After a recent health scare worried fans, we celebrate the birthday of the revitalized guitar icon
I’m really glad I’m not writing an obituary right now.
No doubt many people were concerned at the news of Carlos Santana’s recent onstage collapse at a show in Michigan, especially remembering he had heart surgery last November.
Luckily, word came out shortly afterwards that it was heat exhaustion and dehydration, not as serious as it could have been.
Santana, who turns 75 today, is currently due to make up the rescheduled dates in early August.
He’s remained active, releasing five albums in the last decade. That includes last year’s Blessings and Miracles, which revisits the guest star-heavy formula that first used with his 1999 comeback Supernatural.
Santana, well over 50 years into his career, remains one of the best guitarists to emerge from the rock era.
It’s been said that Santana is one of those players who could pick up any guitar, start playing, and the sound would be instantly recognizable as him playing to those who only heard it.
“Yeah, it’s not a boast or bragging. It’s a fact,” he told the Fort Myers News-Press last fall. “Once you feel musicians like Stevie Ray (Vaughan) or Jimi (Hendrix) or Eric (Clapton) or myself — certain musicians, from the first note, you know who they are, no matter what amplifier they’re playing and no matter what guitar they’re playing. Some people just have a signature sound vibration.”
Santana’s never been known as a deadpan player when it comes to facial expressions onstage, but even if he were, his solos are often what “guitar face” would sound like, especially when he hits a note and stays on it as if he’s trying to get every last bit of sound out of it. Where another guitarist might sound as if he’s strangling the life out of it, Santana sounds like he’s caressing that life.
“A lot of guys play a lot of notes, but they don’t know how to carry a melody,” Santana said in the 2011 BBC documentary The Santana Story: Angels and Demons. “I’m always interested in how you can carry a melody. Learn to feel your heart. Feel it. Feel it. And then learn to carry a melody.”
VIDEO: Santana performs “Oye Como Va” at the 1982 US Festival
His father, José, was a mariachi musician who taught Carlos to play the violin. The family moved from Autlán to Tijuana when Carlos was eight. There, he saw a talented local guitarist named Javier Bátiz, who moved from influence to mentor.
“He looked like Little Richard and played guitar like B.B. King,” Santana told the San Diego Times-Union in 2013. “There were a lot of other guitar-slingers from Tijuana with that sound, but when I heard him I knew I would be a musician for the rest of my life.”
The family eventually moved to San Francisco when Carlos was 15. He would continue to be influenced by the wide variety of musicians he heard on the radio and on record. While many of those early influences were blues, the young Santana had an appetite for more. That appetite that would drive the foundation of his sound, built over his first five years of recording.
And thus, the Carlos Santana Blues Band would become Santana. Two label people came to see them play — Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertegun and Columbia’s Clive Davis. Ertegun’s response — “Can’t play. Will never sell.” Oops.
Davis, on the other hand, liked the potential he saw and signed them.
The first core of the band was in place just before recording its self-titled debut– Santana bassist David Brown, keyboardist Gregg Rolie, drummer Michael Shrieve, and percussionists José “Chepito” Areas and Michael Carabello.
Promoter and manager Bill Graham gave them a boost in a couple of ways. First, he suggested the band start writing more conventional songs to go with its instrumental jams. Second, as manager of the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead, he got Santana a spot on the bill at Woodstock as a condition of booking the other two bands.
The band’s surprisingly timed set (having to go on earlier than expected with some members still high on mescaline or acid, depending on who tells the story) became one of the festival’s highlights, two weeks before the album’s release.
And what an album it was, suffused with Carlos’ influences– rock, blues, jazz and Latin music. Even though this particular lineup hadn’t been together long, they were already tight. It’s noticeable how Carlos serves the songs, waiting for his turn as the percussion and keyboard work drives much of the material. Think of the cover of “Evil Ways” (first done by Willie Bobo in 1967), the first hit. The solo in the middle is from Rolie on the organ. It’s not until the final minute when Santana delivers a searing solo on the outro.
And for all the jamming, they didn’t descend into self-indulgent wankery. The propulsive “Jingo” packs a lot into its 4:20 runtime. And the longest track, closer “Soul Sacrifice” is an album highlight just as it was live at Woodstock. Santana and Rolie play with and off each other wonderfully as Shrieve, Carabello and Arias drive the whole thing.
