Santana, Carlos: 1947—: Rock Guitarist

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Carlos Santana: 1947: Rock guitarist

One of the great musical boundary crossers of the twentieth century, Mexican-American guitarist Carlos Santana was a central figure in the growth of rock music as a serious art form in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Santana blended rock and blues guitar styles with Latin rhythms, and later experimental jazz influences, to create a compelling hybrid that was both commercially and artistically successful. Both a major musical innovator and (at times) a musician motivated by spirituality, Santana nevertheless always kept close to the down-to-earth roots of his music. "These are the ingredients for being a complete communicator," he told Guitar Player. "Soul, heart, mind, body, cojones. One note."

Carlos Santana was born in the small Mexican town of Autlán de Navarro, in the state of Jalisco, on July 20, 1947. His father, José, was a violinist in a Mexican mariachi band and had a regional reputation. Even before the family's 1955 move to Tijuana, on the California border, Santana was sure of his place in the world. "I read books about how people in their thirties or forties are just beginning to find out what their purpose in life is," he told Guitar Player. "I found that out when I was five years old." Of course, living the musically rich borderlands focused his aims as he encountered a mix of American rock and roll sounds, from such artists as Little Richard, with traditional Mexican rhythms. Santana started out on the violin but soon switched to guitar.

Played Clubs in Tijuana

Santana's family moved to San Francisco in 1961, settling in the predominantly Mexican Mission District. Carlos joined them for good only in 1963, after putting in time as a club musician in Tijuana, and his arrival coincided with an explosion in creativity in San Francisco's music scene. In the Bay area psychedelic rock, then in its infancy, mixed with folk music, Latin jazz and dance music, and blues. All these forms made their mark on the young guitarist, who was working as a dishwasher and playing music wherever he could. But one influence stood out. Even after moving to San Francisco, Santana told People, he was slow to adopt a rock and roll lifestyle. But "that all changed after I saw B.B. King at the Fillmore," he recalled. In 1966 the Santana Blues Band, soon renamed simply Santana, was born.

Though they found work around the Bay area, Santana and his bandmates took their time developing their distinctive sound. They turned down several offers of recording contracts, waiting for the perfect forum to announce their striking new music. In the 1969 Woodstock festival in upstate New York, they found that forum. Unknown to the crowd of 500,000, they produced one of the festival's highlights with their new number "Soul Sacrifice." They were quickly signed to the Columbia label and in three years released four of the undisputed classic albums of the rock genre, Santana (1969), Abraxas, (1970), Santana III (1971), and Caravanserai (1972). These albums spawned top ten hits such as "Evil Ways" and "Oye Como Va". The latter song, a rock treatment of a composition by salsa bandleader Tito Puente, exemplified the mixture of innovation and rhythmic earthiness that made Santana's music so compelling.

At a Glance . . .

Born in Autlán de Navarro, Jalisco state, Mexico, on July 20, 1947; son of a mariachi violinist; married Deborah King, 1973. Religion: Studied with Indian mystic Sri Chinmoy, 1970s.

Career: Began performing c. 1961, Tijuana; formed Santana Blues Band, soon renamed Santana, San Francisco, 1966; appeared at Woodstock festival, 1969; signed to Columbia label, 1969; first four albums, Santana, Abraxas, Santana III, Caravanserai, 1969-72, considered classics of rock genre; performed in Live Aid concert, 1985; signed to Polydor label, 1991, creating own Guts and Grace label under Polygram aegis; signed to Arista label and released Supernatural, 1999; Supernatural sold over 10 million copies worldwide.

Awards: Eight Grammy awards for Supernatural.

Addresses: Record Label Arista Records, 9975 Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212.

Caravanserai was a connected suite of pieces that showed a strong influence of jazz, a music that Santana had once derided as cocktail music. In the 1970s Santana's music took a new turn. Dismayed by the descent of many rock musicians into spirals of drug abuse he sought spiritual instruction from the Indian guru Sri Chinmoy, who rechristened him Devadip Carlos Santana; the name meant "the eye, the lamp, and the light of God." At the same time, Santana sought out new challenges musically. Learning to read music for the first time, Santana joined with fellow Chinmoy disciples John McLaughlin (for the album Love Devotion Surrender, 1973), and with saxophonist John Coltrane's widow Alice Coltrane (for Illuminations, 1974). Since this period, Santana's public manner of speaking has had a certain mystical tinge.

