In 1994 things looked bleak for the career of Carlos Santana.
Not artistically; his body of work was among the most staggering in rock history. Certainly not in concert; fans turned out around the world to hear him play guitar.
But the music business was being run by corporations, not music aficionados. Santana had left his longtime recording deal and didn’t have a contract for the first time since the late ’60s. Rock radio was interested only in regurgitating older hits, such as Black Magic Woman and She’s Not There.
And when his wife, Deborah, was quietly tipped off that she should take a closer look at the business ledgers, the couple were appalled to find out that, like so many musicians before him, Carlos Santana had been ripped off.
More than $4 million due him had never been paid, a lopsided contract made it seem impossible to collect most of it, and legal bills would probably obliterate anything gotten out of a long court battle.
Throw in the towel? Not a chance.
“When I fired everybody, everybody sat up,” says Deborah Santana, who spent a year teaching herself the music business and took over the career that her husband had entrusted to others.
“That was difficult. That was an incredible year. I had some business background in the restaurant (that the Santanas owned in previous years). But this is an incredibly complex business. I had to work with the accountants and the attorneys.
“Till Supernatural (Santana’s huge 1999 hit album) happened, there were about 10 years there with Sony when we were really struggling to make it ourselves.”
The Santanas’ journey as a family is chronicled in Deborah Santana’s fascinating new book, Space Between the Stars. That journey continues at Red Rocks on Tuesday and Wednesday, when Carlos plays, Deborah has a book-signing and son Salvador not only opens the show but plays in his father’s band.
All three talked with the News recently about what got them back to a triumphant place in the business end of the game: the massive success of the nine-Grammy winner Supernatural, as well as the multiplatinum follow-up Shaman and the career-summing All That I Am, due out in November.
“Life, at least with us, doesn’t need to fall like a military drill,” Carlos Santana says. “The way we do things, we don’t need windows and doors and ceilings. Things just happen when they happen.”
‘You’re all of it’
Deborah King met Carlos Santana in 1972, shortly after getting out of an abusive relationship with Sly Stone.
The pair’s backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. He was born (in poverty) in Mexico, and if that culture wasn’t macho enough, he was a famous rock star. She was the refined daughter of an interracial couple from San Francisco. There was one commonality: Her father, Saunders King, a pioneering R&B guitarist whom Santana revered.
The match was near-instantaneous: They quickly married and have been together for 32 years.
“He’s extremely complex. I really didn’t know who he was when I fell in love with him. We married so soon after we fell in love that I didn’t understand the depth of who he was, and I don’t think he really did, either,” Deborah says.
“He comes from an incredibly macho background. The whole idea of standing in front of hundreds of thousands and playing this guitar, this phallic emblem, that I didn’t understand either.
“But a heart connection was what was destined to be. There’s something about us that is incredibly similar. We resonate on many of the same levels, even if we speak completely different languages.”
Santana, one of the gentlest souls in music, speaks a language rich in metaphors.
“I’m attracted to things that are more than glittery gold or fame or stuff like that. I’m attracted to things that make me cry, make me laugh, make me feel alive like a whale jumping out of the ocean,” he says.
Since the beginning, he’s been on a spiritual search that’s often reflected in his music.
“His intention has always been to lift people from pain or suffering or any kind of depression or sadness,” says his wife. “He goes on the stage with that intention: ‘I’m going to go out and give them my heart and play with total joy.’ ”
When he’s not playing, “most of the time I spend going to spiritual stores and buying spiritual stuff like candles, mainly books,” he says. “I read a lot of books about the relation between angels and demons and God and humans and how it all works together.
“This is the crux of the whole thing: ‘May the heavens open up and may the angels bless each and every one with a deep awareness of their own light.’
“That’s what I’m constantly looking for when I’m not playing my guitar. How to get close to it, grab it, chew it, digest it, have it come out of my pores, my eyes, and hope that my words don’t offend or anger people but give people choices and possibilities.”
It’s a method that’s worked for their son as well. Salvador Santana recalls that, as a teenager, he’d be practicing keyboards when friends were out playing.
“Why can’t I hang out with my friends? All that rebellion and stuff,” he jokes about his thoughts at the time. “It was all out of the good intentions of my folks, and it was all beneficial to me.”
Which is not to suggest that Carlos isn’t grounded in the real world, too.
“I don’t have a problem being holy or spiritual and being a (expletive) at the same time,” he says. “It’s all part of it. You can’t just be this and you can’t just be that. You’re all of it.’ ”
A musical invitation
Once Deborah took charge of Carlos’ career after 1994, they got back onto solid ground. Santana toured relentlessly, and then came an offer.
