Rob Thomas is well aware of the journey that “Smooth,” his 1999 collaboration with Carlos Santana, has taken during the past two decades. “It went through the, ‘Hey, this is a good, cool summer jam,’ and then the, ‘Hey, we’re all sick of this song and never want to hear it again,’” he says. “And then it went through the, ‘Hey, let’s listen to that song again. I remember it. That sounds good still!’”
It’s easy to forget that 20 years ago, when cross-genre alliances weren’t in vogue, the very idea of “Smooth” seemed absurd. Pair up a classic-rock veteran who’d long been hitless with a singer who was both 25 years younger and affiliated with a very different style of rock? Add in a song whose lyrics and melody had to be overhauled, potential record-company legal hurdles, and an argument-starting vocal effect? On paper, nothing seemed more like a potential train wreck than “Smooth.”
But, of course, that’s not how things turned out. Part Latin-rock jam, part devotional love song (with a nod to Elton John’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”) and propelled by Santana’s scalding lead guitar parts, the track would go on to become the second biggest-selling single of all time, after Chubby Checker’s “The Twist.” “Smooth” was one of the last across-the-board, all-ages-allowed pop sensations, and its popularity didn’t end with the Nineties. It remains a best-selling stream, is regularly heard at weddings and has inspired multiple memes around Thomas’ opening line (“Man, it’s a hot one …”).
In honor of its 20th anniversary, we look back at the creation and legacy of “Smooth” with its leading participants — who made it real and made sure we didn’t forget about it.
I. Santana Longs for a Return to Radio
By 1997, a time when boy bands and Britney were beginning their domination of the charts and radio, Carlos Santana was barely on anyone’s radar. He still had a major-label deal, with PolyGram, but hadn’t scored a hit single in more than 15 years. Chart success still weighed on him, though, and when he and his band played New York’s Radio City Music Hall in July 1997, he invited Clive Davis. The Arista Records president had signed Santana to his first deal, on Columbia Records, in the late Sixties, and the two had worked together during Santana’s heyday, when the guitarist and his band lived large with hits like “Black Magic Woman,” “Evil Ways” and “Oye Como Va.”
Clive Davis (currently chief creative officer at Sony Music): We really had not interacted for many, many years, and he asked if I would come to Radio City to see him perform there. I thought it would be great to see him again. If you worked with someone closely, they were part of your life every day, and even if you sort of changed jobs, the connection is still there. So the idea of going to see him was emotionally appealing to me. We had shared some spectacular times many years earlier.
Santana: When I would get in the car with my kids and we’d hear Eric Clapton and Babyface, they were like, “We only hear you very little on the radio, and that’s with ‘Black Magic Woman.’”
Davis: When I talked with him later, he said that his kids, who were then teenagers, never really heard him on the radio. He said that he was asked who was he most in touch with from those days when he was on the radio and he said me. He was asked, “When was the last time that you saw Clive Davis?” and said, “Many, many years ago.” He said to me, “That is what triggered my call to you to come see me at Radio City.” He said, there, “Would you have any interest in working with me again?”
Santana: I was in the process of getting out of my contract with PolyGram. I said to my brother Chris Blackwell, “I’m pregnant with a masterpiece and I don’t want to give it to you because I don’t think you have the capacity to deal with this baby. And I know you are going to let me go.’” He said, “Oh,” and that was it.
Pete Ganbarg (then A&R executive at Arista, currently president of A&R at Atlantic): Carlos’s wife at the time, Deborah, said, “OK, Carlos, you need to now have commercial success again with your music, and why don’t we go to Clive, because Clive was where it all started? Why don’t we try it again?” Whether it was Dionne Warwick, Rod Stewart or the Grateful Dead, Clive always had a vision to say, “Fifty percent of having success with an artist is getting people to know who the artist is, and if you have already accomplished that, then you’re halfway to what you want to accomplish.” He always thought that if somebody was already a household name, all that we would need to do was double down on the A&R and the record making, to make sure that the record this artist was making was brilliant enough for the mainstream public to say, “Yeah, I remember.”
