In the Sixties, Carlos Santana pioneered an innovative fusion of rock, fiery Afro-Latin polyrhythms, and contrasting cool, low-key vocals. In time, he was drawn to jazz-rock fusion and worked outside the band with John McLaughlin, Stanley Clarke, and others. Though the mid-Seventies saw Santana becoming involved in spiritual mysticism (he affixed "Devadip" before his name), and by the decade's end his band was back in hard-driving rhythmic form and chalked up several hit dance singles. The group continued to perform off and on into the Nineties; in 1994 Santana appeared at Woodstock '94, one of three acts who had previously performed at the original 1969 festival that were asked to return to the 25th anniversary concert. Five years later, Clive Davis signed the band to Arista Records and, by teaming Santana with a varied host of current hitmakers (including Wyclef Jean and Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty), orchestrated one of the most phenomenal comeback stories in rock & roll history.
Carlos Santana is a fourth-generation musician and the son of a violinist father who played mariachi music. His father tried for many years to teach him violin, but at age eight, Santana discovered the guitar and started listening to the electric blues of B.B. King and John Lee Hooker. In 1955 the family moved from the small village of Autl án de Navarro to Tijuana, where Santana began playing guitar in nightclubs. During his teens, the family moved to San Francisco. It was there, working as a dishwasher, that he formed his own band.
The band evolved in San Francisco's Latin district from jam sessions among Santana, David Brown, and Gregg Rolie. With original drummer Rod Harper and rhythm guitarist Tom Frazer, they became the Santana Blues Band. Though the soft-spoken Santana felt uncomfortable as leader, he lent his name to the group because the local musicians' union required that each band have a designated leader. The group's 1968 debut at San Francisco's Fillmore West (by which time it had become known simply as Santana) received a standing ovation; its local popularity led to a spot at Woodstock, where it stopped the show. The instrumental "Soul Sacrifice," featuring Michael Shrieve's drum solo, is one of the high points of the Woodstock soundtrack album.
Santana's overwhelming success at the festival led to a deal with Columbia, and within a few weeks of its late-summer 1969 release, its debut LP was Number Four and eventually went double platinum. That album's "Evil Ways" was a Top 10 single in early 1970. Abraxas, released later that year, sold four million copies and lodged at Number One on the album chart for six weeks; Santana III, the first to feature 16-year-old second guitarist Neal Schon, topped the chart for five weeks in late 1971. Abraxas yielded hits such as "Black Magic Woman" (Number Four, 1970), previously recorded by Fleetwood Mac, and veteran salsa bandleader Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va" (Number 13, 1971), while Santana III contained "Everybody's Everything" (Number 12, 1971) and "No One to Depend On" (Number 36, 1972).
Caravanserai (Number 8, 1972) went platinum; Welcome (Number 25, 1973), gold. Both LPs saw Santana's music stretching out into jazzier directions, and the band's personnel changed considerably with every album. Neal Schon and keyboardist Gregg Rolie went on to found Journey; Shrieve played various sessions, including Stomu Yamashta's Go series, and later formed Automatic Man and Novo Combo.
In 1972 Carlos Santana made his first recording outside the band, a live album with Buddy Miles. Though dismissed by critics, it, too, sold well, eventually going platinum. The fusion supersession Love, Devotion, Surrender found the guitarist playing with John McLaughlin, Jan Hammer, and Billy Cobham of the Mahavishnu Orchestra; Stanley Clarke of Return to Forever; and Larry Young of the Tony Williams Lifetime.
In 1974 Santana collaborated with Alice Coltrane and ex-Miles Davis jazz bassist David Holland, among others, for the string-dominated Illuminations; it didn't sell as well as Love, Devotion, Surrender, which had gone gold. Borboletta featured contributions from Clarke and Brazilian musicians Airto Moreira and Flora Purim. Lotus stands out in Santana's mid-1970s period; the three-record set was recorded in Japan and long unavailable in America except as a costly import.
