to round out his upcoming Christmas album.
It took just 15 minutes to bang out a tune. The lyrics were simple yet warm; the melody, joyful and catchy. When he added a jangly cuatro to his guitar — and recorded it in just one take — he had a smash.
Fifty years later, “Feliz Navidad” remains one of the greatest holiday songs of all time.
It’s a worldwide classic, right up there with Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song.” Of course, José’s tune is a lot livelier than those chestnuts.
Now, as it reaches the half-century mark, “Feliz Navidad” is enjoying renewed attention.
Last month, José released a revamped version. It includes nearly every genre imaginable. The 30 artists from 9 countries include Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jason Mraz, Gloria Gaynor, Styx, Sam Moore, CNCO, Isabela Merced, Shaggy, Jon Secada, Rachael Ray, Big & Rich and Los Temerarios.
Michael Bolton sings too. But that’s not the only local connection to Feliz’s 50th.
A global livestream concert is set for this Sunday (December 20, 7 p.m.). Feliciano will be joined by Andrés Cepeda, Austin Jenckes, Haley Reinhart and Kalsey Kulyk.
José Feliciano is a longtime Weston resident. Assumption Church parishioners know him from his Christmas Eve entertainment there; Westport Y members see him working out at the gym.
Jose Feliciano and his wife Susan, at home in Weston. (Photo/Dorothy Hong for Wall Street Journal)
In a normal year, José would be performing all over the world. He’s spent previous Decembers everywhere from South America to the Vatican. (He also sang “Feliz” one summer in China. The audience joined happily in.)
In 2020, the pandemic kept him home. So he worked on many 50th anniversary projects — not just the livestream, but books (in English and Spanish), an animated film, merchandise like a stuffed bear and t-shirts, and more.
José and his son Jonnie spent Labor Day weekend in their home studio, recording answers to questions that people might ask Alexa about Jose.
This has been another active month. The other day — accompanied by Jonnie on drums, and his other son Michael on bass — José appeared on Jimmy Fallon. It too was taped at Factory Underground.
He’s also been on CBS’ “Sunday Morning” and Telemundo. He gave interviews to the New Yorker, Billboard and the AP, among many others.
“Feliz Navidad” is “simple and joy-filled,” José says. Its long-running popularity has been “a blessing” for him and his family.
The other 7 billion people on the planet appreciate it just as much. So, from José Feliciano’s Weston home, to the rest of the globe:
Feliz Navidad Próspero año y felicidad!
Click here for tickets to Jose Feliciano’s December 20 livestream. Click here for the link to the 50th anniversary recording on Amazon Music. Click here for all 50th anniversary information.
FUN FACT #1: “Feliz Navidad” has been recorded by everyone from the Three Tenors to the Wiggles. But Feliciano’s favorite versions are the videos sent in by fans, singing it themselves.
FUN FACT #2: “Feliz Navidad” is #10 on this week’s Billboard Hot 100 chart. (Hat tip: Mike Pryor)
A very creative director. He developed the E*Trade Baby, made a short film with Ron Howard that shortlisted at the Oscars, and won an Emmy for his work on Canon. These days, the Westporter heads his own creative consultancy, Sauce.
Halper’s daughter Reya sure inherited his creative genes.
Last year at Christmas, the Saugatuck Elementary School student picked up their black goldendoodle’s paw. Reya began singing: “Feliz Navidog.”
Halper asked about her take on our Weston neighbor Jose Feliciano’s lovable holiday anthem. “That’s Santa’s dog,” Reya replied.
The creative director’s creative brain kicked in. Reya loves to read! What a great idea for a children’s book!
Ari and Reya Halper, and their goldendoodle.
Most people would leave it there. Halper — and his daughter — are not most people.
Over the next several weeks they wrote several drafts. It was fun. And, they realized, they had a salable product.
As they searched for a publisher — and Halper stresses this was a collaborative effort, with Reya providing plenty of input — they realized how big and unwieldy the children’s book world is.
They eventually discovered a children’s self-publishing group. The control and speed of that option appealed to them. Halper went to a writer’s workshop, educating himself on the ins and outs (aka the challenges and perils) of self-publishing.
There were many.
One was finding help. They found one through Reedsy, an online site matching authors with professionals.
“She was great,” Halper reports. “I wanted the book to be very Dr. Seuss-ish. Anapestic tetrameter is very regimented. She really held me to meter.”
The next task was finding an illustrator. Halper and Reyna settled on a woman who clearly understood the concept.
She lives in Mumbai. Fortunately, the internet shrinks the world. Unfortunately, the time difference made their collaboration less than instantaneous.
In July — just as the project neared its end — someone asked Halper if Rudolph was in the public domain. The world-famous reindeer was a central character in “Feliz Navidog.”
Turns out there are still 7 years left in Rudolph’s copyright. Turns out also though that Rudolph’s management is controlled by Character Arts. The company is based right next door in Wilton.
Aha! Halper thought. What an in!
He told them his tale. It was the middle of the pandemic; people were looking for a feel-good story. He added some personal details. How about licensing the rights to Rudolph?
Halper got “a categorial ‘no.'”
Christmas was coming (at least, in the book publishing world). What to do?
Fortunately, every other character in the book — Santa, Mrs. Claus, the 8 non-Rudolph reindeer — are all fair game.
Halper and Reya devised a new hook. They rewrote the book. The illustrator redid 10 of the book’s 40 pages. Just like Rudolph’s guided sleigh ride, everything worked out in the end.
Of course, it still was not easy. Normally a book like this would be printed overseas. But COVID complicated matters. Printing was done in the US — at a higher cost.
The hardcover version should be available any day. The paperback and e-book versions are live now, on Amazon.
Oh, yeah: The plot. It’s Christmas, and Pittsburgh is covered in a terrible fog. Even worse, the reindeer all get sick and can’t fly. When all hope seems lost, Feliz Navidog — Santa’s pet — raises his paw to help.
The book’s lesson is all about overcoming obstacles. The father-daughter author team sure did.
Here’s wishing them much success.
And, of course, Feliz Navidad.
(To order “Feliz Navidog: The Story of How Santa’s Pet Dog Saved Christmas — click here. To learn more, click here. Hat tip: Jerri Graham)
Every year, Westport’s Sunrise Rotary raises nearly $100,000 from 2 events: The Duck Race, and a wine tasting gala.
Eighty percent of the proceeds are donated to organizations that serve the health, hunger, safety and education needs of adults and children from Stamford to New Haven. The other 20% funds disease prevention, health, peace promotion, education and economic development across the globe.
COVID -19 forced the cancellation of both fundraisers.
To partially fill the gap — and provide safe, fun activities that may also attract new members — Sunrise members collaborated with the Remarkable Theater. They showed “School of Rock” on the Imperial Avenue parking lot screen. The famous yellow duck — and a duckling — were there, welcoming movie-goers.
More events are planned. To learn more about membership, email
firstname.lastname@example.org. To support charitable giving, send a check to
Westport Sunrise Rotary, PO Box 43, Westport, CT 06881-0043.
Nothing is wrong. The convertible’s driver adjusted its hydraulics, for a comfortable viewing spot at the Remarkable Drive-In.
As a Staples High School student, Dylan Diamond made frequent appearances on “06880.”
At 15, he built an app that allowed classmates to view their schedules and grades — then rolled it out nationally, with hundreds of thousands of downloads.
He followed up with apps that helped skiers find buddies on the slope, and let users book everything from babysitters and yardwork to concert tickets.
Now Inc. has taken notice. He and Wharton School classmate Max Baron have gone all-in on Saturn, a calendar app.
Inc. says “they are working to build community around the calendar in high schools, with a big vision fueling them: to own the time layer of the internet.”
To hear Inc.’s podcast — in which the two discuss “why retention is social, how living together has given the co-founders an ‘always on’ mindset, and what they learned from their early work experience at Tesla and Havas” — click here. (Hat tip: John Dodig)
Dylan Diamond, in San Francisco. While still a Staples High School student, he scored a coveted invitation to Facebook’s F8 conference.
How bad are the wildfires out west?
Peter Gold notes that Connecticut has 3.548 million acres. As of Saturday, over 3.2 million acres have burned in California this fire season alone. In addition, 900,000 acres burned in Oregon, and over 600,000 more in Washington.
“It’s hard to imagine an area almost one-and-a-half times the size of Connecticut burned in just 3 states,” he says.
Battling a blaze in California.
Jane Mansbridge is a professor of political leadership and values at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
A recent Harvard Gazette story traces her “jagged trajectory” from her youth in Weston, and years at Staples High School (Class of 1957) to her current role as one of the world’s leading scholars of democratic theory.
She loved growing up in a small town. But, she says, she was bullied in Weston and at Staples for being “bookish and a smart girl.”
Realizing that not everyone liked the kind of person she was, or the values she held may have contributed to her later drive to find out more about people who were not like her, she says.
Click here for the full story. (Hat tip: A. David Wunsch)
Jane Mansbridge (Photo/Stephanie Mitchell for Harvard staff)
The porgies are in! This was the scene yesterday, at Sherwood Island State Park. Of course, fishermen always observe social distance.