Davis: It was only when I was in Radio City, watching him play, seeing him still the dazzling virtuoso, seeing the younger members of the band with whom he was playing, that it triggered thoughts about the growth of the Hispanic population in America. And I saw a very diverse audience there: ethnic makeup, racial makeup, age makeup. I started thinking, “Wow, I wonder if Carlos could come back?” We agreed to meet in Beverly Hills.
Santana: Clive said, “Carlos, you’re incredible live, but I want to know: Do you have the discipline and willingness to allow us go into the studio and allow that sort of energy? I’ll bring seven songs and you bring seven songs. Would you allow that?” And I said, “Absolutely.”
Davis: I said, “The only way that can happen is if we agreed to the blueprint that half the album you would entrust to me. That I would look for writers or material that would certainly not bastardize your integrity, but that could be to potential hit singles or cuts that you would have come up with on your own. So that it would be natural; it would be organic. It would never be something to compromise your integrity. And the other half of the album, you would do whatever you want with. I mean, it’s you. It’s Carlos. So if you would agree to that blueprint, I would sign you.” He agreed on the spot.
Richard Palmese (then VP of promotion at Arista): We used to have weekly meetings with Clive, and I believe that’s where he announced it. I would say we were startled, to say the least. Carlos hadn’t been on the radio for like 30 years. It was quite a leap. You take a look at the charts then and you have the Backstreet Boys, Christina Aguilera, TLC, Destiny’s Child and Britney Spears. Very youthful, very pop.
Davis: No one challenged me, but I later heard that around the corridors it was considered “Davis’ Folly.”
Ganbarg: The intention was to have commercial success, but nobody knew specifically how to do it. I got there in October ’97 as the new A&R guy, really trying to find something to do, because I didn’t have any artists I was signing. I personally took Clive’s Santana signing as a challenge. There was a B.B. King album out in ’97 called Deuces Wild, a duets album with artists like D’Angelo, Bonnie Raitt and Tracy Chapman. Because I’m a chart junkie, I noticed it was selling better than a B.B. King record should be selling. I went out and I got the record, and I’m like, “Wow, great concept, flawed execution,” because the songs weren’t great.
But I thought, “Let’s take the same concept and apply it to Santana. Let’s do the research.” I was literally looking for every magazine article I could find where somebody mentioned they grew up with Santana. I called Carlos’ manager at the time and pitched the idea. He took it to Carlos, and Carlos was like, “Cool.”
II. “Smooth” Takes Shape
During the next year, Davis and Ganbarg hooked Santana up with a wide range of current pop acts, including Lauryn Hill, Dave Matthews, Everlast and Eric Clapton. But after all those sessions, the album was still missing an obvious first single, and an immediate solution had to be found.
Ganbarg: Around a year and a half later, January of ’99, I get a knock on my door from Clive’s finance guy, who says, “We need to finish this album you’ve been spending way too much money on. It’s like your personal sandbox here. You need to come out of the sandbox. We got to put this out. Time’s up.” I said, “I’m not done.” He’s like, “No, you are done.” I said, “I don’t think I have a first single.” He said, “I don’t care — you’re done.” I knew I had maybe a few weeks to finish, but I still had this gnawing concern that we didn’t have a first single. I was honestly stumped, because I called everybody on our list.
Then out of the blue, Gerry Griffith [legendary A&R executive at Arista] said, “Are you still working on that Santana album?” I said, “Yeah, but I think I still need one song.” He’s like, “Oh, well, I may be representing this new songwriter, and he has an idea he’s writing that he thinks could be great for Santana. Can I introduce you two?” That was Itaal Shur.
Itaal Shur: I’d already worked with Maxwell and had a pretty good above-ground hit with him with “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder).” Gerry alerted me that Santana was looking for some material. I was able to get in the room with Pete Ganbarg, who played me the songs with Dave Matthews, Everlast and Lauryn Hill. I grew up listening to Santana with my older brother, and there was no song in there that had the “Black Magic Woman” or “Oye Como Va” groove. So it was obvious that I would write that type of song. I went back and wrote a song called “Room 17.” I started off intentionally trying to get that “Black Magic Woman”/”Oye Como Va” beat. I programmed the beat, used my keyboard and stuff for everything. I played guitar on the demo.
