I can still remember when I listened to Santana for the first time. It must have been in the late ’70s after my sister had gotten Santana’s Greatest Hits (on vinyl, of course!), the fantastic 1974 compilation album featuring highlights from the first three Santana albums.
To this day, it is the early phase of Santana I like the most. The band’s classic line-up with Gregg Rolie (lead vocals, keyboards), Carlos Santana (guitar, backing vocals), David Brown (bass), Michael Shrieve (drums), Michael Carabello (congas, percussion) and José “Chepito” Areas (timbales, congas, percussion) remains one of the best jam bands to this day.
Santana was the band’s 1969 debut. Its initial relatively modest reception was a bit surprising, given the album was released right after the band’s acclaimed performance at Woodstock. I think part of their challenge was that much of their music was instrumental, in fact, more than half on this album – something most listeners weren’t used to.
The record kicks off with the instrumental Waiting. Right from the get-go, the congas and the bass create a seductive groove that draws you in. And once Rolie starts coming in with his Hammond B3, it’s sheer magic! Here’s an audio clip of the piece from the band’s Woodstock performance.
Next up is Evil Ways. Written by Clarence “Sonny” Henry and originally recorded by jazz percussionist Willie Bobo in 1967, the tune was also released as the album’s second single in December 1969. It became Santana’s first top 10 hit in the U.S., climbing to no. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart. The fact that unlike Waiting this tune includes vocals undoubtedly made it more radio-friendly. Rolie does an outstanding job on lead vocals and plays a killer solo on the Hammond. Here’s a cool live clip of the tune, played a little faster than on the album.
Another highlight on the album is Jingo, a song written by Babatunde Olatunji, a Nigerian percussionist, and first released in 1959. The blend of African-derived rhythms and chants with Rolie’s Hammond and Santana’s guitar is simply amazing. Jingo also appeared as the album’s lead single in October 1969. While it is just as outstanding if not better than Evil Ways, Jingo didn’t have as much impact.
And then there is of course Soul Sacrifice, the instrumental composed by bassist Brown, Rolie, Santana and percussionist Marcus “The Magnificent” Malone, the band’s initial percussionist, when it was still known as the Carlos Santana Blues Band. And magnificent it is! Here’s a clip of the epic performance of the piece at Woodstock.
Initially, the music critics were less than impressed with Santana. Rolling Stone’s Langdon Winner at the time called it “a masterpiece of hollow techniques” and “fast, pounding, frantic music with no real content,” comparing the music’s effect to methedrine. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau happily agreed with Winner’s sentiment, saying, “Just want to register my unreconstructed opposition to the methedrine school of American music. A lot of noise.” Wow, you wonder whether these guys were on the very drug they referenced when they made their clever assessments!
In fairness, Rolling Stone later revised its opinion of the album, characterizing it as “thrilling … with ambition, soul and absolute conviction – every moment played straight from the heart”. In 2012, the magazine also ranked Santana number 149 on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Not sure whether Christgau ever revised his opinion or whether he is still on methedrine – but who cares anyway!
Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube, Rolling Stone