“If Santana works then the real shit is going to kill ’em!” -Francis Grasso, DJ at the Sanctuary NY, 1970, from Love Saves the Day.
Did Carlos Santana get a bad rap? At the end of the 60s his band was obscure, then they played Woodstock and many said they were the highlight. But as Grasso’s experience at the Sanctuary can attest, Santana quickly became a little too rock for the Latin/Disco crowd and a little too Latin for the 70s rock crowd. To wit: many of his tunes are danceable, but none of them ever crossed over into disco, even when disco went boogie and funk guitar crept in in the late 70s. I’m still befuddled how it is that Santana never made a disco record when so many labels in the 70s were pushing their artists to get that remix single money.
I came by Santana naturally. He’s one of my father’s favorite artists. Samba Pa Ti in particularly is a heart achingly beautiful instrumental that ends with an upbeat dance rhythm
Whether Francis Grasso liked it or not, Santana did bring Babatunde Olatunji’s “Jin-go-lo-ba” to a rock crowd that might not have otherwise heard it. And that wasn’t all – it’s possible that the first time I heard Timmy Thomas’ deeply soulful “Why Can’t We Live Together” was when he covered it live in 1992 on the Sacred Fire tour:
I saw him in Pittsburgh that October and it was a near-spiritual experience. Three times on the ’92 tour he also incidentally played a track called “Techno Power.” I can’t find any reference to a track by that name in his oeuvre, and I don’t remember it specifically from that show, so I have to wonder/hope that it was a cover of this A Man Called Adam classic
(and if you’re wondering, yeah, I had this before Harvey played it)
Regardless of whether he ever actually covered a techno record (doubtful!) I did know a few DJs in the mid 90s who were adventurous enough to play his more danceable tunes in sets. “Soul Sacrifice” was one such psychedelic latin rock cut that snuck in:
those drums tho
Then things all went pear shaped in the late 90s when he embarrassingly paired with Rob Thomas on an album of equally poor collabs. He’s never really been able to live down “Smooth.” For a certain crowd he must still hold an appeal as he’s still performing at the age of 68 and he and his band are playing in Queens, NY this Friday. My dad and I will be there.
Hearing him in ’92 right around the same time I discovered electronic music definitely kept my mind open to Latin rhythms in house and techno. So what do you think? Ignorable adult-contemporary has-been or still relevant Latin guitar god? More importantly – is there a Santana disco record that I somehow slept on?
This is the second in a series of posts regarding musicians or tunes that conjure up strong opinions, both negative and positive, and discussion of exactly why that’s the case. We call it Divisive States. The first post is here.