Ganbarg: Itaal came in a little cocky, like, “I’ve got the hit song you’ve been waiting for.” We play the tape, and at the end of the song I say to him, “Look, good news, bad news. The good news is I really, really, really like the music. It’s kind of a modern take on classic Santana, but I think your lyric is completely wrong.” “Room 17” was the room in the hotel where the groupie was going to meet the artist after the show. I said, “If you know anything about Carlos Santana, he will never be associated with a song like this.”
Shur: No, it wasn’t about a groupie. It’s about this guy and girl who haven’t seen each other for a long time, and they’re both in relationships so they’re going to have this rendezvous in room 17. It was just a way of having a secret meeting to express their love. It was a fabricated story. I literally had a weekend to come up with something.
Ganbarg: He’s like, “This song’s a hit as-is.” I said, “It isn’t.” We were like two six-year-olds yelling at each other. He’s like, “Well, so what do you suggest?” I said, “What I suggest is go back, strip the vocal from the demo, and just give me the track, and then let me get a great top-line writer to write a new lyric and melody.” He hemmed and hawed but gave me the track.Then I needed to find somebody who could write a hit song for Santana to be this elusive first single that we didn’t have.
Evan Lamberg (then executive VP at EMI Music Publishing, currently president at Universal Music Publishing North America): I had signed Matchbox Twenty and Rob at EMI, and I would say to Rob, “One day I want you to write for other people.” He said, “Great, let’s do it.” One of my best friends was Pete Ganbarg, and Pete calls me and says, “Clive signed Carlos.”
Ganbarg: This was before the era of e-mailing MP3 files, so I held the phone up to the speaker and played him “Room 17” without the vocals and said, “I need somebody to write to this. Do you have any ideas? We just need the lyric and the melody that could complement this track.” He’s like, “Pete, I’ve got the guy — Rob Thomas.”
Remember, this is 1999, so I said, “Rob Thomas, the guy from Matchbox Twenty?” At that point, Matchbox Twenty was really successful, but they were in that vein of Collective Soul, and Hootie and the Blowfish, all these bands who were on the radio but were a little faceless. It wasn’t like Rob was this household name. But Evan said, “With apologies to every other songwriter I’ve ever worked with, Rob Thomas is the best songwriter I’ve ever signed. Rob just came off tour with Matchbox Twenty. He’s living at home with his fiancée, and doing nothing except smoking pot and playing PlayStation. So, why don’t I send him the track and see what he thinks?”
Lamberg: I sent Rob the track and said, “I think you should come up with a lyric that isn’t about Carlos but it should describe what Carlos is.” He goes, “OK.”
Rob Thomas: I had gotten off the road and was living in SoHo. And I got a call that Itaal Shur was working on this track for a new Carlos record. At the time, I was just going to do it as a writer. I wasn’t supposed to perform on it. It was going to be my first time writing something for someone else. Matchbox Twenty had done some festivals Carlos was on, and I was always bummed I never got to meet him. So I just thought this was going to be, like, an easy way to meet Carlos.
Shur: When I brought the demo to Pete, he says, “I really like the music a lot and I like some of the melodies, but what if we give this instrumental to Rob Thomas”? I wasn’t really keyed in. I knew Rob was talented. I just didn’t know his music very well except for the “3AM” song. So I was like, “Matchbox Twenty and Santana? OK, sure — seems odd, but whatever.”
Thomas: The song was a different song. It was all about some party going on in a room. My wife [Marisol, then his fiancée; the two married in late 1999] went off for the afternoon and I stayed at home. I think the “smooth” part came first. I was thinking more about Carlos. I was thinking, “You’re so smooth,” about Carlos Santana. And then, “You hear my rhythm on your radio.” But then, I also realized somewhere in the middle of it that I had this wealth of information because I had this smokin’ hot Latin girlfriend already. Even though she was from Queens and not Spanish Harlem, everything else was on point, and it ended up being about her. She’s heard songs I’ve written that are about fights we had, and so that was a better version of us, and she liked it.
