Today’s birthday boy is Carlos Santana, bandleader and lead guitarist for the band named after him. And today’s song is the hit most readily associated with Santana, even though it was written by Peter Green and first recorded by Fleetwood Mac. Santana made it his band’s signature tune with its release on the Abraxas album in 1970. That low key opening, the Latin percussion, that sinuous and insinuating lead guitar line. It’s so smooth, so fluid. It belongs to late night radio, a track for the deeper watches of the night, a hot, steamy night, somewhere south of the border.
Gregg Rolie is the voice singing the song—and it’s not a vocal I have a great affection for, it’s simply the one that has become inseparable from the song. In fact, I was never crazy about the vocals in Santana’s band, and that’s probably the reason I was slow to pick up on the band. I’m a lyrics and vocals guy first and foremost, and the reason I didn’t have Santana albums is the same reason I didn’t have Allman Brothers albums. Their strength was all in the music, not in the lyrics.
But there’s no denying that the string of Santana’s first four albums are full of interesting musical textures and those trademark Santana leads, backed with a kind of virtuoso interplay of musicians able to work in blues, jazz, Latin, rock and make it all jell. Santana (1969), Abraxas (1970), Santana III (1971), Caravanserai (1973)—all became essential albums in my collection this century when I picked up remasters of all of them on CD. The kind of nostalgia I was experiencing at that time led me naturally to the music of the early Seventies—some of it music I’d had and then neglected, some of it, like Santana, I’d never gotten around to.
So the immersion was that thing of making up for lost time, rediscovering something that had always been there. There wasn’t anything on Top 40 radio like Santana back then. And the way the band took Peter Green’s blues tune and reconfigured it was a major statement. As though a salsa-rock hybrid could be visited upon any tune and, presto!, it was Santana-ized.
The vocals are subdued, almost mumbled, except for a line here and there—“I need you so bad!”—but it’s the musical lines that matter. It took me awhile to be able to hear that sort of thing with the proper respect for the overall sound. In fact, the best tracks on Santana albums tend to be instrumentals—such as the hauntingly evocative “Samba Pa Ti” on Abraxas—or sung in Spanish, like “Oye Como Va” and “Guajira.” The vocals tend to be part of the music and not really a lead voice. Anyway, all that’s neither here nor there when you get to about 2:10 and the guitar starts talking with the “voodoo that you do.”
It’s a song about a slinky “black magic” type, the kind that puts a spell on you, and the guitar does that for about 45 seconds—45 seconds forever etched into your brain. Then we come back around to vocal, and then we segue into that sensuous Latin bit before the segue into a Hungarian tune by Gábor Szabó called “Gyspy Queen”—much faster and full of a completely different and more aggressive vibe. It’s a little schizophrenic and is really two songs, but the segue is so smooth, the DJs tended to play both parts, stretching it into a four+ minute track on Top 40.