Abraxas was the sophomore album by Santana. By the time it appeared in September 1970, the Latin jam rock band had gained significant popularity, fueled by a high-energy performance at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969 followed by the release of their eponymous debut record. While Santana established the sound and groove of the band’s classic lineup and was a successful album that peaked at no. 4 on the Billboard 200 in mid-November, I think Abraxas kicked things up a notch musically.
The album opens with Singing Winds, Crying Beasts, one of three all-instrumental tunes. Written by percussion and conga player Mike Carabello, the improvisational track with its mystic sounds almost feels like it wants to put listeners into a trance.
Next up: Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen, which undoubtedly is one of the record’s gems. It combines portions of the 1966 instrumental Gypsy Queen by Hungarian jazz guitarist Gábor Szabó and Black Magic Woman, a tune written by Fleetwood Mac founder and guitarist Peter Green. Fleetwood Mac, which at the time was a blues rock-oriented band, first released the track as a single in 1968. It was also included on the 1969 U.S. and UK compilation albums English Rose and The Pious Bird of Good Omen, respectively.
While doing some research for the post, I read that Green apparently encouraged Carlos Santana to record the tune. It turned out to be a good decision. Santana’s version of Black Magic Woman became a major hit, climbing to no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1971. The royalties Green received from the cover became a significant source of income after he had left Fleetwood Mac.
Pretty much the same thing happened with Oye Como Va, another album highlight that has become a signature Latin rock tune. The song was written by Latin jazz and mambo artist Tito Puente in 1963. And just like with Black Magic Woman, it was Santana’s rendition that turned the song into a hit, reaching no. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. Keyboarder and lead vocalist Gregg Rolie’s Hammond B3, along with Santana’s guitar and the band’s rhythm section create a powerful sound and compelling groove that invites people to dance.
According to an NPR story, Puente autobiographer Steven Loza said Santana’s version “exposed the world to Tito Puente and to Latin music in general. And “Oye Como Va” helped catapult the salsa movement to the ’70s because it gave the music recognition all over the world. And that inspired a lot of people to go into salsa.” It also brought Puente an unexpected stream of royalties.
Samba Pa Ti is among Santana’s most popular tunes and one of the best known guitar-oriented instrumentals. An Ultimate Classic Rock story explains how the piece came about, quoting Santana: “‘Samba Pa Ti’ was conceived in New York City on a Sunday afternoon. I opened the window I saw this man in the street, he was drunk and he had a saxophone and a bottle of booze in his back pocket. And I kept looking at him because he kept struggling with himself. He couldn’t make up his mind which one to put in his mouth first, the saxophone or the bottle and I immediately heard a song […] I wrote the whole thing right there.”
I also found an interesting nugget about Santana’s guitar sound on the album and Samba Pa Ti in a background article on Gibson’s website titled, “Flashback 1970: How Carlos Santana Refined and Defined his Sound with Abraxas”: “Although the cornerstones of Santana’s sound on Abraxas are his Gibson SGs, volume and the pureness and control of his touch, there are spots where he audibly used a wah-wah pedal to attenuate his tone. On “Samba Pa Ti” he left the pedal cocked to an open position throughout the song, achieving a sweet, warm distortion that produced the album’s most subtle guitar tone.”
The last tune I’d like to highlight is Hope You’re Feeling Better, which was written by Rolie. His roaring Hammond B3 and Santana’s wah-wah-accentuated guitar make for an awesome sound. The song also became the album’s third single, though unlike Black Magic Woman and Oye Como Va, it didn’t chart.
Produced by Fred Catero and Carlos Santana in San Francisco, Abraxas became another major success for the band. It hit no. 1 on the Billboard 200 in October 1970 and remained in the chart for 88 weeks. The album also topped the charts in Australia and reached no. 2 in Canada, while in the UK it climbed to no. 7. It was certified 5X Multi-Platinum in April 2000 by the Recording Industry Association of America.
Abraxas was ranked number 207 on Rolling Stone magazine’s The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list from 2003. And last year, the record was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry due to its “cultural, historic, or artistic significance.”
In addition to Santana, Rolie and Carabello, the band’s members included David Brown (bass), Michael Shrieve (drums) and José “Chepito” Areas (percussion, conga, timbales). The same lineup plus guitarist Neal Schon would record Santana III, the next and last studio album of the classic Santana band, which appeared in September 1971. In 2013, most of the band – Santana, Rolie, Carabello, Schon and Shrieve – reunited for another album, Santana IV, which was recorded together with Benny Rietveld (bass) and Karl Perazzo (timbales, percussion, vocals).
Sources: Wikipedia, NPR, Ultimate Classic Rock, Gibson website, YouTube