The second album, 1970’s Abraxas, improved on the original. Its two hits showcased the diversity of Santana’s musical approach. “Oye Como Va” was a cover of a 1963 Tito Puente mambo track that itself lifted liberally from the 1957 song “Chanchullo” by Cuban Israel “Cachao” Lopez. In addition to showing good musical taste in choice of covers, Santana shows off his mastery of tone and feel, in both the licks and the solos.
“Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen” combined songs from Fleetwood Mac (then still a blues band) and Hungarian guitarist Gábor Szabó, who Santana credited as being an influence in taking him beyond the blues.
It started one day when a friend introduced him to Chico Hamilton’s El Chico album, which featured Szabó on guitar.
“That was one of the most important days in my life because it actually took me out of B. B. King’s galaxy. I started realizing there is another way to play. I had never heard anybody play the guitar with just congas and timbales and bass, and this was like, ‘Oh My God! This is different,'” Santana told the Irish Times in 2002.
As with the debut, the instrumentals hold their own — “Samba pa ti” is more low key, written by Santana after seeing a street musician outside an NYC apartment. Watching the man, drunk, trying to choose between his bottle or his saxophone, Santana had the song come to him.
“Incident at Neshabur” is a one-song sampler platter, beginning with percussive jazz rhythms with strong riffs before slowing things down considerably in the last two minutes, as if it was last call with the lights going up.
The band expanded when 16-year-old Neal Schon came on board as a second guitarist. Areas was out for a time after a brain aneurysm, leading to Coke Escovedo being brought in as a temporary replacement. Areas recovered quickly, so 1971’s Santana III features them both.
It might not have the hit singles the first two albums have, but it’s every bit their equal as a complete work.
“Nobody to Depend On” certainly lifts enough from Willie Bobo’s 1965 song “Spanish Grease” that Bobo and co-writer Melvin Lastie deserved songwriting credit along with Rolie, Carabello and Escovedo. As they did with “Oye Como Va”, Santana turns it into rock fusion, with both Santana and Schon getting stellar solo turns.
“Everybody’s Everything” adds horns to the joyous mix. “Toussaint L’Overture” is one of their best jams (and one of Rolie’s best showcases) and “Jungle Strut” is right up there, showing off the Santana/Schon tandem. “Batuka” is funkier and full of searing guitar.
VIDEO: Santana performs “Jungle Strut” on Beat Club 1971
The album would, sadly, be it for that core lineup of Santana for a long time. There had been issues with drugs and egos. Santana himself was asserting more control of the band with his name on it, wanting to go more in the direction of jazz fusion.
Brown and Carabello left in 1971. Rolie and Schon departed the following year. By the end of 1973, the latter pair had formed Journey, a band seemingly destined to be a footnote in rock history until they crossed paths with a singer named Steve Perry four years later.
1972’s Caravanserai was the first product of Santana’s embrace of the new direction. Needless to say, the likes of Rolie weren’t the only ones not impressed.
“Clive Davis came into the studio and said, ‘You’re committing career suicide. This will be just terrible,'” Shrieve said in Angels and Demons.
“I have heard ‘career suicide’ about seven times in my life. And I went right for it. You know, ‘Doing this would be career suicide.’ I’m like, ‘Mmm. Sounds interesting. I’ll try it!, you know?,” Santana said with a laugh.
The album may not have had any hits, but it’s another artistic triumph. Even with new players, like keyboardist Tom Coster, working their way in, the band still sounds tight (Shrieve still being on board didn’t hurt). And Santana himself sounds positively inspired.
He also did on his next album — Love, Devotion and Surrender — a team-up with guitarist John McLaughlin, featuring members of their respective bands. Intended as spiritual (Santana and McLaughlin were both devotees of Indian spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy at the time), it works as an even deeper dive into the fusion waters. Even playing against each other on a cover of “A Love Supreme”, one can pick out Santana’s feel against McLaughlin’s more technical style. Even with two respected guitarists, it should be noted that Khalid Yasin is the album’s not-so-secret weapon on piano and organ.
The next decade was basically the tale of two Santanas. First, he continued in the jazz fusion vein on albums like Borboletta and Amigos before switching to slicker, more mainstream album-oriented rock with albums like Inner Secrets, Marathon and Zebop!. The latter were more accessible, but the tradeoff was that, as a whole, they were less interesting.
