Carlos Santana: Pioneer of Latin Rock

Carlos Santana Biography
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Carlos Santana. Image by ian, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Carlos Santana is a Mexican-American guitarist, songwriter, and musician, who is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential guitarists of all time.

Santana is a pioneer of Latin American Jazz and Latin Rock. Over the course of his musical career, he has created melodic, blues-based, and jazz-influenced music set against African and Latin American rhythms played on percussion instruments that are not usually heard in rock, such as congas and timbales.

Early Life

Carlos Santana was born in Autlan, Jalisco, Mexico, on 20th July 1947.

From an early age, Santana became interested in music. At the age of 5, he began learning to play the violin. And at the age of 8, he had begun learning to play the guitar under the tutelage of his father, who was a mariachi musician.

Santana had a younger brother, Guillermo Jorge Santana, who would also become a professional guitarist.

From the moment he began learning the guitar, Santana was influenced by blues musicians such as John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Mike Bloomfield, Javier Batiz, and T-Bone Walker. He was also deeply influenced by Ritchie Valens.

Early Gigs

When the Santana family moved from Autlan to Tijuana, on the border with America, Carlos Santana joined local bands along the Tijuana Strip.

It was while performing with these bands that he first began to develop his own style and sound, and gained the confidence and experience of playing in front of an audience.

Moving to San Francisco

The Santana family eventually moved to San Francisco, California, where Santana’s father found some steady work.

Living in San Francisco, Carlos Santana witnessed and experienced the growing hippie movement. Here he was introduced to a variety of musical influences such as jazz, folk, rock, blues, R&B, etc.

During this period, Santana encountered the music of Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente, Sly Stone, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis. All of them had a huge impact on him, especially Hendrix.

Santana would later describe this experience as being in a university, where he got to absorb and learn from all those great musicians, gradually forming his own style.

Getting Discovered

After spending a few years working as a dishwasher and busking on the streets of San Francisco, Carlos Santana finally decided to become a full-time musician.

In 1966, Santana, aged 19, was chosen as one of the guitarists for an ad hoc band to substitute for an intoxicated Paul Butterfield, who was scheduled to play a Sunday matinee at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco.

During the performance, Santana’s guitar playing caught the attention of Bill Graham (who was the concert’s promoter) and the audience. They were all impressed by the young guitarist.

Santana Blues Band

In October 1966, Carlos Santana, along with fellow street musicians Gregg Rolie, David Brown, Rod Harper, and Marcus Malone, formed the Santana Blues Band.

They played a blend of Latin-infused rock, salsa, jazz, blues, and African and Latin American beats and rhythms, which quickly gained them a following in the San Francisco club circuit.

The band consisted of five members, with Santana on lead guitar, Rod Harper on drums, David Brown on bass, Marcus Malone on percussion, and Gregg Rolie on lead vocals and organ.

They gave their first audition at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco, in the summer of 1967. After their audition, concert promoter Chet Helms told them that they could never become successful playing Latin-infused rock. He even went as far as to suggest that Santana keep his day job as a dishwasher.

Breakthrough

By early 1969, Santana Blues Band was signed by Columbia Records. And Bill Graham became their manager.

By this point, Marcus Malone had left the band, as he had been convicted of involuntary manslaughter and had begun serving his sentence in San Quentin State Prison.

Michael Carabello replaced Malone and also brought in Nicaraguan percussionist Jose Chepito Areas.

In May 1969, the band began recording for their debut album at Pacific Recording Studios in San Mateo, California.

Woodstock Performance

In August 1969, Bill Graham arranged for the band to perform at the Woodstock Music Festival in order to promote their upcoming debut album.

On 16th August 1969, the band performed a 45-minute set, which turned out to be one of the surprises of the festival. The performance included an 11-minute energetic and throbbing instrumental called Soul Sacrifice.

The performance was included in the Woodstock film and soundtrack album as well, both of which served to increase the band’s popularity and introduced them to an international audience.

Debut Album

On 30th August 1969, the band released its first studio album titled Santana.

Over half of the album’s length is composed of instrumental rock music. But after manager Bill Graham suggested that they write more conventional songs for better commercial success, they came up with their first two singles, Jingo and Evil Ways.

The overall album managed to retain the essence of improvised music as if it were free-form jamming.

Due to their popular Woodstock performance, the album became a major release. It was critically and commercially successful and went on to spend more than 108 weeks on the Billboard 200 pop album chart, peaking at No. 4.

The album also reached No. 26 on the UK album chart.

Their single, Evil Ways, was a US Top 10 hit, peaking at No. 9 and spending 13 weeks on the chart.

Trouble in the Band

The success of the band’s Woodstock performance and debut album suddenly put a lot of pressure on the band.

The acclaim coming their way was instant and unexpected. It had thrown them into the spotlight.

