Born in Jalisco, Mexico, in 1947, Carlos Santana was a musical prodigy. He learned to play the violin at age 5 and the guitar at 8. By age 12 he was playing violin in his father’s mariachi band in Tijuana’s seediest clubs.
Young Carlos was heavily influenced by rocker Ritchie Valens and Blues artists like B.B. King and T-Bone Walker. Once his family left Tijuana, the rebellious Carlos continued playing rock and roll and blues guitar along the Tijuana strip.
The Santana family settled in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1960s, a place where Latinos came together with hippies from the city to create a rich street life. The genius of the boy and the unique setting of the Mission would spark one of the most transcendent fusions in American music history. It was a sound in which the melodic blues-inflected lines of Carlos’ electric guitar were set against Latin and African rhythms, featuring percussion instruments such as timbales and congas not generally heard in rock music.
“It just so happened that there was a Puerto Rican in the band, a Mexican in the band, a Nicaraguan in the band, an Irish guy in the band, a Norwegian guy in the band, and a Black guy in the band,” recalls Conga drummer Mike Carabello. “We didn’t do that on purpose, you know, but the music came out of that.”
Born out of improvisation, the unique sound of Santana tightened into a disciplined performance. Be it "Black Magic Woman", "Evil Ways", "Samba Pa Ti", or "Oye Como Va", each band member played from the heart, but not a note was ever out of range or a beat out of place.
The band played at the Fillmore, a venue run by Bill Graham, a young New York promoter who had fallen in love with the Mambo at New York City’s Palladium club. Attracted by the Latin rhythms in Santana, Graham signed up the band to play at a concert in upstate New York; Woodstock. When the film Woodstock was released, Carlos Santana and the Santana band were consecrated in the culture of America of the 1960s and 1970s.
For many Latinos, Santana paved the way into rock and roll. Equally, rock and roll fans no longer swayed aimlessly in clubs and concert halls, but instead danced to a definite beat.
Like many of his generation Santana delved into drugs and spirituality. And though he and his band’s music fusions featured the African rhythms of the Caribbean over those of his native Mexico, Chicanos claimed him as their own. His roots are in Jalisco, Tijuana and San Francisco, and his politics and aesthetics matched the inclinations of the politically radicalized youth of the 1970s, youth identified with the brown Latino sound of his band.
In 1999, just as a new century was to begin, Santana launched the massive hit song, “Smooth", a collaboration with Matchbox Twenty’s vocalist, Rob Thomas. "Smooth", ranked the second most successful song of all time by Billboard in 2013, introduced Carlos Santanato a new generation. Other collaborations followed, among them, "Corazon Espinado" with the legendary Mexican rock band Maná, and with Gloria Estefan, Eric Clapton and Tina Turner among others.
In 2003 Rolling Stone magazine featured Santana at number 20 on their list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. Over the course of his career, he has won 10 Grammy awards. His legacy is celebrated in a mural 16 feet wide on Mission and 19th Street surrounded by Chicano symbolism that spans an entire block. The mural is dedicated “Para la Misión.”
Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty