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The Epic Life of Carlos Santana

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Santana's business affairs are run from offices in an industrial park a few minutes' drive from his house. Today, as he walks into the reception area (where his last Rolling Stone cover story is framed – from 1976, nearly half his life ago), six or seven staff are waiting for him.

"We're Number One!" they chant. "We're Number One! We're Num–"

He accepts their congratulations, though he also looks a little embarrassed by the attention. Their jubilation marks the return of Santana's Supernatural album to Number One on the charts in the wake of the announcement of his eleven Grammy nominations – just one more triumph in a career renaissance that is becoming bigger than the original career.

In the rehearsal room out back, he puts down his SANTANA fanny pack and lights up some incense, an Indian brand he was introduced to in 1972 by Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane's widow. He wears sneakers with no socks and a shirt printed with golden angels of various sizes playing guitars. The brim of his brown hat is folded up at the front. As we settle in, he mentions that he recently started working out twice a week with his wife. It makes him less cranky. "As soon as I saw the CD enter the chart," he explains, "I knew the old energy I had wasn't going to make it."

On this earth, Carlos Santana principally credits two people for what has happened. First, his wife, Deborah. "Spiritually, emotionally, financially, she's a guiding light," he says. In 1994 she restructured his business life: "I'd probably be a hobo if it wasn't for her." Second is Arista Records president Clive Davis, who signed him when other record companies were letting it be known they felt he was simply too old; "I'm not into kissing anybody's behind, it's just, I need to honor these people who stuck their neck out over and over for me."

He had not made a new studio album since Milagro in 1992. He had been holding back on recording, trying to get out of his contract. And it was hard. "I felt I had a masterpiece of joy in my belly," he says, explaining that he felt pregnant with a new record, just as he imagines Marvin Gaye felt before making What's Going On or Bob Marley did before Exodus. His wife thought Clive Davis was the man to help him. It was Davis who first signed the Santana band to Columbia Records in 1968. In his meditations, Santana would think of Davis: "I chanted for Mr. Clive Davis twenty-seven times each day. I'd picture him coming out of a car or a limousine, and a cab passing by, playing my music. So wherever he goes, I want him to be connected with my music."

They met in a Los Angeles hotel. As Santana tells it, Davis got really close to his face and said, "What does Carlos Santana want to do?"

"I'd like to reconnect the molecules with the light," Carlos told him. ("And he wasn't fazed," Santana recalls. "He could have said, 'Uh-oh, here's a far-out hippie . . . . Whatever.'")

"How do you propose to do that?" Davis asked, and Carlos talked about how Miles Davis played pop tunes in his later years. About how two things about Santana never go out of style – the spiritual and the sensual. About how Clive Davis was the man who could find him songs. (There was nothing new about Santana thriving on this kind of input. Their early manager, the late promoter Bill Graham, persuaded them to record their first hit, a Willie Bobo salsa song called "Evil Ways." "This will get you airplay," he informed them, and he was right.)

Santana wanted to reclaim a younger audience. "I'm not at all into becoming a twilight-zone jukebox prisoner of the Sixties," he says. Davis got working. "I blueprinted the architectural plan for the album," Davis says. "And that was having half the album be vintage Santana, in the spirit of 'Oye Como Va,' which he wanted for himself, and the other half I proposed was those organic collaborations that would not be a compromise of his integrity but also be calculated to serve him at radio, in the spirit of what he had said. I would look for what turned out to be the list of Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean and Everlast and Dave Matthews, etc."

A Supernatural Night for Santana

Most of the guest stars came with their own compositions – the one true songwriting collaboration was with Dave Matthews. He and Santana went into the studio together to write and record; "Love of My Life" was one of the results (another song may turn up on the next Dave Matthews album). The song had a peculiar genesis. When his father died, two years ago, Carlos found he couldn't listen to music. "I was numb," he says. And though he hadn't played the radio in years, one day, while picking his son up from school, he turned on the car stereo. The first sound he heard was the melody from Brahms' Piano Concerto No.3. That was the music, somewhat disguised, he began playing to Matthews. "He gave me some lyrics, a couple of lines," Matthews says, "and I didn't know what to do. I think he wrote it about his father; I wrote it about my lover."

Eric Clapton, a friend from the Seventies, actually sidestepped Santana's invitation – "I was so wrapped up in my own world, trying to put together the treatment center in Antigua" – until he saw Santana performing with Lauryn Hill at last year's Grammys. "I was, 'What am I thinking?' I quickly sent him a message, 'I'm sorry I've been such a dick – is there still room for me?'" Clapton didn't have a song, so they just jammed. "And he put together a song out of it," Clapton says. "We started playing," Santana remembers, "and it was literally two Apaches with some sage at the Grand Canyon calling out the spirits." ("Ah, that's hilarious," says Clapton. "That's Carlos.")

One of the last songs to appear was one of the most crucial: "Smooth." Santana's A&R man at Arista, Pete Ganbarg, sent the backing track to Rob Thomas from Matchbox 20, looking for different lyrics and a different melody. "I had no intention of singing it at all," Thomas says. He thought Santana could use a vocalist like George Michael, but Santana heard Thomas' vocal on the demo and insisted he do it himself.

"When people hear 'Smooth,' it's boogie," Santana says. "It's an invitation to have a good time. Like Little Richard used to say: It's Friday night, I got a little bit of money, I did my homework, and it's OK to rub closely with Sally or Sue; she gave me that look like it's OK. I brushed my teeth, and I got deodorant. I got her going.

"It's cool. Certain songs – 'Smooth,' 'Oye Como Va,' 'Guantanamera,' 'La Bamba,' the 'Macarena,' 'Louie Louie' – that's what these songs are for."

In his mind, Supernatural's guest stars were not random pairings. Rob Thomas remembers what Carlos told him: "That the record was put together just so - through sound, it could change people's molecular structure. And he sat me down and explained to me that that, as a musician, is what we do. You can play one note and change the way people feel. You don't want to try to ever quote Carlos, because it never comes out as eloquent as it does when he said it, and it sounds hokey coming from me, of all people, I guess, but it gave me my new purpose on why I do what I do. It just put perspective on everything."

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