Carlos Santana and Gregg Rolie were beginning to go in different musical directions. Santana wanted to move beyond just blues and rock. He wanted to experiment and create more jazzy music with ethereal elements. As Santana grew more and more spiritual, he wished to reflect that aspect of his life in his music too.

On the other hand, Rolie and some other band members wanted to continue emphasizing a hard-rock sound, which had been a key element in establishing the band from the start.

Around this time, Chepito Areas suffered from a near-fatal brain hemorrhage. Santana wanted to find a replacement for Chepito and continue performing. But the other members, especially Michael Carabello, were against the idea.

The band was slowly beginning to disintegrate.

Abraxas

On 23rd September 1970, the band released their second studio album titled Abraxas.

The title was taken from a line in Hermann Hesse’s book, Demian.

The album includes some of the best-known songs of the band, such as Black Magic Woman, Oye Como Va, and Samba Pa Ti.

Carlos Santana, who was an admirer of Fleetwood Mac’s songwriter Peter Green, decided to cover the band’s song Black Magic Woman. The group also added to the song a cover of Gabor Szabo’s instrumental Gypsy Queen.

The band then covered Tito Puente’s 1962 song, Oye Como Va, which was regularly played during live performances. The song achieved worldwide popularity after the album was released.

Samba Pa Ti was an instrumental written by Santana after he heard a jazz saxophonist performing in the street outside his apartment.

The album was a mix of blues, rock, salsa, jazz, and other musical influences. It was critically and commercially successful, peaking at No. 1 in the Billboard chart, where it spent 6 weeks.

The album remained on the chart for 88 weeks in total.

Over the years, it has been regarded as one of the best and most important Latin rock albums of all time.

Internal Conflicts

The members of the band continued to have musical differences amongst each other. Tensions continued to grow over the band’s musical direction.

Coke Escovedo encouraged Carlos Santana to take more control of the band’s musical direction, much to the chagrin of some other members who were against the idea of one person taking control, as they believed it was a collective effort.

Another major issue was the excessive use of drugs in the band, which worried Santana, as he thought it was affecting the band’s performance.

The band was also going through some financial problems during this time.

Shortly thereafter, Michael Carabello left the band due to differences with Santana.

Caravanserai – Change in Musical Direction

On 11th October 1972, the band released its fourth studio album titled Caravanserai.

For the recording of the album, many new members were brought in. Percussionists Armando Peraza and James Mingo Lewis replaced Michael Carabello. And bassists Dough Rauch and Tom Rutley replaced David Brown. Tom Carter and Wendy Haas came in as keyboardists.

Looking at the influx of new players, Neal Schon and Gregg Rolie decided to quit the band after completing the recording of the album.

The album marked a clear change in musical direction toward complex jazz-fusion instrumental pieces, influenced by Carlos Santana.

Santana deliberately intended to move away from the popular rock-salsa-jazz fusion sound of the band’s earlier albums toward a more experimental and contemplative jazz sound.

When the president of Columbia Records, Clive Davis, first heard the finished album, he warned the band that they were committing career suicide and sabotaging their position as a Top 40 act.

Upon its release, the album went on to reach No. 8 on the Billboard 200 chart and No. 6 on the R&B Albums chart.

Even though it was considered a critical and artistic success, it was not commercially successful.

This album would mark the start of the decline in Santana’s commercial popularity.

Spirituality

During the year 1972, Carlos Santana became interested in the pioneering jazz fusion band Mahavishnu Orchestra, led by English guitarist John McLaughlin.

Mclaughlin was aware of Santana’s growing interest in spirituality and meditation, and so he introduced Santana and his wife Deborah to the Indian spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy, who taught meditation in the US.

Sri Chinmoy accepted Santana and Deborah as disciples. He also gave Santana the name Devadip, which meant The lamp, light, and eye of God.

Santana and Deborah began living their lives according to the principles and rules laid down by Sri Chinmoy.

Collaborations

During this period, Carlos Santana undertook several collaborations with other musicians.

In 1973, Santana and Mclaughlin recorded an album together titled Love, Devotion, Surrender, along with the members of the Santana group and the Mclaughlin Orchestra.

In 1974, Santana collaborated with John Coltrane’s widow, Alice Coltrane, for his first solo album titled Illuminations. The album consisted of avant-garde esoteric free jazz along with Eastern Indian and other classical influences.

Decline in Sales

By now, Bill Graham’s management company had assumed full responsibility for the affairs of the band.

Graham warned Carlos Santana that the band needed to concentrate on getting back into the charts with the old sound and style that had made them famous. He was critical of Santana’s move toward jazz instrumental pieces.

Santana saw that Graham was right. Many early admirers of the band had turned away from their music, resulting in a drastic decline in sales.

The band decided to change its musical direction once again.

Amigos

On 26th March 1976, the band released their seventh studio album, once again changing their lineup as well as their musical direction.