And finally … On this day in 1814, Francis Scott Key watched a British bombardment of Maryland during the War of 1812. Inspired by the sight of an American flag still flying at daybreak, he wrote a poem. “The Defence of Fort M’Henry” was later set to music. In 1931 “The Star-Spangled Banner” became our national anthem. One of the most famous versions was sung by our wonderful neighbor, Weston’s Jose Feliciano, before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series in Detroit. It was controversial at the time; no one had ever delivered such a non-traditional rendition.
His performance nearly ended his career. But 42 years later — in 2010 — he was invited back to Detroit, to perform it again. This time, the crowd roared.
It’s playing holiday music now though, so it’s on my pre-sets. I have this ridiculous false hope that one day I’ll hear an actual Christmas carol — Luciano Pavarotti belting out “O Holy Night,” say — instead of the squintillionth rendition of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
Yet last week, what to my wondering ears did appear but a yuletide song I had never heard before.
It was a Christmas miracle.
This was no longer background music, as I waited impatiently behind an idiot driver who did not know that since 1979, it has been legal in Connecticut to make a right turn on red. This time, I listened closely to the song.
The voice was familiar.
It was Jose Feliciano’s.
When the fresh, beautiful song ended, Danny Lyons said he had just played a “world premiere.”
I had to know more.
I called Jose at his Weston home. He was off on tour somewhere. Hey, this is prime Feliz Navidad season.
But his wonderful wife Susan was happy to tell me the fascinating back story.
It begins 50 years ago, when Rick Jarrard was a staff producer for RCA Records in Los Angeles. He convinced Jose to record “Light My Fire.”
Jose Feliciano and Rick Jarrard
The young singer/guitarist was dubious. It had been a hit for the Doors less than a year before. What could he add?
Plenty, it turned out. It reached #3 in the US, and #1 in the UK, Canada and Brazil.
The duo collaborated on 6 best-selling albums, including one in 1970 of Christmas songs. It was filled with classics like “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night.”
Rick asked Jose to write an original song too. He didn’t think he could.
But he’d just gotten a cuatro — a Puerto Rican stringed instrument. He thought back to his childhood on the island.
So — in the middle of July — Jose wrote “Feliz Navidad.” It’s become one of the best-selling Christmas songs of all time.
A few years ago, Rick wrote “On This Christmas Night.” Jose recorded it in his Weston studio. It’s beautiful, inspirational and sing-along-ish. But it was never released, so Rick just put it on Spotify.
He and Jose basically forgot about it.
Somehow though, the creators and producers of “Hamilton” found it.
And chose it — out of hundreds of contenders — to be their curtain call finale during this holiday season.
Soon, their interpretation will be released on a CD — with music from other Broadway, off-Broadway and traveling productions — called “Carols for a Cure, Volume 20” to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
When they heard the news last month, Jose and Susan were thrilled — not for themselves, but for their longtime friend and collaborator Rick. Susan said she cried for 3 days, with joy.
Then — just before Thanksgiving — Jose did a “Countdown to Christmas Music” promotion for WEBE 108. Susan told program director/midday DJ Danny Lyons how “On This Christmas Night” had dropped from the sky, into “Hamilton” and Equity’s AIDS benefit.
Danny listened to the song. He called it “providential.” His minister’s sermon had just noted that most Christmas songs today completely miss the meaning of Christmas.
Which is how Danny came to play “On This Christmas Night” that day last week. The fact that I heard it on its world radio premiere was — well, providential.
Danny told Jose he’d pass the song on to his programming colleagues around the country. Which means it may join “Feliz Navidad” as another great holiday contribution to the world, from our neighbor Jose Feliciano.
Of course — this being the holiday season — Jose is in great demand.
He’s playing all over the world this month: Palm Springs, New York, England, Vienna (with the Boys’ Choir) and the Vatican (for — of course! — the Pope’s Christmas program).
But Jose always has time for us. He returns home December 23. The next night, he offers his annual gift of music at Assumption Church’s Christmas Eve mass.
Feliz Navidad indeed. And muchas gracias, Jose Feliciano!
(Click here, then scroll down to hear “On This Christmas Night.” The Broadway Cares CD can be bought after shows. It will be available after Christmas on iTunes.)
2018 marks the 50th anniversary of many historic moments: the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. Student revolts at Columbia University, and in France. The tumultuous Democratic convention in Chicago. The election of Richard Nixon.
Less remembered, a bit less significant — but as long-lasting in its repercussions — was a rendition of the national anthem. Jose Feliciano — coming off his 1st American hit, a remake of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” — performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Game 5 of the World Series in Detroit.
The Puerto Rico-born guitarist — just 23 years old — infused the anthem with his trademark Latin jazz style.
