My first introduction to Santana was hearing about their performance on the Woodstock stage. Within days of the festival their self-titled album Santana released to an hungry public. One hit from the album, Evil Woman, climbed into the top ten, but it was the last song on side 2 that caught my ear – Soul Sacrifice.
When Santana released I was still a teenager and thirsting for the shifting musical sounds coming from San Francisco, ground zero for the Summer of Love. At 16 years-old sitting in front of the TV watching the gathering in upstate New York that August of ’69, I knew I had to be a part of it somehow. I was but I was relegated to status of consumer. I would’ve been one hell of a drummer.
The drums is what sucked me into Soul Sacrifice in the first place. When Santana took the Woodstock stage and lit into their electrifying extended version of the instrumental, 19 year-old drummer Michael Shrieve officially became the youngest performer of the weekend. Those nine minutes are considered one of the great single instrumental performances in rock history. (See below)
The Woodstock era lineup included:
– Carlos Santana, lead guitar
– Mike Carabello, percussion
– David Brown, bass guitar
– Michael Schrieve, drums
This core group stayed intact across three studio albums, Santana (1969), Abraxas (1970), and Santana III(1971). By the time the shifting lineups stabilized enough for the group to get back into the studio, the early synergy was in freefall and the music mix of Caravanseri, Santana’s fourth album was a distinct diversion from the fusion of salsa, rock, and jazz the public expected. For this releases Santana concentrated on jazz-like instrumental passages. All but three tracks were instrumentals, and consequently the album yielded no hit singles. Still, Caravanseri peaked at #8 on the Billboard album chart.
By the time Welcome, their fifth studio release hit the stores in late ’73, the Santana sound was all but unplugged from the public ear. The release continued down the jazz fusion path with another different mix musicians in the lineup. The opening track, Going Home, featured John Coltrane‘s widow, Alice, as a pianist, and Flora Purim (the wife of Airto Moreira) on vocals. The release could only muster a disappointing #25 in the charts. Guitar fame was fading for the brilliant Carlos Santana.
Between 1974 and 1992, Santana would release another 12 recordings, never to achieve anything close to their earlier success. The last four albums didn’t break into the top 50 or achieve Gold status. Milagro, their last album before a long recording hiatus, never broke the top 100, falling just short at 102.
Many people inside and outside the music business wrote Carlos Santana off as a has-been.
Boy did he prove them wrong.
In what may be the greatest comeback release of all time, seven years after the disappointing Milagro, Carlos Santana released Supernatural.
Launched like the space shuttle in 1999 it was their seventeenth album. It went 15 times platinum in the US and won nine Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. Supernatural also claimed three Latin Grammy Awards including Record of the Year. This album was numero-uno around the globe and solidified Santana’s place in music history.
Supernatural debuted at number nineteen on the Billboard 200 on July 3, 1999 but topped (after 18 weeks) the chart on October 30, 1999 and stayed there for 12 non-consecutive weeks. It included the hit single “Smooth“, which featured Matchbox Twenty singer Rob Thomas on vocals, and was number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for 12 weeks.
The follow-up single, “Maria Maria” (which featured The Product G&B), was number one on the same chart for 10 weeks. Santana and Rob Thomas won three Grammys for their collaboration on the song “Smooth” while Santana and Everlast won another for the song “Put Your Lights On“. Santana also won a Grammy for “Maria Maria”.
For a guy like Carlos Santana to travel the up and down journey between Soul Sacrifice on the Woodstock stage to the phenomenal success of Supernatural, I can say with absolute confidence it was always about the music. He spoke with the strings of his guitar in the language of his Latin heart.
Frankly, I think we are all better for it.