Influenced by Fusion Jazz

From Caravanserai onward, Santana's music had shown marks of his acquaintance with the "fusion" jazz of trumpeter Miles Davis. Indeed Santana, coming from the rock world, might be regarded as having met Davis, coming from the other direction, in the center of the improvisatory space between jazz and rock. His albums of the 1970s and 1980s landed him less often on the pop charts than did his first releases, but they were no less influential and are still studied avidly by young guitarists. The Swing of Delight (1980) was a double LP featuring progressive jazzmen Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Ron Carter. Sometimes he recorded under the Santana band name (which he owns), and sometimes as Carlos Santana, but the band's membership changed with each new release and the musical distinction between the two designations is slight.

The 1981 album Zebop! put Santana back on the charts with its hit single "Winning," and in 1986 Santana branched out into film music with a score for the film biography of the Mexican-American rock-and-roll vocal star Ritchie Valens. Santana's releases of the late 1980s and early 1990s each contained noteworthy elements, with Blues for Salvador (1987) bringing Santana a Grammy award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. Santana was also always a reliable draw in concert. But the new albums were less successful commercially than his previous releases. A move to the Polydor label in 1990 did not improve matters, and after 1994's Santana Brothers (actually featuring Santana's brother Jorge and a nephew), Santana disappeared from the recording scene for five years.

Few could have predicted his spectacular re-emergence in 1999 with the release of the Arista-label CD Supernatural but some hint of its success might have been garnered by gauging the enthusiastic reactions the 52-year-old Santana's youthful collaborators had to the project when it was hatched."My God, he is one of the great influences of my life," hip-hop chart-topper Lauryn Hill was quoted as saying in People, and the other stars who cowrote songs with Santana and appeared in duets on the album, including Dave Matthews, Rob Thomas, and Wyclef Jean, were equally bowled over. Supernatural sold over ten million copies worldwide and swept up eight Grammy awards in the year 2000.

Some attributed the album's success to a boom in Latin American culture generally, but equally important was the way Santana's multifaceted musical personality had inspired his various collaborators in entirely different ways. Supernatural returned to and extended the kaleidoscopic musical patterns of Santana at his best. At the end of 2001 Santana projected the release of an album mostly in Spanish. But typically he planned to put his own fusion-making twist on it. "I'm looking for Persian melodies combined with Spanish lyrics," he told Billboard.

Selected discography

Santana, Columbia, 1969.

Abraxas, Columbia, 1970.

Santana III, Columbia, 1971.

Caravanserai, Columbia, 1972.

Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles Live, Columbia, 1972.

Welcome, Columbia, 1973.

Love, Devotion, Surrender, (with John McLaughlin), Columbia, 1973.

Borboletta, Columbia, 1974.

Illuminations, Columbia, 1974.

Lotus, Columbia, 1975.

Amigos, Columbia, 1976.

Festival, Columbia, 1976.

Moonflower, Columbia, 1977.

Inner Secrets, Columbia, 1978.

Marathon, Columbia, 1979

Oneness, Silver DreamsGolden Reality, Columbia, 1979.

The Swing of Delight, Columbia,, 1980.

Zebop, Columbia, 1981.

Shango, Columbia,, 1982.

Havana Moon, Columbia, 1983.

Beyond Appearances, Columbia, 1985.

Freedom, Columbia, 1987.

Blues for Salvador, Columbia, 1987.

Viva Santana!, Columbia, 1988.

The Sound of Carlos Santana, Pair, 1989.

Spirits Dancing in the Flesh, CBS, 1990.

Milagro, Polydor, 1992.

Sacred Fire, Polydor, 1993.

Brothers, Polygram, 1994.

Supernatural, Arista, 1999.



Contemporary Musicians, volume 19, Gale, 1997.

Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, St. Martin's, 1989.


Billboard, March 4, 2000, p. 1; February 17, 2001,
p. LM-3.

Entertainment Weekly, December 24, 1999, p. 36.

Guitar Player, January 1993, p. 58; August 1999, p. 74.

Interview, March 2000, p. 62.

Newsweek, February 14, 2000, p. 66.

People, February 28, 2000, p. 97.


All Music Guide,

James M. Manheim

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Santana, Carlos: 1947—: Rock Guitarist

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