Ganbarg: What Evan didn’t tell me is that Rob’s girlfriend, who’s now his wife, Marisol, is Spanish. So, when Rob heard the track of “Room 17,” he was inspired to write a love letter to her. If he had had a different girlfriend, “Smooth” may not exist.
Evan calls me a couple of days later: “Can you meet me in my office this afternoon? Rob’s going to sing us what he wrote.” I go to Evan’s office and meet Rob for the first time. Rob takes out a yellow legal pad where he has written the lyrics to this track of “Room 17.” He starts singing and finishes and look at me and Evan. I’m like “Yeah, it’s really good. But I don’t know if it’s done yet. I don’t know if you have a chorus. Can you sing me the chorus again?” Rob’s like, “Sure,” and he’s like, “And if you say this life ain’t good enough …” I’m like, “I don’t know if that’s a chorus. I think that’s a pre-chorus.” Rob, to his credit, looked at me and said, “OK. Let me use that as a pre-chorus, and let me see if I can hear something else.”
Thomas: Itaal lived like a block or two away from me, and they asked did I want to come over and write this song with him? I went to Itaal and we realized I didn’t have the chorus yet, because my pre-chorus was kind of my chorus, and we decided it needed another lift, so we fleshed out what became the chorus. I definitely needed help from Itaal on that. We needed something bigger, and we needed something that felt like Carlos. I just started thinking about images, and the ocean and the moon just kind of walked into my head. So the pre-chorus is, “And if you said this life ain’t good enough” part, and the chorus would be “And it’s just like the ocean under the moon …”
Shur: Rob came over and had the verses written, and I was working on a new chorus. Everything Pete said [after changing the lyrics] made sense so we kept changing it until it was right. At one point I said, “Why do you know about this ‘your mamacita’ and your ‘Spanish Mona Lisa’?” He was like, “Oh, my girlfriend’s Puerto Rican.” I said, “Oh, OK, I get the inspiration.”
Ganbarg: I heard the new demo with this new chorus part that didn’t exist when Rob sang it to us. The chorus melodically sounded great, but the first two lines of the lyric were, “Give me something hot to make me move/Get my motor running so I can get to you.” I called Evan and said, “The chorus works, the melody is really good, but those first couple of lines … what is this, ‘Born to Be Wild?’” Rob’s like, “Well, I wanted Itaal to have a couple of lines on here. You know, it’s his song. He’s the one who started it.” I’m like, “Rob, did you have any ideas for those two lines?” He’s like, “Yeah. Mine were, ‘Just like the ocean, under the moon, that’s the same as the emotion that I get from you.'” I said, “Rob, do you want to tell Itaal, or should I?”
Thomas: We did the demo and sent it on.
III. Santana Signs Off — Eventually
From the moment it was conceived, the combination of Santana and Thomas felt unusual to just about everyone — including Santana himself.
Ganbarg: As all of this is happening, Carlos has no idea this is going on. It’s like me, Evan Lamberg, Rob Thomas and Itaal Shur in our little laboratory trying to come up with our first single. Finally, we get to a point where the demo is just right. I go in and play it for Clive. I held my breath for three-and-a-half minutes while the entire song was playing, because Clive could’ve easily said, “No, I don’t like it,” and that would’ve been the end of it, because Clive’s the boss. But Clive says, “I love it. What does Carlos think of it?” I said, “Carlos hasn’t heard it yet, Clive. I didn’t want to send it to Carlos until I know you liked it.” He’s like, “I love it. Send it to Carlos.”
I exhale, patting myself on the back. I send it to Carlos. I get a call from his manager the next day: “Sorry, Pete. Carlos hates the song.” I’m like, “You have got to be fucking kidding me.” He’s like, “Yeah, he doesn’t like the song. It sounds like ‘Guajira’ [from 1971’s Santana III] and he doesn’t want to do ‘Guajira’ again.” I’m like, “No, I think this is a hit song. Can you please ask him to go listen to the song again?” The manager said, “Sure. I’ll ask him to listen to the song.” I’m starting to feel faint, because I’m not sure what to do at this point. If the artist hates a song, we can’t force him to record it.
Rodney Holmes (then drummer in Santana): Carlos was really trying to do things that didn’t sound like the old Santana. He was looking to venture into some hip-hop stuff, music that seemed newer to him. He was really into doing “Maria Maria,” but he didn’t seem overly excited about “Smooth.”