The hits dried up, but Santana was capable of producing really good and interesting work at times, like 1987’s solo effort Blues For Salvador (even with its dated production).
VIDEO: Santana performs “Blues For Salvador” 1988
Santana spent the bulk of the ’90s touring with no new material, he eventually began talking to Davis at Arista, the label he left Columbia to found in 1974.
Having been in a commercial slump for a long time, Santana was eager for success through a more contemporary pop sound. Davis was eager to push him that way. And thus, Supernatural included collaborations with the likes of Lauryn Hill and Dave Matthews. However, the collab that took off would be with Matchbox 20’s Rob Thomas — a catchy pop-oriented reworking of the Latin cover formula (though it was an original) with some tasty soloing called “Smooth.”
The song became quite literally inescapable. So inescapable. A summer jam turned “Song blasted at top volume to end a standoff/hostage” inescapable.
Still, it was hard to begrudge Santana, considering he pulled off having a song spend 12 weeks at No. 1 while in his 50s. Look at it this way. When “Evil Ways” peaked at No. 9 on the U.S. singles charts in March, 1970, the Top 10 included the likes of the Hollies, the Beatles and John Lennon solo with Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in the fourth week of a six-week run at the top. When “Smooth” reached No. 1 in October, 1999, it was joined by the likes of Mariah Carey (featuring Jay-Z), N*Sync, TLC, Whitney Houston and, yes, Lou Bega.
VIDEO: Santana feat. Rob Thomas “Smooth”
Three months after “Smooth” dropped from the top, “Maria Maria” with the Product G&B knocked Destiny’s Child “Say My Name” from that spot. It would spend ten weeks of its own there.
If the album suffered from being so laden with guest stars, it also had enough highlights to be a worthy comeback. Its success ensured the formula would be repeated with 2002’s overstuffed Shaman, which included another hit in “The Game of Love” with Michelle Branch with appearances from the likes of Seal, Dido, Placido Domingo and, er, um, Chad Kroeger elsewhere.
The formula was trotted out less successfully on 2005’s All That I Am before he tried to do a classic rock covers record — 2010’s Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time. The latter was lacking in execution and full of questionable choices. Was anybody thinking, “Ooh. I would love to hear Van Halen sung by the dude from Train?” And in the rare event they were, the odds are they weren’t also thinking, “Oh, wow. Scott Stapp doing a watered-down neutering of ‘Fortunate Son’? Sign me up!”
Santana thankfully dropped that formula for most of the last 10 years, which included 2019’s Africa Speaks, his best album in many years.
There was even a reunion with most of the surviving peak period members — Carabello, Rolie, Schon and Shrieve — for 2016’s Santana IV. The chemistry between them was still intact and there were enough moments to make the reunion well worth it, although the album needed to be trimmed. At 75 minutes, it’s longer than Santana and Abraxas combined.
Even the return to the guest star well that is Blessings and Miracles feels freer. At this point, it’s not as if he has Davis pushing to turn him into a 70-something would-be pop star trying to bump the likes of Lil Nas X, Adele and Taylor Swift from the top (although I can’t lie, a Lil Nas X/Santana song could be interesting).
Santana’s concerns have extended beyond music. Part of what led to issues, band and otherwise, in Santana’s life was unresolved trauma from when he was molested repeatedly over a period of 18 months when living in Tijuana. He didn’t speak publicly about it until a Rolling Stone interview in 2000.
His desire to make things better for children led to the 1998 establishment of the Milagro Foundation, which works to fund organizations to help children in areas lacking resources in the areas of arts, health and education.
And lest one view the period of the guest star albums as a cash grab, Santana, in the summer of 2003, announced that all the proceeds from his summer tour for Shaman would go to Artists for a New South Africa to fight AIDS. In all, the 23-city tour raised $2.5 million, which was used to establish the Amandla AIDS Fund, which was set up to give grants to organizations providing frontline AIDS services in South Africa.
As he recovers, the reality is that Carlos Santana wouldn’t have to play another note. He has a secure legacy as a musician and person.
But Santana, as long as he can, will still keep playing.
As he said in Angels and Demons, “There’s a deeper purpose than selling records. To me, it is all about utilizing music to ignite people and assault the senses — to give people a remembrance that all of us are angels who didn’t necessarily trade in our wings for feet.”
Thankfully, he won’t be needing those new wings just yet.