Carlos Santana's style is easily recognizable and that's the first sign of a great guitarist. The lines are long and fluid, accented with vibrato. The guitar often sounds relaxed and airy - in sharp contrast to the Latin rhythms pulsating beneath.
It's rare that a guitarist is capable of creating vibrant work more than thirty years after his debut but that's a large part of the Carlos Santana story.
Santana was one of seven children in a musical family. Born in Autlan de Navarro, Mexico (7/20/47), he got his first guitar when he was twelve. At sixteen, his family moved to the San Francisco area and it's there his appreciation for R&B and the Blues developed.
Carlos started the Santana Blues Band in '66. In the early line-up was organist Greg Rollie, who along with another Santana vet, guitarist Neil Schon, launched Journey.
Throughout '68 and '69 Santana (the group) played the Fillmore West and Rock festivals including the legendary Woodstock. They received a whopping $500 for their performance but it worked out in the end. That show led to a Columbia Records contract.
In November of '69 Santana's self-titled debut album featuring "Evil Ways" was released. The second LP "Abraxas," contained a cover of the Fleetwood Mac song, "Black Magic Women." Also, Schon arrived on second guitar. "Santana III" had the extended jam, "No One I Can Depend On." By '71, the original group had splintered. New members were brought in, while Carlos undertook solo projects and a religious conversion. In '73 he became a follower of Sri Chinmoy. This led to his adoption of the religious name, Devadip.
Through the late '70s and '80s, Santana recorded and performed successfully - working with guitarist John McLaughlin, jazz/international musicians and sometimes using guest vocalists (shades of future endeavors) like Russ Ballard who sang "Winning" on the '80s "Zebop!" album.
Things nearly ground to a halt until the late '90s. But Clive Davis, who was Columbia president when Santana was originally signed, suggested Carlos move to Arista, the label Davis now ran. Davis brought in Rob Thomas, Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews, Lauryn Hill and others. Normally, an artist faced with this much outside help, gets smothered. Fortunately, that didn't happen. "Smooth," (Thomas - vocals) and "Love Of My Life" (Matthews - vocals) received immediate attention but it was the Latin influenced Rock, especially "Da Le Yaleo" that drove the "Supernatural" CD . Naturally, Santana walked off with eight Grammy awards in '00. One of the few times the organization, with a reputation for being out-of-touch, got it right. Repeating the guest format again, Carlos released "Shaman" in '02. Three years later, he returned with "All That I Am." The set featured vocals from Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and American Idol runner-up Bo Bice.
"Ultimate Santana," a retrospective arrived in '07. The compilation contained previously unreleased collaborations with Chad Kroeger and Tina Turner. "Into The Night," a Kroeger composition, had vocals by Nickelback's frontman. "I am very grateful that Chad has shared it with me," said Santana. "(It's a) kind of chant in a coliseum when your team is ahead, like (Queen's) 'We Will Rock You'." The set also contained the original version of "The Game Of Love" with Tina Turner. Label execs nixed Turner's take in favor of pop singer Michelle Branch, whose version landed on the "Shaman" album. "I love Michelle, and she did a great interpretation of it," offered Santana. "But my heart was always set because I heard Tina first."
Rock marriages aren't expected to last. The ones that do are special. So it was disconcerting to hear that Santana and his wife of 34 years, Deborah, filed for divorce in'07 citing "irreconcilable differences."
Santana unfurled his oft-delayed "Multi Dimensional Warrior," a two-CD compilation, in '08. What made this collection interesting was that Santana chose personal favorites, rather than just his hits (which were already on several other compilations).
Among Santana's numerous civic and humanitarian efforts was helping lead a campaign to have late United Farm Workers Union founder Cesar Chavez's birthday, March 31, recognized as a U.S. holiday. "It's supremely important that a day be selected to honor the life of . . . Chavez for his quality of service to all humanity," said the guitarist.
Santana performed at the '09 American Idol Finale sharing the stage with KISS, Queen and Rod Stewart. Later that year, he appeared at the Athens Olympic Stadium for his first performance in that region. Then it was off to The Hard Rock Cafe in Las Vegas, for an extended run. And to keep him current/relevant Santana was a playable character in the Guitar Hero 5 music video game. A live recording of "No One To Depend On" was included.
Diversification. That's the key. Rock is a cruel master. Better to have a fall back plan. But Santana entered a venture that was just as volatile as Rock. He opened an upscale chain of Mexican restaurants called Maria Maria. Located in the South, the restaurants spanned from Florida to California.
If Davis knows anything (and he knows a lot), it's guiding an artist's career. He wanted Santana to do an album of Classic Rock song covers. "Yeah, yeah," Santana probably thought. "Those songs are untouchable." But Davis was persistent. So Santana undertook the project with vocals by Chris Cornell ("Whole Lotta Love"), Joe Cocker ("Little Wing") and Rob Thomas - yes, he's back ("Sunshine Of You Love"), and keyboards by The Doors' Ray Manzarek for "Riders On The Storm." "Guitar Heaven: Santana Performs The Greatest Guitar Classics Of All Time," arrived in '10.
"Shape Shifter" was the title of Santana's debut release on his own label, Starfaith Records. The 13-song set, Santana's 36th album, was predominately instrumentals - only one song had vocals (by Santana's lead vocalists Andy Vargas and Tony Lindsay).
"It will be like "Santana IV" because we stopped at 'Santana III'," said Santana as he announced the planned reformation of the original group (Greg Rolie - keyboards, Neal Schon - guitar, Mike Carabello - percussion and Michael Shrieve - drums; bassist David Brown passed away in '00).
He also stated that the goal was to release an album in '14. That was accomplished with the arrival of "Corazon."
The reunion album, "Santana IV," with the aforementioned line-up, landed in '16.
1971 Santana III
1978 Inner Secrets
1985 Beyond Appearances
1990 Spirits Dancing In The Flesh
2005 All That I Am
2010 Guitar Heaven
2012 Shape Shifter
2016 Santana IV
Earlier is generally better for Santana. With "Santana," "Abraxas" and "Santana III" you've got the essence.
"Supernatural" is as good a comeback (and a huge hit) as anyone could hope for with the "guest" artists bringing their fans while long time Santana faithful get "current" artists within the Santana context.