Santana: I only had some doubts because when you’re cooking something, it needs to be really cooked through and through. So when I first heard it, it was a demo. It didn’t sound totally there.
Ganbarg: Carlos doesn’t think in terms of the radio; he thinks in terms of music. He would send me, like, 13-minute instrumentals with lyrics in Portuguese. The next day, the manager called and said, “Carlos still doesn’t like the song, but he can use a little part of it, maybe with that Portuguese song he just sent you.” I said, “No, we’re not going to do a Portuguese mashup of his idea and parts of a song that we think is a hit song in totality.” He said, “Well, Pete, I don’t know what to tell you.” I said, “Do me a favor. Go back one more time, and just say, ‘Look, we’ve never really asked you for anything in terms of you having to do this, and you have to trust us,’ so can you try that?”
The manager does that, calls me back, and says, “Look, Carlos says with all due respect, Pete, he’s known you for two years. He’s known Clive for 30. If Clive personally tells him that in Clive Davis’ opinion this song is a hit, he will agree to record the song.”
So, like an idiot, I go with my tail between my legs to Clive’s office and tell him that Carlos will not record this song unless Clive personally tells him that Clive believes the song’s a hit. Clive’s like, “No problem.” Clive dictates a letter, I send the letter to Carlos, and his manager calls back and says, “Carlos says thank you for doing what he asked. He will agree to record the song.”
Davis: In my memory, I played it first on the phone for Carlos. I did not send it to him. He heard it on the phone. In those days, I had a technical apparatus that I could play something on the phone to somebody and they would hear it very clearly through that. He said he loved it. I’m telling you the facts as I know them.
Santana: I [still] had reservations about it, and I remember saying, “Clive, I think we have enough.” He said, “Trust me. This is what I do. You need this song. This is going to be the most important song on the album.” And I said OK. I have no problem deferring to Clive.
Thomas: Then they couldn’t figure out who they wanted to [sing it]. I was trying to help Clive figure out who it should be. I definitely floated George Michael’s name and Bon Jovi at some point, too.
Ganbarg: Clive is always thinking about radio, and Clive knew in his mind that if Rob was on the record, coming off a huge album with Matchbox Twenty, we were going to have a better shot at radio than anybody else. Between me, Clive, Matt and Michael Lippman, Matchbox Twenty’s and Rob’s manager still to this day, we all basically just huddled and said, “No, Rob, you should do it.”
Santana: When I listened to the lyrics and heard, “It’s a hot one,” those lyrics are outside of time and gravity. I thought we had entered a place of immortality. But with all respect to Rob, I said, “I’m having a little challenge believing you that what you’re singing is true.”
Matt Serletic (producer): At some point, Carlos wasn’t sure about Rob. He was on the fence. My first conversation with Carlos was about that, like, “Rob’s really a believable singer. He can bring it.” Carlos wanted to be assured, as any artist is with whatever doubts they have. He’s a spiritual guy, and I guess he got a good vibe from the conversation. He said, “I trust you. Let’s do this.”
Davis: Carlos says, “We have to have him. He has to do it. He’s perfect.” I said, “Well, easier said than done. The guy records for another record company.”
Lamberg: Two permissions were required from Lava/Atlantic on behalf of Rob: to actually have him be able to record “Smooth” for Arista and to be able to release “Smooth” as an official single. It didn’t go well. Jason Flom [president of Lava] said, “We’re not letting this guy put a vocal on a record for a competing label.” I said, “It’s Carlos Santana,” and he’s like, “Why would I give you my biggest star?” I said, “Rob wants to do it, what’s the downside?”
Jason Flom (president of Lava): I think that’s right. Rob was on Lava. I said, “I have two diamond artists on my roster. You can’t have both of them.” [Arista’s Run-DMC were in the midst of recording Crown Royal, with guest stars that included another Lava act, Kid Rock.] You can’t be a patsy. But it was important to Rob.
Thomas: Carlos said, “Can this guy do it?” And that’s how I wound up doing it. At the time, I was a little bummed, because I thought I was going to be a writer. I had to reach out to the Matchbox guys and make sure they were OK with it, because it was my first time ever doing something outside of the band with someone else. And everybody was really fine. I think Paul [Doucette] only wanted to know if it was like “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” And I was like, “No, no, it’s a Carlos song.” And he was like, “Alright, fine — go ahead.”
IV. Santana and Thomas Finally Meet
Now that Santana was on board, a recording date was set for April at the Record Plant in Sausalito, California, with producer Matt Serletic. Although he had worked with Matchbox Twenty, Serletic proved a wise choice; he had grown up playing salsa and had attended the University of Miami, studying Latin music rhythms and records.
Serletic: We agreed to do it in Sausalito and I got the session together. The plan was that I got there with the band during the day, we rehearsed it, and then Rob and Carlos would show up for the first time together, and we’re just going to do it. We were set, ready to go. And then Carlos and Rob showed up around the same time. I introduced them, as it were. I remember some nervousness there, maybe more from Rob than Carlos. But Carlos was a little bit more in his comfort zone. He was in his town, with his band.
Thomas: Yes, I met him on the day we recorded “Smooth.” He didn’t know anything about me, except that he liked my voice on the demo.
Serletic: Carlos brought the standard incense everybody uses. I think he had that in the studio. There was a little bit in his amp room. It wasn’t in the control room.
Santana: They said, “Why don’t you guys go to the studio and record it at the same time?” As soon we went to the studio and I heard this sound, it was like, “Oh, my God, this is on a whole other level of trueness.” It sounded true, all the way through. I knew this was very different.
Thomas: Carlos comes from this world where he’s the Latin player, but he always had rock singers. He loved the way my voice, as it is, fit in to what he was doing, because that was comfortable for him.
Serletic: Take two was the one that had the feel, and then I think there was one thing I cut in from take three, or something. You’ve got a good band, a good song, don’t mess it up. You get the energy on tape and then you add the right little nuances.
Thomas: The next day, I came in and did all the vocals, and Carlos came in and redid some guitar stuff. And then that was it after those two days. Matchbox were just getting to be a really good band. But being around that level of musicianship was an eye-opener, like, “Oh, OK, now we all need to step up. This is what you’re supposed to do.”
Serletic: The challenge was, “How do I create a believable conversation between Carlos and Rob?” Editing was a crucial part of that. Generally, the guitar doesn’t play when Rob sings. And that was really part of the trick of it. There are one or two notes where they land together in harmony, and then they get out of each other’s way. That was designed into the arrangement of everything.
Holmes: The recording was fairly routine. We did the first take and Rob was in the vocal booth singing. The producer said, “Yeah that sounded great,” and then, “Let’s do another one.” So we went for a second one, and again, everyone was playing at the same time and Rob was singing. So we did that one and the producer said, “That’s great, let’s go for one more.” Then he said, “Come in and listen to it.” It sounded almost like it was finished. At that time, I was just, “This is a good tune. People should like this,” but I didn’t hear it and think, “Oh, this is going to be like the biggest hit on the planet.” I thought, “OK, this should do well.”
Serletic: There was this big discussion about the radio effect I used on Rob’s verse vocal. I kept imagining street parties in New York. People would experience music with those transistor radios, with the super narrow band. I just thought that would be an awesome way to bring that flavor forward. But when I put that effect on it, it became a big record-label discussion. Do we? Do we not? Pete lost it.
Ganbarg: Matt played it for us, and he put a telephone vocal effect on the first verse. The vocal is a little distant. I remember running into Clive’s office freaking out, like, “Clive, they changed the vocal effect. Oh, my God. I can’t believe it. It’s crazy. This is never going to work!” He looked at me and said, “Hey, Pete, you did your job, now let Matt Serletic do his.”
Serletic: I was in L.A. cutting a Celine Dion record, and I got her full band ready to go, and we’re on the phone talking about the damn AM radio effect. But I’ll always remember Clive saying, “Let Matt do his job.”
V. More Challenges Arise
Writing and recording “Smooth” in two short months was challenging enough, but now came another hurdle: convincing radio stations, especially pop ones, to take a chance on a veteran act like Santana.
