He got the chance to see his idols (most notably B.B. King) perform live in San Francisco. He was also introduced to a variety of new musical influences, including jazz and folk music, and witnessed the growing hippie movement centered in San Francisco in the 1960s.
After several years spent working as a dishwasher in a diner and busking for spare change, Santana decided to become a full-time musician. In 1966 he gained prominence due to a series of accidental events, all happening on the same day. Santana was a frequent spectator at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West.
During a Sunday matinee show, Paul Butterfield was slated to perform there but was unable to do so as a result of being intoxicated.
Bill Graham assembled an impromptu band of musicians he knew primarily through his connections with the Grateful Dead, Butterfield’s own band, and Jefferson Airplane, but he had not yet chosen all the guitarists. Santana’s manager, Stan Marcum, immediately suggested to Graham that Santana join the impromptu band and Graham agreed.
During the jam session, Santana’s guitar playing and solo gained the notice of both the audience and Graham. During the same year, Santana formed the Santana Blues Band, with fellow street musicians David Brown (bass guitar), Marcus Malone (percussion) and Gregg Rolie (lead vocals, Hammond Organ B3).
With their highly original blend of Latin-infused rock, jazz, blues, salsa and African rhythms, the band (which quickly adopted their frontman’s name, Santana) gained an immediate following on the San Francisco club circuit. The band’s early success, capped off by a memorable performance at Woodstock in 1969, led to him signing a recording contract with Columbia Records, then run by Clive Davis.
Record deal, Woodstock breakthrough and height of success: 1969–72
Santana was signed by CBS Records and went into the studio to record their first album. They were not satisfied with the release and decided changes needed to be made.
This resulted in the dismissal of drummer Bob Livingston. Santana replaced him with Mike Shrieve, who had a strong background in both jazz and rock.
Percussionist Marcus Malone was forced to quit the band due to involuntary manslaughter charges, and the band re-enlisted Michael Carabello.
Carabello brought with him percussionist Jose Chepito Areas, who was already well known in his country, Nicaragua, and, with his skills and professional experience, was a major contributor to the band.
Bill Graham, a Latin Music aficionado, had been a fan of the band from its inception, and arranged for them to appear at the Woodstock Music and Art Festival before their debut album was even released. They were one of the surprises of the festival; their set was legendary and later the exposure of their eleven-minute instrumental “Soul Sacrifice” in the Woodstock film and soundtrack album vastly increased their popularity.
Graham also gave the band some key advice to record the Willie Bobo song “Evil Ways”, as he felt it would get them radio airplay. Their first album, Santana, was released in August 1969 and became a huge hit, reaching #4 on the U.S. album charts, with the catchy single “Evil Ways” reaching number nine on the Billboard Hot 100.
In 1969, the band’s performance at the Woodstock festival introduced them to an international audience and garnered critical acclaim, although the band’s sudden success put pressure on the group, highlighting the different musical directions in which Rolie and Santana were starting to go.
Rolie, along with some of the other band members, wanted to emphasize a basic hard rock sound which had been a key component in establishing the band from the start. Santana, however, was increasingly interested in moving beyond his love of blues and rock and wanted more jazzy, ethereal elements in the music, which were influenced by his fascination with Gábor Szabó, Miles Davis, Pharoah Sanders, and John Coltrane, as well as his growing interest in spirituality.
At the same time, Chepito Areas was stricken with a near-fatal brain hemorrhage, and Santana hoped to continue by finding a temporary replacement (first Willie Bobo, then Coke Escovedo), while others in the band, especially Michael Carabello, felt it was wrong to perform publicly without Areas. Cliques formed, and the band started to disintegrate.
Consolidating the interest generated by their first album, and their highly acclaimed live performance at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969, the band followed up with their second album, Abraxas, in September 1970.
The album’s mix of rock, blues, jazz, salsa and other influences was very well received, showing a musical maturation from their first album and refining the band’s early sound. Abraxas included two of Santana’s most enduring and well-known hits, “Oye Como Va”, and “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen”.
Abraxas spent six weeks at #1 on the Billboard chart at the end of 1970. The album remained on the charts for 88 weeks and was certified 4x platinum in 1986. In 2003 the album was ranked number 205 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
Teenage San Francisco Bay Area guitar prodigy Neal Schon was asked to join the band in 1971, in time to complete the third album, Santana III. The band now boasted a powerful dual-lead-guitar act that gave the album a tougher sound. The sound of the band was also helped by the return of a recuperated Chepito Areas and the assistance of Coke Escovedo in the percussion section.
Enhancing the band’s sound further was the support of popular Bay Area group Tower of Power’s horn section, Luis Gasca of Malo, and other session musicians which added to both percussion and vocals, injecting more energy to the proceedings. Santana III was another success, reaching #1 on the album charts, selling two million copies, and yielding the hits “Everybody’s Everything” and “No One to Depend On”.
Tension between members of the band continued, however. Along with musical differences, drug use became a problem, and Santana was deeply worried that it was affecting the band’s performance. Coke Escovedo encouraged Santana to take more control of the band’s musical direction, much to the dismay of some of the others who thought that the band and its sound was a collective effort.
Also, financial irregularities were exposed while under the management of Stan Marcum, whom Bill Graham criticized as being incompetent. Growing resentments between Santana and Michael Carabello over lifestyle issues resulted in his departure on bad terms.
James Mingo Lewis was hired at the last minute as a replacement at a concert in New York City. David Brown later left due to substance abuse problems. A South American tour was cut short in Lima, Peru, due to student protests against U.S. governmental policies and unruly fans. The madness of the tour convinced Santana that changes needed to be made in the band and in his life.