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Music Memories: Happy Birthday, Carlos Santana!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Mexican-American musician, Carlos Santana

Carlos Santana was born on July 20, 1947. Santana is a guitarist whose band, also called Santana, plays a mix of blues, rock, and Latin jazz.

To avoid confusion between Santana the musician, and Santana the band, we’re going to take the liberty of being a bit less formal than usual, and from here on out refer to the guitarist as “Carlos” and his band as “Santana.”

Carlos was born in Mexico, where his father was a successful mariachi musician. From his father, Carlos began learning the violin at the age of 5 and the guitar at 8. He much preferred the guitar. He has said that his early influences included blues guitarists B.B. King and John Lee Hooker, and his father’s mariachi band.

The Santana family moved to San Francisco while Carlos was still a child. After graduating high school, he founded the Santana Blues Band, which quickly became popular in San Francisco clubs. Carlos began to be influenced by other rock guitarists of the era, Jimi Hendrix in particular, and by what was then called the “Gypsy” music of Hungarian guitarist Gabór Szabó.

The Santana Blues Band signed with Columbia Records, which shortened the group’s name to Santana. They began recording their first album in January 1969. They weren’t happy with the early results, which led to some membership changes, a recurring theme in the history of Santana. More than 50 musicians were officially part of the band for at least one album, and another dozen toured regularly with the band during gaps between recording projects.

In August of 1969, Santana was one of the surprise hits of the Woodstock festival. When their first album, Santana, was released later that month, it was a critical and commercial success, and gave the band its first top ten hit, “Evil Ways.” Abraxas followed in 1970; it included two more of Santana’s best-known songs, “Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va.”

By the early 1970s, Santana’s sound was moving away from blues-rock towards a Latin jazz-rock fusion, and Columbia worried that the band wouldn’t be the radio success they had been. Those worries weren’t unfounded; Santana would have the occasional minor hit in the 1970s and 1980s, but it would be some time before the band returned to the upper reaches of the charts.

3 Santana album covers

In 1973, Carlos’s friend, guitarist John McLaughlin, introduced him to McLaughlin’s Indian guru, Sri Chinmoy. Carlos became a disciple of Chinmoy, who gave him the spiritual name Devadip. Over the next few years, Carlos recorded three solo albums under the name “Devadip Carlos Santana” —Illuminations, a collaboration with Alice Coltrane; Oneness; and The Swing of Delight. Eventually, Carlos came to feel that the conflict between the demands of being a touring musician and the demands of Chinmoy’s brand of spirituality were too great; he was particularly frustrated by Chinmoy’s insistence that he and his wife should not have children. The relationship between Carlos and Chinmoy ended in 1982.

As Carlos and Santana struggled with the label’s demands that they return to a more radio-friendly variety of rock, Carlos frequently expressed the jazz side of his personality in his solo work, and though making guest appearances in recordings and in concert with a wide variety of musicians, including Weather Report, John Lee Hooker, Salif Keita, and McCoy Tyner. Carlos received his first Grammy Award for his 1987 solo album Blues for Salvador.

By 1990, Carlos’s relationship with Columbia had frayed to the point that he left the label and signed with Polygram. Santana released two studio albums there, Spirits Dancing in the Rain and Milagro, but sales continued to be disappointing. Santana was still a popular touring act and spent a lot of time on the road, but by the mid-90s, the band was without a recording contract.

They weren’t forgotten, though, and got a shot of public visibility in 1998, when Carlos and the rest of the original Santana members (the ones who had recorded the first two albums) were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The next year, they finally got a new recording contract, at Arista Records, where legendary producer encouraged Carlos to work with younger guest artists. The result was Santana’s 1999 album Supernatural, a spectacular comeback. It had been almost twenty years since the band had made the top forty, and thirty since they’d reached the top ten. Supernatural gave them two giant hits, which spent a total of 22 weeks at #1 on the pop chart. “Smooth” featured guest vocals from Matchbox 40’s Rob Thomas, and “Maria Maria” featured R&B duo The Product G&B. Supernatural also included guest appearances from Everclear, Dave Matthews, Cee Lo Green, and Lauryn Hill. The album won 9 Grammy Awards, including Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Album of the Year.

Santana attempted to repeat the formula of radio-friendly songs with popular guest vocalists on the 2002 album Shaman. While they couldn’t recapture the extraordinary success of Supernatural, Shaman did produce two big hits—“The Game of Love,” featuring Michelle Branch, and “Why Don’t You & I,” which was released in two different single versions, with vocals by either Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger or The Calling’s Alex Band.

Carlos was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2013. In 2014, Santana recorded what was, somewhat surprisingly, its first Spanish-language album, Corazón. In 2016, Carlos reunited almost all of the original Hall of Fame lineup of Santana for a new album. They hadn’t recorded together since the 1971 album Santana III; 45 years later, they called their new album—the band’s 24th studio album—Santana IV.

Santana’s most recent album was released earlier this year. Africa Speaks is influenced by African jazz and pop, and was recorded in ten days. The band is currently on tour to support the album. If the troubled Woodstock 50 music festival actually takes place later this summer, Santana is scheduled to play.

Carlos Santana’s memoir is called The Universal Tone (e-book | e-audio | print | audio); he’s the subject of a children’s picture book by Michael Mahin and Jose Ramirez, When Angels Sing (e-book | print). Much more music by Carlos, and by Santana, is available for streaming or download at Hoopla and at Freegal.