Mexican-born American guitarist Carlos Santana is best known as the leader of the band that bears his last name, which has toured and recorded successfully since the late '60s. He has also recorded a series of exploratory solo albums and collaborations with other musicians that expand upon his basic musical style.
Carlos Santana grew up in Mexico, the son of a father who was a mariachi violinist. He took up the violin at five, but at eight switched to the guitar. The family moved to Tijuana, where he began playing in clubs and bars. In the early '60s, the family moved to San Francisco. Santana at first remained in Tijuana, but he later joined them and attended Mission High School, graduating in June 1965. In 1966, he was one of the founders of the Santana Blues Band. Despite the name, the group was at first a collective; it was required to name a nominal leader due to a provision of the musicians union. The name was eventually shortened to Santana and the band debuted at the Fillmore West theater in San Francisco on June 16, 1968. That September, Carlos played guitar at a concert held at the Fillmore West by Al Kooper to record a follow-up to the Super Session album that had featured him with Mike Bloomfield and Steve Stills. The result was The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, which marked Santana's recording debut.
Meanwhile, Santana was signed to Columbia Records and recorded a self-titled debut album. At this point, the group was a sextet consisting of Carlos (guitar), Gregg Rolie (keyboards and vocals), David Brown (bass), Michael Shrieve (drums), Jose "Chepito" Areas (percussion), and Michael Carabello (percussion). Santana toured the U.S. prior to the release of the album, including a notable appearance at the celebrated Woodstock festival in August 1969 that was filmed and recorded. Santana was released the same month, and it became a massive hit, as did its follow-ups Abraxas (1970) and Santana III (1971). After completing recording and touring activities in connection with Santana III, the original Santana band broke up.
Carlos retained rights to the group's name and he proceeded to lead a band called Santana from then on, though it consisted of himself and a constantly changing collection of hired musicians. His first recording after the breakup of the original group was a live show performed in Hawaii with singer and drummer Buddy Miles, released in June 1972 as Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles! Live! Consistent with the success of the Santana band, the album reached the Top Ten and eventually went platinum. Following the release of the Santana band album Caravanserai (1972), Carlos formed a duo with John McLaughlin, guitarist for the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The two shared a spiritual leader in guru Sri Chinmoy, who bestowed upon Carlos the name Devadip, meaning "the eye, the lamp, and the light of God." Devadip Carlos Santana and Mahavishnu John McLaughlin's duo album Love Devotion Surrender was released in June 1973. It reached the Top 20 and eventually went gold. After releasing another Santana band project, Welcome, Carlos next teamed up with another religious disciple, Turiya Alice Coltrane, widow of John Coltrane, for a third duo album. Their collaboration, Illuminations, was released in September 1974; it spent two months in the charts, peaking in the bottom quarter of the Top 100.
Carlos focused on the Santana band for most of the rest of the 1970s, releasing a series of gold or platinum albums: Borboletta (1974), Amigos (1975), Festival (1976), Moonflower (1977), and Inner Secrets (1978). In February 1979, he finally released his first real solo album, the half-live, half-studio Oneness/Silver Dreams -- Golden Reality, actually credited to Devadip. Like Illuminations, it spent a couple of months in the charts and peaked in the bottom quarter of the Top 100. After another gold Santana band album, Marathon (1979), he returned to solo work with the double-LP jazz collection The Swing of Delight in August 1980. Featuring such guests as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Ron Carter, it sold a little better than his previous solo album. Two more Santana band albums, Zebop! (1981) and Shango (1982), followed before Carlos released a more pop-oriented solo effort, Havana Moon, in April 1983. Featuring Willie Nelson, Booker T. Jones, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the album reached the Top 40, actually a better showing than the next Santana band album, Beyond Appearances (1985). In 1986, Carlos undertook his first musical score, writing music for the Ritchie Valens film biography La Bamba. He then made another Santana band album, Freedom (1987), and followed it in October 1987 with a solo album, Blues for Salvador. The album did not sell well, but the title track won Carlos his first Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. After a final Santana band album for Columbia Records, Spirits Dancing in the Flesh (1990), Carlos left the label and signed to Polydor, which gave him his own custom label, Guts and Grace. The first Santana band album for the new company, Milagro, was followed by what was projected to be a series of releases of tapes from Carlos' own collection of his favorite musicians, Live Forever: Sacred Sources 1, featuring Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and John Coltrane. Then came a Santana band live album (Sacred Fire - Live in South America, 1993) and in September 1994, Carlos released Santana Brothers, a trio album also featuring his brother Jorge Santana and their nephew, Carlos Hernandez. It charted briefly and was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.
Carlos spent almost five years away from recording, not returning until June 1999 when he issued Supernatural on Arista Records. The Santana band album featured many tracks co-written by guest stars such as Rob Thomas of matchbox 20, Eric Clapton, Lauryn Hill, and others. Paced by the number one singles "Smooth" and "Maria Maria," the album became the biggest hit of Santana's career, selling upwards of ten million copies. It also won Santana eight Grammy Awards. ~ William Ruhlmann