Inside Santana and the Isley Brothers' Uplifting Joint LP

"Together we're like caliente barbecue sauce," Ernie Isley says of collaboration documented on new 'Power of Peace'

Santana and the Isley Brothers tell the inside story of their upcoming collaborative LP, 'Power of Peace.' Credit: Maryanne Bilham

As astonishing as it seems, Ernie Isley can only recall one time when he and his family in the Isley Brothers crossed paths with Santana back in the day. The occasion was a Columbia Records convention in the Seventies, when both bands were on fire and bridging the gap between rock and, respectively, R&B and Latin music. Santana were performing, and Isley watched in awe. "They took all the oxygen out of the room, playing their hits and songs from Abraxas," says the guitarist, whose snake-charmer leads were heard on Isley hits like "That Lady." "When we got back home, we started rehearsing. When you hear someone do something like that, it pushes you."

It would take another four decades, but Carlos Santana and the Isleys finally converged in a studio last year. Set for release in August, Power of Peace marks the first collaboration between the two main surviving Isleys – Ernie and his brother, singer Ronald Isley – and the current version of Santana's band. Blending the Isleys' R&B and funk leanings with Santana's Latin jams, the album features remakes of songs with spiritual or world-peace themes – Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "What the World Needs Now Is Love," Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" – along with standards like Willie Dixon's "I Just Want to Make Love to You" and Curtis Mayfield's "Gypsy Woman." "Carlos and I plugged in and he's playing and then stops and points to me, and I start playing," Ernie says. "I'm looking at him and thinking, 'That's that guy, that's that sound.' And he's grinning and thinking, 'That's that tone, that's that guy.' Together we're like caliente barbecue sauce."

Santana can still recall the first time he heard the Isleys' music. "When I first came to America from Tijuana, I came to San Francisco, and in the Mission District there was a jukebox in one of the Mexican restaurants that would constantly play the Isley Brothers' version of 'Twist and Shout,' the one before the Beatles," he recalls. "So even before the British Invasion, I was already enthralled with that sound, that voice, and I wanted to be part of that." When Santana and his wife (and drummer) Cindy Blackman Santana wed in 2010, they danced to Ronald Isley's version of Bacharach and David's "The Look of Love."

The group collaboration began in a roundabout way in 2014. Santana was touring with Rod Stewart, whose band included Ronald Isley's sister-in-law, Kimberly Johnson-Breaux. When Isley popped into their show in St. Louis, he and Santana finally connected after all those decades – and to Isley's surprise, Santana invited him up onstage for impromptu jams on "It's Your Thing" and "That Lady." The two began talking about working together, resulting in Isley contributing vocals to last year's Santana IV, which reunited members of that band's early lineups. A full-on collaboration seemed inevitable, as Cindy Blackman Santana recalls: "Carlos just said to me one day, 'You know, I want to give Ronnie and Ernie a gift and do this project for them.' Carlos has maybe a hundred iPods full of music, so he started going through them and picking songs he felt would be great with Ronnie's voice."

Santana chose material like "God Bless the Child," while Ronald Isley picked the Wonder and Gaye songs. Isley also selected "What the World Needs Now Is Love" after his wife began singing it one day, and Santana rearranged it. "We didn't do that song the way most people have done it, which is, like, kind of Mary Poppins," the guitarist says. "I said 'I don't want to do it like that – let's take the 3/4 out and do it in 4/4.'"

According to Ernie Isley, he and the Santana band did zero prep before entering a studio in Las Vegas (the Santanas' current home) last year. "Once we got there, it was, 'Play,'" laughs Isley. "Everyone was prepared and ready to go." Thanks to those combined years of touring and recording, the album was cut in a remarkable four days. "We got a basic track and they said, 'Let's do another one,' and 'Let's do the next one,'" Ernie says. "We put Ronald in front of the microphone and, boom." A fervent version of Swamp Dogg's 1970 hit "Total Destruction to Your Mind" became a particular guitar-jam highlight between Carlos and Ernie. "We were both grinning like two little kids riding bikes and eating ice-cream cones," says Ernie." The musicians also cut Cindy Blackman Santana's original "I Remember," featuring the drummer on lead vocals.

Depending on how Power of Peace is received, Ernie Isley says he and his brother would consider a tour with Santana. "I'm curious," he says. "What would 'That Lady' or 'Everybody's Everything' sound like with me and Carlos playing together? Especially in this musical climate. Please. Ronald Isley has never needed AutoTune."

For his part, Santana simply hopes the album's pro-peace message resonates. "With everything happening in the world with augmented intense fear everywhere – and getting worse and worse – this is an antidote," he says. "When you listen to this music you give people courage, clarity, conviction and consistency of believing that there's something more than the fear that CNN, the CIA, the Pentagon and Hollywood are selling constantly. This is the opposite of that."