The album had a strong funk and Latin sound, and it enjoyed considerable airplay on FM album-oriented rock stations with the instrumental piece Europa and the minor hit single Let it Shine.

In Europe, Europa became a top 10 hit in many countries.

It was the band’s first album to enter the Top 10 on the Billboard charts since Caravanserai in 1972.

Solo Projects

In March 1979, Carlos Santana released his second solo album titled Oneness: Silver Dreams-Golden Reality.

The album was released under Santana’s temporary Sanskrit name Devadip and contains mostly ballads and instrumental pieces.

In August 1980, Santana released his third solo album titled The Swing of Delight. This too was released under the name Devadip.

The album features jazz drummer Tony Williams, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, double bassist Ron Carter, and keyboardist Herbie Hancock.

Split from Sri Chinmoy

By the early 1980s, Carlos Santana was running into conflict with Sri Chinmoy’s teachings and rules which were imposed upon him in order to lead a spiritual life.

Santana had become disillusioned with the requirements and demands he was subjected to by Sri Chinmoy, as they imposed stress upon his marriage and lifestyle as a world-famous rock musician.

He began to feel that Sri Chinmoy’s rules were unreasonable and restricting, especially regarding Sri Chinmoy’s refusal to permit him and Deborah to start a family.

Santana also felt that Sri Chinmoy was using Santana’s fame to gain more visibility and attention.

In 1982, Santana and Deborah finally ended their relationship with Sri Chinmoy.

Further Collaborations

After splitting from Sri Chinmoy, Carlos Santana began recording his next solo album with R&B producers Jerry Wexler and Keith Olso.

The album, Havana Moon, was released on 1st April 1983.

It features covers of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley songs, and guest performances by Willie Nelson, Booker T & the MGs, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, and Santana’s father’s mariachi orchestra.

During the 1980s, Santana grew tired of trying to churn out commercial hits to appease record company executives. And so he began collaborating and jamming on a regular basis, making several guest appearances with other musicians, such as John Lee Hooker, jazz pianist McCoy Tyner, Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, African singer-songwriter Salif Keita, and the jazz fusion group Weather Report.

Santana also recorded and performed with Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji and Micky Hart of the Grateful Dead.

On 1st October 1987, Santana released his next solo album titled Blues for Salvador, which was dedicated to his son Salvador. The album won him the 1989 Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, his first Grammy.

In 1988, Santana formed an all-instrumental group featuring saxophonist Wayne Shorter, jazz pianist Patrice Rushen, Jazz bassist Alphonso Johnson, percussionists Chepito Areas and Armando Peraza, and drummer Leon ‘Ndugu’ Chancler.

The band toured briefly, receiving much acclaim and praise from the music press.

The Difficult 90s

In the early 1990s, Carlos Santana came out with a string of new albums, Spirits Dancing in the Flesh (1990), Milago (1992), Sacred Fire (1993), and Brothers (1994), a collaboration with his brother Jorge and nephew Carlos Hernandez.

But all these albums were commercial failures, recording poor sales.

Over the next few years, Santana toured extensively around the world but released no new album. Soon, he and the band were without a recording contract.

Resurrection with Supernatural

In 1999, Arista Records’ Clive Davis, who had worked with the band at Columbia Records, signed them.

Santana and Davis collaborated with A&R man Pete Ganbarg, as Santana decided to focus on commercial pop and radio-friendly music.

For the album, they collaborated with contemporary guest artists such as Rob Thomas, Eric Clapton, Dave Mathews, Lauryn Hill, Mana, CeeLo Green, KC Porter, and Eagle-Eye Cherry.

The album, Supernatural, was released on 15th June 1999 and was an instant worldwide commercial success. It reached the No. 1 spot in eleven countries, including the US.

The album’s first single, Smooth, featuring Rob Thomas, was a No. 1 success worldwide and spent 12 weeks on the No. 1 spot in the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

The next single, Maria Maria, featuring R&B duo The Product G&B, was No. 1 in the US for 10 weeks.

The album sold an estimated 30 million copies worldwide and won 8 Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year and Best Rock Album. Santana broke the record held by Michael Jackson for the most awards in one night.

Santana also won 3 Latin Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year.

The album became Santana’s most successful album ever, generating renewed interest in his music.

Ongoing Legacy

Carlos Santana is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential guitarists of all time.

In 1998, Santana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In 2002, he was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame.

In 2003, he stood 15th in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

In 2004, he was honored as the Person of the Year by the Latin Recording Academy.

And in 2005, Santana was honored as a BMI Icon at the 12th annual BMI Latin Awards for his unique and indelible influence on generations of music makers.

Santana continues to record, tour, and collaborate with other musicians to this very day, thereby cementing his legacy for generations to come.

Santana is truly an icon in the world of music and we hope he continues to create music for many more years to come.