In this era of instant social media notoriety there are words, phrases, acronyms and numbers published daily that attempt to convey coolness. Sadly, the days of legit and larger-than-life artists like Elvis, Bowie, Sinatra and the Rat Pack are long gone. Only a handful of artists or bands command that kind of respect and credibility just by mentioning their name. In 2017, there’s a name that still draws this response—Carlos Santana.
Hands down, Santana is one of the most influential bands still around. The band was formed by the legendary guitarist in 1966 . Living legend, that’s a title used loosely these days. The way it’s thrown about doesn’t always capture the true essence of the meaning. However, in this case, Santana personifies the word and has become an inspiration for Latino’s, musicians and music lovers worldwide. Santana, like all of us, drew his musical inspiration from some of our favorite artists. He was into music of greats like B.B. King, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Hendrix. While we idolize these cats, Santana was hanging out with some of them.
In his autobiography, The Universal Tone, he opened up about those challenges, addiction and the disconnect he felt from his music as a result. Put aside the music, it’s that brutal honesty in this book that captures our interest, and earns our respect. Even with the ups and downs of life, Santana remains an optimist and a spiritual person; he still listens to his inner voice. What’s notable about his book is that he dedicated it to his mother. He’s said that he believes she probably prayed for him more than anyone to keep him from getting lost, and he wanted her to know her prayers worked. He’s also grateful to her for instilling a "will for excellence" early in his life. This is a touching tribute, but it’s not a Hispanic thing, it’s a Mom thing… and it’s a tribute we can all relate to. The takeaway from this is life occasionally makes you take a fall so you can figure out who you are.
It’s also true that his spiritual side has influenced his music. Santana was a disciple of guru, Sri Chinmoy, where he was given the name Devadip. The name in itself has deep meaning; it describes the name holder as being "The lamp, light and eye of God." Bottom line, his signature sound stands on its own, it’s at a level of success that many try to copy. His story proves there’s nothing more American than success. Success is funny; things are only impossible until someone does it. How you measure it differs for everyone. Simply getting through the daily grind of life is success for some of us. For Santana, he puts his milestones in perspective, and he does it in the simplest terms. Spiritually, emotionally and financially, he credits his first wife, Deborah, for being a guiding light in those early days. He also gives props to Arista Records, president, Clive Davis. At a time when other record companies were suggesting Santana was too old, Davis signed him nonetheless. Time-after-time, Santana has gone on the record saying he feels a need to honor the people who stuck their neck out for him over the years. Honesty is as simple as it gets, and a true measurement of who we are.
It’s hard to imagine what life was like for some of our heroes. We put them on a pedestal and ignore the fact they’re just people, and have lived similar lives to you and me. Some have proven to be jerks and delusional. Then again, many of them are not. Just because they sell tons of records, doesn’t mean they don’t relate to us, or haven’t walked in our shoes. Santana is that guy… he’s lived a life that many minorities experience. A life that includes daily put downs, or being taken advantage of for the color of their skin. His life has also been well chronicled as a sexual abuse survivor. In an NPR interview Santana said, “You grow up with a lot of guilt. You grow up with a lot of shame, and a lot of anger. However, the main thing that I learned from this is that I am not what happened to me. I am still with purity and innocence. No one can take that away from me.” That’s honesty you just can’t fake, and a testament to the human condition that we all get in one way or another.
To understand his appeal, we need to go back to the beginning. Ask those who know him best, they’ll tell you he is a very humble guy. He was born in a small village in Jalisco, Mexico. At 5, he learned to play the violin, then the guitar. As a kid, he was inspired by Chicano rocker, Ritchie Valens. It’s also true Santana loves all genres, but Blues was his first love. At age 11, he began his professional career, he played night clubs in Tijuana. He continued to work on his craft and in 1966, formed the Santana Blues Band. The band first landed on the map in ‘69 by appearing at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival. At a time when Zeppelin and the Beatles reigned supreme, Santana went from relative obscurity to international sensation overnight.
