Carlos Santana was born on July 20, 1947, in Autlán de Navarro, Jalisco, Mexico. His father was a violinist in a mariachi band and Santana learned to play the instrument himself when he was only five years old. He began learning the guitar at age eight and was heavily influenced by Ritchie Valens, who, at the time was one of the only American rock stars of Latino heritage. When Carlos’ family moved to San Francisco he initially stayed in Mexico, but eventually joined them in the States and got his diploma from San Francisco’s Mission High School in 1965.
Santana decided to make a full time career of music in 1966 after several years of working as a dishwasher and performing on the street. Teaming with two other street musicians, David Brown on bass and Gregg Rolie on keyboards, Carlos formed the Santana Blues Band. The band combined a unique blend of world music, fusing rock with jazz, salsa, blues, and African rhythms. After gaining a following in San Francisco’s club scene, the band, now performing as simply Santana, got it’s big break after a giving a strong performance at the Woodstock festival in 1969. Clive Davis, of Columbia Records, signed the band after seeing them perform at the festival.
In 1973, Santana put together a new lineup for his band, featuring two percussionists, Armando Peraza and Chepito Areas, and two keyboard players, Tom Coster and Richard Kermode, bassist Doug Rauch, and drummer Michael Shrieve. Along with jazz vocalist Leon Thomas, the new lineup recorded a lengthy live album during a tour of Japan. CBS Records would not allow the release of the full three album long performance and wanted Santana to edit it down to one record. Carlos was unwilling to change his creative vision for the album and as a result it was only available in the States as an import. During this time, Santana and his new wife Deborah became disciples of Indian spiritual guru, Sri Chinmoy.
As the mid-70s approached Santana found himself changing his lineup yet again, and following more of a jazz sound. The lineup would go through many changes in the next couple of years, at one time even including funk bass legend Jaco Pastorious. The new sound alienated many of Santana’s core fans though, and the band’s new manager, Bill Graham became critical of the new change in direction. Carlos himself noticed that, although the sound was popular among jazz fans, sales were plummeting.
Once again Santana changed the lineup, this time in an attempt to return to the edgy ethnic sound that had given rise to his fame. The result was 1976s album “Amigos”. Songs from the album returned Santana to rock oriented radio and brought the band back into the charts. The band would keep the same sound throughout the 70s, but with, as had become common, many lineup changes. The band stayed relevant enough to give Carlos the popularity to release two solo albums, one in 1979 and one in 1980 featuring some of his musical idols from the Miles Davis Quintet.
Santana found that his newfound fame and rock star life fell into conflict with the teachings of guru Sri Chinmoy, causing Carlos and Deborah to drift away from the rules that the guru tried to enforce on their life. The biggest problem between the Santanas and Sri Chimony was the gurus insistence that the couple not start a family. By 1982 the two had officially cut ties with their former spiritual leader.
In the 80s, Santana struggled to remain on the charts amidst changing musical tastes of popular culture. Despite the lack of hit records, Carlos remained highly respected in the musical community and was listed as an influence for several musicians of the era. Unlike previous dips in sales, Santana didn’t let this on affect him as much, taking greater pleasure in just jamming with friends and enjoying the art of music making. In the late 80s he would score the film “La Bamba”, the biopic of his earliest rock idol, Rithie Valens. His efforts would win him a BMI Film Music Award.
In 1990, Carlos left Columbia Records and signed with Polygram. The decade was not kind to Santana, his sales were extremely low and as the decade drew to a close he was without a recording contract. That would change in 1999 when Clive Davis, now with Arista Records would once again sign Carlos to a contract. This time around he encouraged Santana to work with a collaboration of younger artists. The result was the album “Supernatural”, which skyrocketed Santana back into the mainstream consciousness. Fueling the success of the album was the hit single “Smooth”, co-written by Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20 fame. The album won nine Grammies in 2000.