Davis: I first heard it when Matt played it for me. It was so overpowering. I was so knocked out. You hear it and you know it’s great. I remember picking up the phone instantly and calling Carlos. Now, can Carlos come back? Can Carlos Santana be on Top 40? All those questions come into play.
Serletic: Pete and I met with Clive at the Beverly Hills Hotel. It was the “Let’s Pick a Single” meeting. We sat there and listened to “Smooth,” then to the Everlast song, which I think was going to be the first single. They were going to go with a rock single first. I said, “Look, I’ve got to be honest. I know I made the record, but ‘Smooth’ is the way to start.” Clive agreed, and everybody agreed. I don’t want to take too much credit, but that became the single. It was decided that day. Clive made the decision and off it went.
Davis: It was never a dilemma. “Smooth” was going to be the first single. And also “Maria Maria.” But you get into issues regarding R&B radio. Would they play Santana? Could you break a record at Top 40 without R&B?
Palmese: My recollection is Clive played me “Smooth,” and there was really no controversy that that should be the single.
Ganbarg: Arista went out to get single rights on Rob coming off this 10-million-selling Matchbox Twenty album for Carlos Santana, an artist who hasn’t sold a record in 15, 20 years. And there were people at Atlantic who did not want to give us single rights. So that became a fight.
Davis: There was a process, and it did take time to get that permission. I dealt with Michael Lippman. I presented the logic that it would be a win-win, that we didn’t intend for this to be anything other than a one-off. There is no interest in having Rob join Santana. Then we sweated it out. Each step of the way we had to get permission.
Lamberg: I said, “Jason, in the long run, you’re going to be upset with me, but look how this will set up the second Matchbox Twenty record. As big as Rob is, he’s going to be even bigger.” We went through a lot of emotions with that thing.
Flom: Santana was a legend. So is Clive. It was something that Rob really wanted to do. There was no saying no.
VI. “Smooth” Becomes a “Blockbuster”
Lamberg: In May 1999, Carlos was warming up at Giants Stadium in New Jersey for Dave Matthews. Pete Ganbarg and I were there. Santana decided to play “Smooth,” which hadn’t come out. Nobody knew it yet. But Rob gets up there and I watch tens of thousands of people — who have no idea what this song is — go fucking crazy. I say to Pete, “They’re dancing like they’ve known this song for years. This song is going to be huge.” After the show I said to Rob, “Did you feel that?” And he says, “Something’s going on.”
Santana: Clive convinced me we had a blockbuster. I remember hearing that word from his mouth: “This is a blockbuster,” like a movie-of-the-year thing. When we were opening for Dave in this place in New Jersey, we saw a plane with a big banner behind it, saying, “Santana Summer.” I was like, “Whoa.” Dave says to me, “Clive Davis really loves you, man.”
Palmese: In May, I sent out white-labels [copies of the single to radio stations]. That’s the way we did it back then, old school. You didn’t have streaming or Shazam. But the CDs just had the name of the song, not the artist. They were marked “Smooth” and “Mystery Artist.” I wanted to avoid a knee-jerk reaction from program directors who would say, “Santana? Are you kidding? He’s not in our demo any longer.” Carlos’ guitar is very identifiable so there were a few who guessed it, but the purpose was not to get that objection.
Davis: Honestly, I’m hearing this for the first time.
Serletic: Everybody was scared of a 50-year-old guitar player.
Palmese: It took some work. The reception was much stronger initially at the Adult Contemporary formats. They targeted an older demo. The early airplay on the adult side came from Minneapolis and San Francisco. And then a good number of small-market AC stations followed their lead. On the Top 40 pop side, it was KISS in Boston; that was the first Top 40 station to jump on the record. Then Top 40 stations in secondary markets started to play it. By the end of June or beginning of July, that’s when the table really turned toward pop. By the end of July, Z100 in New York came in, along with KIIS in L.A., Y100 in Miami, and then it just went on to explode. It just went. It was so exciting.
