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You Couldn’t Write a Better Comeback Story

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

As sure as Carlos Santana is going to win a truckload of Grammys this week, you just know that some Hollywood executives are already thinking about a movie of the guitarist’s life. No “Behind the Music” for Santana--this is a comeback story meant for the big screen.

Who could resist a feel-good tale of such major proportions?

We’re talking about a musician--one with ties to Woodstock--who in three years goes from being without a record contract to the toast of the pop world, thanks to the blockbuster success of “Supernatural,” the album he and his group recorded for Arista Records.

The plot twists are obvious, according to the lore that has developed around the project.

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* Because Santana was without a contract, you might assume that the guitarist was a victim of a coldhearted record industry turning its back on one of its most respected figures because of dwindling album sales.

* You could also assume that Arista chief Clive Davis, who signed Santana to a deal at Columbia Records in the late ‘60s, re-signed him largely out of loyalty--payback, if you will, for the six platinum albums Santana made for Columbia.

* Once Davis teamed Santana with such contemporary hit-makers as Dave Matthews and Wyclef Jean for songs on the album, the assumption continues, radio programmers who had ignored his work for years reached out to embrace him once more.

You might make those assumptions--but they are false.

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There’s no need, however, to abandon the movie.

The real story, pieced together in interviews with nearly a dozen of the principals in the comeback campaign, is even better.

It’s not so much a case of luck, but one of hard work--a story in which two legendary music industry figures, musician Santana and businessman Davis, were both at the top of their form.

Santana wasn’t cast aside by the record industry. He felt Island Records, his former label, wasn’t doing enough to sell his records and aggressively sought a release from his contract, rejecting the label head’s personal plea to stay.

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And Davis didn’t sign Santana out of friendship. The Arista founder signed his old friend only after he insisted on seeing Santana in concert and was convinced that the guitarist was still a viable commercial artist.

And the road to radio airplay, which was crucial if the album was to become a hit, was not smooth.

Programmers’ initial reaction to the Santana album: At 52, he’s too old for today’s young target audience.

“It was a bloody war to get the CD on the radio,” Santana says. “I went personally to talk to the radio station managers and try to get them to change their mind.”

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The results of that war will be celebrated Wednesday at the Grammys. The “Supernatural” album has sold nearly 6 million copies--on its way, Davis predicts, to 15 million worldwide--and it has earned Santana 10 Grammy nominations.

Now about those assumptions.

*

Assumption No. 1: Santana was cast aside by the coldhearted record industry.

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At one time, record labels would keep “prestige” artists on their rosters both out of respect and for the cachet they lent to the company. In this age of conglomerates in the music business, in which there’s too much emphasis on quarterly returns, that’s a luxury most labels can’t afford.

Santana was once a big seller as well as a hugely admired musician. His first six Columbia albums, 1969’s “Santana” to 1981’s “Zebop!,” sold more than 15 million copies collectively, and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.

Davis--whose ear for talent has led over the years to the signing of such varied artists as Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston and Patti Smith--was so excited when he saw Santana’s band in the late ‘60s that he signed the group on the spot. But Davis would only be at Columbia for part of Santana’s creative and commercial run. He was fired in 1973, then started Arista.

By the early ‘90s, Santana was gone from Columbia. His manager, Greg DiGiovine, says Santana felt alienated at the label, and he signed with PolyGram Records worldwide. He looked forward to working closely in the U.S. with Davit Sigerson, who was head of PolyGram’s Polydor label and who promised him total creative control. But PolyGram went through shake-ups, and Sigerson was soon gone. Santana eventually moved over to PolyGram’s legendary Island label. Founded by Chris Blackwell in the ‘60s, Island was long known as an “artists’ label,” the home of landmark acts like Bob Marley and U2. Blackwell remained with the company after it was bought by PolyGram in the early ‘90s.

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Santana felt he had artistic control, but he didn’t think his albums were getting proper distribution or radio promotion through PolyGram.

A deeply spiritual man who follows the teachings of Indian guru Sri Chinmoy, he wanted to reach out to young people with a message of optimism and love to counteract the violence and rage he felt was dominating music and films. It was around this time, he says, that he heard the words of an angel called Metatron, who promised to “reconnect him to the frequency of radio.”

Santana knows that people roll their eyes when he mentions the angel, but he doesn’t shy away from talking about the experience.

“I know it sounds like California new age stuff, but I had a meeting with a few people and we were channeling and these two ladies said Metatron wants you to know that he’s going to get you back into the radio airways for the purpose of [spreading your message],” he says.

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The message--and the encouragement of his wife, Deborah--led him to meet with Island founder Blackwell in New York City in October 1996 and ask for his release.

“I told him I felt that I had a masterpiece in my belly . . . the same way Marvin Gaye did with ‘What’s Going On’ and Bob Marley did with ‘Exodus,’ and I looked him right in the eye and said, ‘I feel that you know that your company is not equipped right now to deal with something like this.’ ”

Soon after, Blackwell flew to Sausalito in the Bay Area, where Santana lives, in hopes of keeping him on Island/PolyGram. But Santana again asked Blackwell--"one artist to another,” in the musician’s words--to free him from the contract. Blackwell relented and didn’t even demand compensation for the canceled contract. If he had, he could be collecting royalties from “Supernatural.”

