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Carlos Santana


Carlos Santana at Woodstock 1969

Carlos Santana at Woodstock in 1969

Photo by Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Stage is set early:

Carlos Augusto Alves Santana was born in Autlán de Navarro, Jalisco, Mexico where he was drawn to music at an early age. At age five he was playing violin, by age eight he had switched to guitar.

During his formative years he idolized Richie Valens, one of the first Latinos to score mainstream success in the then-new genre of rock n' roll. He was strongly influenced by veteran blues artists like John Lee Hooker and B.B. King, and contemporary practitioners like Jimi Hendrix and Peter Green, founder of Fleetwood Mac.

The Santana family moved to San Francisco, where young Carlos got his middle and high school education, and where he studied, and eventually became part of that city's mid '60s jazz and folk music scene. He spent a few years scraping by as a dishwasher and street musician, playing for tips. His first break came in 1966 when he happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Accidental success:

Although he succeeded because of his talent, Santana's first significant break was pure luck. He just happened to be in the audience at Fillmore West on a day Paul Butterfield Band was scheduled to perform. Butterfield was a no-show, and a replacement band was hurriedly put together. At the suggestion of his manager, Santana was picked for guitar duty. The audience, and the impromptu concert's influential promoter, Bill Graham, were impressed with what they heard.

Shortly thereafter, Santana Blues Band was formed, and started playing Bay area clubs. In addition to its namesake guitarist and leader, the band also included a couple of Santana's fellow buskers, keyboardist Gregg Rolie (who later became Journey's first lead singer and now fronts his own Gregg Rolie Band) and bassist David Brown (who later joined the band backing Boz Scaggs.)

Into the spotlight:

The band, whose name was quickly shortened to Santana, became increasingly popular in the San Francisco area. The combination of that and a stunning performance at Woodstock got them their first record deal. Santana's self-titled debut album in 1969 reached #4 on the album charts, with the single, "Evil Ways" reaching #9. Their second album, Abraxas the following year was even more successful reaching #1.

With quick success, expectations grew, as did the pressure on the band. Band members differed on what their musical direction should be. Rolie favored sticking with the hard rock that had gotten them this far, but Santana wanted to incorporate jazz elements into the music.

As the internal struggles went on, Santana brought a second guitarist on board, a 17-year-old prodigy named Neal Schon, with the resulting dual lead guitar sound debuting on the band's third album, Santana III (their second #1) in 1971. Schon would leave with Rolie in 1973 to form Journey, where Schon remains today.

1972's Caravanserai reached #8 and had sales of more than a million.

Solo Santana
Although the band continued recording and touring throughout the '70s, Santana himself also recorded four solo albums between 1973 and 1980 that reflected his longstanding love of jazz, and his growing interest Buddhism.

After the band's multi-platinum start with their first four album, the next three, although successful by most standards, didn't match the commercial success of their predecessors. 1977's Moonflower was their next multi-million seller, but it would be more than 20 years until the next one.

The comeback
Although the band's '80s albums were intended to radio-friendly (with a larger goal of commercial success) the approach wasn't in tune with music buyers' changing tastes. Throughout the '80s and early '90s the band's albums struggled to break into the top 100. Between 1985 and 1992, the best performing album reached #50. 1992's Milagro was the first Santana studio album that didn't make the Billboard Hot 100.

After that it would be seven years before the next Santana studio album, the one that signaled, in a big way, Santana's comeback.

The formula that proved to be magic was to pair Santana with popular, younger artists like Dave Matthews, Cee-Lo, and Rob Thomas. 1999's Supernatural eventually had worldwide sales of nearly 30-million, earning it the record for best-selling album ever by a Hispanic artist. It went to #1 virtually everywhere in the world where there are record charts, and it was Santana's first US #1 since 1971.

Santana had similar success with Shaman, another #1, in 2002 and All That I Am, which peaked at #2 in 2005.

Santana's legacy
While you can't really describe a legacy for someone who is still actively recording and touring, what is well established with Santana is his (and the band's) pioneering work in mixing Latin, jazz, blues and rock into a distinctive style. The Santana catalog is numerically staggering: as a solo artist, seven studio albums, three live albums, and 12 collaborating with other artists. Santana, the band, have released 21 studio albums, seven live albums, and 13 collaborations.

Santana the guitarist is on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the Greatest Guitarists of all time. There are 10 Grammy Awards and three Latin Grammy Awards in the trophy case. Still in demand as a concert performer, Santana has done a "residency" at the Las Vegas Hard Rock Hotel. A 2009 concert in Macedonia (once part of the former Yugoslavia) attracted an audience of 20,000 and lasted nearly three hours.

Santana's son, a keyboardist, fronted Salvador Santana Band from 2004 until 2008, when he began performing and recording as a solo artist. He collaborated with his father on "El Farol" which was one of the songs on Supernatural which won a Grammy.

Although some will say it was his Woodstock performance that was his most memorable, it is the years since that will ultimately shape Santana's lasting legacy.

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