“My wife invited me to consider working with Mr. Clive Davis. I said yes, he said yes, here we are,” Santana says.
They had a long shared history – Davis signed Santana to Columbia Records when he was just getting started.<P>
“I came to him and he said: ‘Do you have the willingness and openness to get in this ring? In your ring, you’re really good. You can beat up a lot of people live. But radio is different. Do you have a willingness to work with a 3:15 or 4:10 (in length) song?’
“It was an invitation I couldn’t refuse, especially since I did 30 years of the other way. I have 30 years of working with Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius . . . I can spend three days naming who I worked with. So I tried fulfilling my need to grow.”
(His son attests to the variety of music Santana has played: “Since I can remember, I’ve been exposed to so much music, music from all over the world. I’ve been exposed to music that a lot of people have never even heard before.”)
Davis subsequently paired him with artists as diverse as Rob Thomas, on the mega-hit Smooth, the Dust Brothers and Dave Matthews. The rest is history, thanks to a change in attitude for Santana.
“I used to be a very warrior, territorial hippie who wouldn’t consider doing this or that. That person died, I’m happy to say, and gave birth to a person who’s more multidimensional and willing – which is the key word – to look (at himself) with the same eyes that I look at Jerry Garcia, Wayne Shorter, Herbie (Hancock), Kenny G or Michael Bolton,” he says.
“Every person was built in the image of God. Why should I treat someone like this and someone like that? If you get narrow, you become senile and very bitter. If you get more wide-open, you get sweeter and more gracious. I’d rather take gracious and sweeter than being senile and angry and bitter.”
The change was clear on Supernatural, Shaman and the upcoming All That I Am, which features Robert Randolph (who opens for Santana next week), Michelle Branch, Los Lonely Boys and even American Idol rocker Bo Bice.
“Because of Supernatural, Shaman and hopefully this (next) one, we’re able to reach grandparents, parents, teenagers, little children and toddlers, not to mention hippies, squares, guys with Mohawks, rings in their nose, a suit and a tie.”
Playing for a cause
Santana’s been involved in charitable causes for as long as he’s been involved in spiritual ones.
“All the music that I’ve ever played since the first time I played the guitar has African (influences) in it,” he says. “I play African music.
“That’s why when I go to Africa they love me and I’m not a tourist there. When I get a check from royalties, I send a big, big check to Mr. Desmond Tutu to help heal people in Africa. My conscience is clean.”
In the era when rock stars were trying to outspend one another with mansions, limos and jets, Santana kept a simpler life.
“Not all rock ‘n’ roll is like that,” he says. “Not all baseball is Pete Rose and steroids. There’s a lot of people who work really hard at giving back. Basically people pay me to have a really good time, and that’s what’s crazy. They pay me to do something I’d do for free.
“It’s the best part of music when we play music for free to give back to people. My band always plays better and I always play better when I know I’m playing for free to help heal or benefit or feed or educate someone. . . . It doesn’t matter how many times you do concerts for Africa or South America or Indians. If people steal some of it, keep doing it. They can’t steal all of it.”
Fans have had mixed feelings about Santana’s talking politics onstage. At a recent Florida concert, he dedicated Evil Ways to Jeb and George W. Bush. On fan sites, some fans endorse his stance; others want him to keep the politics out of the music. No chance, he says.
“It wasn’t really political. I haven’t changed since Vietnam. You’re part of the solution or part of the problem.”
“I don’t need to give a big speech. People are seeing what it is. It’s impossible to bring peace in this world by dropping bombs. The only way you have peace is, you invite people to have a talk, soulfully and calmly, and you find out how we can feed their children and educate the children with dignity and grace. How can you respect their god Allah, and how can they respect ours? How can we construct a new world with harmony and dignity?
“I was watching on Fox network how some people expect musicians just to play music and to shut up, as if we’re monkeys and you wind us up and we play for you. It doesn’t work like that. I have a heart. I have children. I have a right to say I believe there’s another way we can do it, with grace instead of by force.”
Book-signing of Space Between the Stars: My Journey to an Open Heart
• When and where: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, Visitor Center at Red Rocks. You must have a ticket to the Santana concert to attend.
Salvador Santana Band
• When and where: 9 p.m. today and 8 p.m. Sunday, Trilogy Lounge, 2017 13th St., Boulder
• Cost: $8
• Information: 303-473-WINE
Mark Brown is the popular music critic. Brownm@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-892-2674