Assumption No. 2: Clive Davis rescued Santana when no one else would.

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Once Santana was free, DiGiovine and attorney John Branca, whose clients have included Michael Jackson, the Backstreet Boys and the Rolling Stones, approached various labels. They got interest from three: Arista, EMI and Tommy Boy.

Their first choice was not Arista, but EMI, because Sigerson, who had shown so much faith in Santana at Polydor, was now president of the label--and because EMI offered “three to four times as much” money as Arista, according to Santana.

While the contract was being finalized in the early months of 1997, Santana went into the studio in Berkeley to begin work on the album. But he began having second thoughts about EMI. He started thinking again about Davis’ ability to shape hits. Maybe he should have gone with his old friend.

Santana’s conflict was settled in May 1997 when the EMI label was folded as part of a restructuring in EMI Music Co.

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Santana turned to Arista. “To Mr. Clive Davis’ credit,” Santana says, “he didn’t rub it in my face. He said the company was still interested.”

Assumption No. 3: Davis signed Santana out of friendship and loyalty.

Davis has the deepest respect and affection for Santana, but he emphasizes that he is also a businessman. He needed to be convinced that Santana was still a viable attraction.

“There are lots of substantial artists who still make substantial music, but that doesn’t mean they can still connect with today’s audience,” Davis says.

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To reassure himself, Davis went to see Santana at Radio City Music Hall in July 1997. He was blown away.

Davis wanted to sign the group, but he had one condition. He wanted to have input on the album, presumably to make sure there would be some radio-friendly elements on it.

“I said to Carlos, ‘You take half the album and give me vintage Santana in the tradition of “Oye Coma Va,” and entrust the other half to me . . . to make the most natural collaboration of today’s musicians who were influenced by you.’ ”

Santana wasn’t offended that his mentor wanted to see him live before signing him. “That was OK,” he says. “It’s like, if I’m a horse, you still want to see me run the track.”

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And he wasn’t worried about losing artistic freedom under Davis’ proposal to share control of the album.

“He is not a crass person,” Santana says. “He would never ask me to do anything or play anything crass. I felt safe.”

*

Assumption No. 4: Davis had to call in favors to get musicians to work with Santana.

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Davis and the Arista staff did play a role in recruiting musicians to be on the album, but it wasn’t a hard sell. Most of the collaborators--including Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Dave Matthews--turned out to be longtime fans who were delighted to work with Santana.

Rapper-rocker Everlast’s reaction was typical.

“It was a great experience,” says Everlast, whose “Put Your Lights On,” a moody tale of optimism and hope, is one of the album’s strongest tracks. “I mean I got to work with someone who has hung out with Bob Marley and Miles Davis. He probably even rapped with Jimi [Hendrix]. And now I’m nominated for a Grammy with him.”

But the album’s most celebrated track--"Smooth,” the No. 1 single that is nominated for best record--virtually fell into the staff’s laps.

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The album was almost finished when songwriter Itaal Shur showed up in the office of Pete Ganbarg, the Arista artists and repertoire executive who worked closely with Davis and Santana on the project. Shur, who had co-written soul singer Maxwell’s 1997 hit “Ascension,” had a new song called “Room 17" that he thought was perfect for Santana.

Ganbarg listened to the song. He didn’t think the lyric was appropriate (a little too sexy), but he loved the music itself. So at the suggestion of EMI Music Publishing executive Evan Lamberg, he put Shur together with Rob Thomas, the singer for the hit Florida rock band Matchbox 20, to work on the lyrics.

Davis and Santana loved the result--"Smooth"--and it became the first single.

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Assumption No. 5: Radio immediately loved “Smooth.”

Like everyone else at Arista, Richard Palmese, senior vice president of promotion, thought “Smooth” could be a No. 1 single, a record that would not only appeal to longtime Santana fans but also bring him a legion of new, young ones.

To get the momentum started at radio stations, he sent advance copies of the single to five program directors he respected.

To his shock, all five said they wouldn’t add the record to their playlists. Santana was too old for their demographics. It took weeks of hard work to persuade stations to change their minds.

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“I always liken convincing radio stations to play a record to having to go into a courtroom and prove your case . . . , prove with statistics that the music will appeal to the station’s audience,” Palmese says. “And that’s what we did with ‘Smooth.’ The stations depend heavily on research, and we showed programmers in one city that it was getting strong adult reaction in other cities, including Boston. After about six weeks, a younger audience started to respond. Once that happened, everyone else followed.”

Assumption No. 6: Santana will win for album of the year at the Grammys.

We’ll know about this one Wednesday.

Whatever happens, Davis is overwhelmed by the results.

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“Never in my wildest imagination did I think the album would be the commercial phenomenon that it has turned out to be,” he says. “But when you work with someone whose music is as timeless as Carlos’, there is always the chance of coming up with that magic that touches everyone.”

Santana, too, feels his vision has been realized.

“The gratifying thing to me is that everyone is responding to the message,” he says. “I get letters and e-mails from 7-year-olds, teenagers, parents and grandparents--as well as other artists who send me their best wishes. It’s like an incredible dream and I’m not waking up.”

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Robert Hilburn, The Times’ pop music critic, can be reached by e-mail at robert.hilburn@latimes.com.


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