Serletic: The song has multiple hooks. The pre-chorus could be a chorus. The chorus is a chorus. The vibe set up in the verse pulls people in with the AM radio effect. People make fun of the lyric now, but, “Man, it’s a hot one,” makes you go, like, “What do you mean?” It was just a combination of clever lyric writing, great melody writing, interesting rhythms for the time and masterful guitar virtuosity on top of it. It did not sound like anything else on the radio.
Thomas: When I saw a lot of press about the record, I didn’t see anything about me or my song. So I just didn’t think anything was going to come of it. Then I was standing on a corner on West Broadway in SoHo, and a convertible full of girls pulled up in front of me at a red light, and they were blaring “Smooth.” I called my wife and I was like, “Honey, I think ‘Smooth’ is a single.” That’s how I found out. When Jason [Newsted] was still in Metallica, he came out of an elevator in L.A. and came up to me and said, “Hey, Rob, I really love that Carlos song.” When it gets to Metallica, you know something’s going on.
Shur: When it hit Number One, I was like, “Oh, my God — I can’t believe this is happening.” I thought Number One hits were the Backstreet Boys or something. That’s the part that blew my mind, because Santana wasn’t young to that current generation. I didn’t think it was possible.
Thomas: It’s not the best song I’ve ever written and it’s not the best song Carlos has ever done. But sometimes it’s about timing. It was time for that record. The thing they were calling the “Latin Explosion” was there. It was just all meant to happen in that time and I just got lucky enough to be a part of this moment that nobody really can be that responsible for, you know, just having perfect timing like that.
VII. The Song Lives On
“Smooth” went on to be the Number One song in the country for three months, and Supernatural, the Santana album on which it appeared, sold more than 15 million copies. The “Smooth” video, filmed on a closed-off Harlem street that summer, only added to its appeal. (“It was literally like a movie set,” says Holmes. “Makeup, wardrobe, catering. It was ridiculous.”) The following year, Santana walked off with an astounding eight Grammys, including Album of the Year. Three of those awards — Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals — went to “Smooth” alone. The song’s wide range of collaborators continue to be impacted in multiple ways.
Santana: I remember doing it at the Grammys and there was a wave of dancing. The lights picked up Gloria Estefan and Sting dancing in the front row. I could tell by their eyes they were like, “Holy shit!”
Ganbarg: My kids were really young when “Smooth” came out, and I took them a year later to go apple picking in upstate New York. When you finish, you sit at a picnic table and drink apple cider and eat apple-cider donuts. There was a jug band playing, and when they broke into “Smooth,” I knew we had something.
Thomas: I had a conversation once with John Mayer after he wrote “Daughters.” And we realized that between him and I, we are going to be played at every wedding until the end of time. If you go to a wedding and there’s a band, they will play a version of “Smooth.” Sometimes it’s good; sometimes it’s not so good.
Shur: I have friends of mine who play in wedding bands, and they tell me they play it every weekend.
Serletic: Years later, I was in Budapest, of all places. And I’m walking through some random town square, in the summer. And “Smooth” is blasting out of some café.
Santana: Every time we play that song, people greet it like it’s part of their family. I think everyone needs a break from fear. And that song brings the frequency of joy and celebrating your life and your perfection. People need to be validated and celebrated, and that song works every time we play it.
Thomas: It moved me over from the category of the guy that sings with that band to Rob Thomas, songwriter, and that was a really big thing. After that happened, I started getting calls from Mick Jagger, Willie Nelson, Travis Tritt and Marc Anthony, just all these people who saw me as a writer and wanted to write with me. It opened up a lot of doors and started a lot of new friendships and relationships. And I almost didn’t sing it.
Davis: It was not just a hit. It became a quintessential hit. It became a defining hit. It became one of the great records of all time. You just hear it, and it does have an infectious appeal to it that you could sing it back right after you hear it. To this day, I would say two or three times a year, I get a magnificent bouquet of flowers from Carlos expressing his feelings and gratitude for what he and I have shared over, now, a lifetime.
Thomas: Any fun you want to make of that song, I’ve made fun of it too. I’ve literally been in Singapore with the guys from Matchbox, drunk, singing it at karaoke. The amount of times somebody’s looked at me and said, “Man, it’s a hot one, huh?” To this day. You got to have a big sense of humor about those kinds of things. It’s like the gift that kept on giving.