No one had ever performed America’s anthem like that before. The country was used to straightforward, quick renditions of a very difficult song.
Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock performance was a year away. Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston, Lady Gaga — their memorable “Star-Spangled” performances, and those of so many others, were decades in the future.
All owe a debt to Jose Feliciano’s ground-breaking interpretation.
It did not go over well.
Last year — looking back at the controversy — the New York Times wrote:
Taking liberties with Jim Morrison is one thing. Taking liberties with Francis Scott Key proved more contentious.
Feliciano went on the field with his guide dog and an acoustic guitar. He was quite free with the song’s melody, giving it a slower folk tempo and adding extra syllables and different stresses. What resulted was an anthem that to today’s ears is mellow and expressive.
Many ears in 1968 heard it differently.
Boos were heard from the stands, but the real blowup came afterward.
“It was a disgrace, an insult,” a baseball fan, Arlene Raicevich of Detroit, told The Associated Press. “I’m going to write my senator about it.”
“It sounded like a hippie was singing it,” said another Detroiter, Bernie Gray.
For several years, Feliciano was blackballed. Last year, he told Deadspin:
Some people wanted me deported—as if you can be deported to Puerto Rico. All I know is, from 1968 until the 1970s, radio stations stopped playing my records. It wasn’t the fans—the fans were with me. But the program directors didn’t play my songs. I don’t think I deserved that.
He got back in America’s good graces with “Feliz Navidad” — one of the most popular Christmas tunes ever — and the theme song to “Chico and the Man.”
Now — finally — the longtime Weston resident gets his historical due.
This Thursday (June 14), Feliciano will be featured at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s annual naturalization and donation ceremony.
Roger Kaufman — a 1966 Staples High School graduate, Westonite and fellow musician, who helped arrange the event — says that the Smithsonian celebrates creative, open-minded, groundbreaking musicians who have become part of American history.
Friday is, of course, Flag Day. The ceremony takes place in Flag Hall — where the original banner that inspired Francis Scott Key’s 1814 song proudly hangs.
Just as proudly, Feliciano will deliver a keynote address. He’ll donate artifacts — including his custom 1967 guitar — to the national collection.
And then he will sing — as only he can — our national anthem.
BONUS FEATURE 1: Click here for a New York Times retrospective of Jose Feliciano’s World Series controversy. Click here for Marvin Gaye’s national anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star game. Click here for Whitney Houston’s rendition at Super Bowl XXV in 1991. Click here to hear Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969.
BONUS FEATURE 2: In 2010 — 42 years after Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell invited Jose Feliciano to perform the national anthem — the now-legendary musician returned to Detroit, in a tribute to Harwell who had died a few days earlier. One of the sportscaster’s last wishes was to have Feliciano sing again.
The “06880” tagline is “Where Westport meets the world.”
Turns out, 06880 — and 06883 — are where we meet the Christmas music world too.
The other day in Weston, Susan Feliciano was listening to Songcraft. The popular podcast features chats with the creators of America’s most popular music.
The most recent edition covered Christmas songs. Susan’s husband Jose was the first interview.
The best-selling guitarist/vocalist has been on a sold-out tour of the British Isles since October. So even though Susan knew the back story, it was nice to hear Jose’s voice as he talked about writing the joyful, jangly — and spectacularly successful — “Feliz Navidad” one day in July.
She kept listening.
The next interview was with Phil Springer. That’s when Susan learned something she never knew.
Springer is now 91. Way back in 1953 — more than 60 years ago — he was a Brill Building songwriter, writing for stars like Judy Garland.
His boss asked Springer to work with lyricist Joan Javits on a Christmas song for Eartha Kitt.
“She was the sexiest woman in America,” he told Songcraft.
Springer and Javits spent 2 weekends collaborating on the song — at her father’s Westport home. (Springer did not say who Javits’ father was. But her uncle was Jacob Javits, then a US congressman from New York, later a senator, and now the namesake of a large convention center.)
Their collaboration became what Springer calls “the first sexy Christmas song” (with lyrics like “Santa baby, Slip a sable under the tree, for me … Been an awful good girl … Hurry down the chimney tonight”).
Eartha Kitt’s recording became a huge hit in 1953 — but then disappeared. (Coincidentally, in later years she became a Weston neighbor of Jose and Susan Feliciano.)
“Santa Baby” resurfaced in 1987, when Madonna revived it. Since then it’s been featured in “Driving Miss Daisy,” and recorded by many other female singers.
Today, both “Feliz Navidad” and “Santa Baby” can be heard on every Christmas radio station — and just about every other place — in America.
Including — particularly proudly — Westport and Weston, their spiritual homes.
(Click here for the full Songcraft Christmas show podcast.)
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