The Woodstock gig enhanced their name recognition. So-much-so, it helped launch the release of their self-entitled seminal eponymous album. The album was so successful, they followed up with releases of Abraxas and Santana III. They have so many great songs, it’s difficult to list them all. No matter if a song has a sound that was meant for all fans, or specifically for Latino’s, their music speaks to us. The international community fell in love with their 1970 Peter Green cover of "Black Magic Woman" (#4 on US Charts) and their 1971 Tito Puente cover of "Oye Como Va" (# 13 on Billboard). In 1981, Santana released their platinum-selling album, Zebop! A song off that album was a cover of Russ Ballard’s single, "Winning." That song played very well with the rock-oriented crowd. It was official, everyone on the planet now knew this band. Consequently, Santana was being associated with greats like Hendrix and Jeff Beck for his guitar chops.
Like most bands, there were lineup changes. Despite that, they kept putting out album after album. Some of them were critically acclaimed and captured our interest. There was Welcome, which was more of a jazz-fusion album. There’s also Borboletta, Amigos, Festivál, Moonflower, Inner Secrets, Marathon, Shangó and in ‘85 there was Beyond Appearances. Although, that album fell short of expectations. Their following three releases, also missed the target. Despite being victims of their own success, the band continued to play, and play they did. Their performances are so sonically outstanding, you have to look towards icons like Earth, Wind & Fire to best draw a comparison as to how great this band is live. Even with all the accolades, the biggest honor had yet to be bestowed. As a personal highlight, Santana received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in ‘97. The next year, Santana was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Supernatural was next; this album was a juggernaut. It maintained a Latin, Blues and Rock feel, yet had other influences. Alt-Rock, Pop Rock and R&B rounded out the sound. Supernatural debuted at # 19 on Billboard. It eventually topped the US charts. A good reason was the collaborations... the lead single, Smooth, featured Matchbox Twenty crooner, Rob Thomas. That song exploded and is still heard on radio today! The other # 1 was Maria Maria; it featured the Product G&B. There’s also Put Your Lights On, it featured Alt-Rock/Rappers, Everlast. The album also had appearances by Eric Clapton, Eagle-Eye Cherry, Lauryn Hill, Dave Matthews, and CeeLo.
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How cool is this band? They have 9 Grammy’s, 3 Latin Grammy’s, don’t forget Album of the Year for Supernatural. Santana also won a solo artist Grammy in ‘88. What’s eye popping is that the band has sold over 100 million records worldwide, which makes them one of the world's best-selling groups of all time. In 2003, Santana received the dubious distinction of being recognized by Rolling Stone magazine as # 20 on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Seriously, the list of awards just goes on and on.
Life is good for Santana. In 2010 he got re-married, to Cindy Blackman who is also an accomplished artist. SANTANA IV was released in April 2016, and their fans couldn’t be happier. Their sound is just as dynamic today as it was at Woodstock. Today, Santana is comprised of Santana Santana (lead guitar, vocals), Tony Lindsay (vocals), Ray Greene (vocals), Andy Vargas (vocals), Tommy Anthony (rhythm guitar, vocals),Benny Rietveld (bass), Karl Perazzo (percussion), Paoli Mejías (percussion), Bill Ortiz (trumpet), Jeff Cressman (trombone), David K. Mathews (keys), and Cindy Blackman Santana (drums). Any night, at any show, you can hear some of their other hits, like Jingo, Evil Ways, Stormy, Victory is Won, Open Invitation, Hold On, Everybody’s Everything, Moon Flower, Revelation, Guajira, Samba pa’ti, and Europa.
Alt-Rock, Blues and Latin-influenced music equates to a great night of entertainment. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that one of our heroes just might be just like any one of us. It’s been awhile since Santana played those Tijuana night clubs, but he still loves playing for us, that has not changed. If you believe that the quality of music is more important than the number of followers a band has on their Twitter or IG accounts, then Santana just might be for you. These cats are currently on tour; you can catch them locally at the House of Blues, Anaheim on Monday, September, 11th. Get out and see them, so you can witness history and not just read about it.
Santana performs at the House of Blues Anaheim on Monday, September 11. For tickets and full info, click here.