By the late Seventies, Santana had tightened up his band into a funkier direction, and enjoyed a hit single with a cover of the Zombies' mid-Sixties hit "She's Not There" (Number 27, 1977), featuring singer Greg Walker. After two more jazz-fusion solo LPs, Oneness and The Swing of Delight — the latter featuring such fusion stars and former Miles Davis sidemen as Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, and Weather Report reedman Wayne Shorter — the Santana band's Zebop! became a big seller on the strength of "Winning" (Number 17, 1981), written by ex-Argent guitarist Russ Ballard; the following year's Shango added another Top 20 hit, "Hold On," with a lead vocal by Alex Ligertwood. Havana Moon featured guests Willie Nelson and the Texas blues band the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Santana appeared at Live Aid in 1985. To celebrate its 20th anniversary the next year, the band played a special San Francisco performance that featured all previous Santana members. Freedom reunited Carlos Santana with Buddy Miles, who contributed vocals. The title track of Carlos Santana's sixth solo recording, Blues for Salvador, won a 1988 Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. An acclaimed career retrospective box set, Viva! Santana, was released in 1988. That summer, Carlos Santana toured with saxophonist Wayne Shorter.
Spirits Dancing in the Flesh (1990) featured guest appearances by Bobby Womack and Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, who played on "Jin-Go-Lo-Ba," a reworking of "Jingo," a Santana favorite from the first album. In 1992, after a 20-year association with Columbia Records, Santana moved to PolyGram, appearing first on Polydor, then on Island. Sacred Fire — Live in South America attested to the band's tremendous popularity in Latin America. Carlos Santana announced plans in 1993 to start his own specialty label, Guts and Grace, to release jazz, world music, and selections from his extensive private collection of live-performance recordings, including artists as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Along with a box set (Dance of the Rainbow Serpent), Legacy released a live show from the Fillmore featuring the original Santana lineup. That lineup was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, but Santana's long career was still a year shy of its pinnacle.
Although Santana maintained a core classic-rock audience that supported him on the road, it had been nearly two decades since his last radio hit. In interviews, Santana spoke of an angel, Metatron, who had told him that he was destined to spread the positive message of music to younger listeners through the radio. In late 1997 he signed to Arista, thus reuniting with label head Clive Davis, who had signed Santana to Columbia 30 years earlier. Their goal was to marry Santana's signature instrumental sound with contemporary voices in an attempt to connect with a modern audience. The band's last studio album, 1992's Milagro, had failed to crack the Top 100, but Davis boldly talked about producing an album that would outsell the quadruple-platinum Abraxas. That proved to be an understatement.
With guest performers and writers Wyclef Jean, Dave Matthews, Lauryn Hill, Rob Thomas, Everlast, Eagle-Eye Cherry, and Eric Clapton on board, Supernatural (Number One, 1999) sold more than 10 million copies within a year of its release (21 million worldwide), far eclipsing Abraxas as the best-selling album of Santana's career and putting the 50-something guitarist in the unlikely company of teen chart-toppers 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. The lead single, "Smooth" (cowritten and sung by Thomas), spent 12 consecutive weeks at Number One. The album went on to earn nine Grammys, including Album, Song, and Record of the Year (for "Smooth"). In the wake of the awards and heavy media interest, Supernatural continued to spin off successful singles, with the Wyclef Jean-produced "Maria, Maria" also reaching Number One.
Shaman, the band's next album, tried to repeat the Supernatural formula, though with less success. But it still debuted at Number One, and produced two hit singles: "The Game Of Love" featuring Michelle Branch (Number Five, 2002), which won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals, and "Why Don't' You & I" featuring Nickelback's Chad Kroeger (Number Eight, 2003). Branch and her group the Wreckers, Sean Paul, Joss Stone, Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Metallica's Kick Hammett then made guest appearances on Santana's All That I Am (Number Two, 2005.) And Carlos Santana himself has appeared as a guest in recent years as well — on records by Herbie Hancock, Shakira, and Smokey Robinson, among others.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Chuck Eddy contributed to this article.