1972 was a year of transition for Carlos Santana and his band. In the previous three years the band has ascended to heights of popularity, starting with their legendary show at Woodstock and through the first three albums, yielding hits that are still in rotation to this day at syndicated stations of rock radio. Their versions of Peter Green’s Black Magic Woman, Tito Puente’s Oye Como Va and Sonny Henry’s Evil Ways are now so identified with the band that many do not realize the songs have been written and performed by others first. The band has found a unique way of blending Rock and Latin grooves together, and the way they incorporated percussion instruments added excitement to their recorded and live performances.
But in 1972 a change was descending over the band. Promoter Bill Graham warned them after Woodstock and just before they hit the big time: “People are going to recognize you everywhere, and it will totally fuck up your head. You’re going to think you’ve always been famous. People are going to treat you like you’re god. The next thing you know you’re going to need a shoehorn to walk into a room, because your head’s going to be so big. Keep your feet on the ground – don’t get swept up by all that.” But preaching to young rock musicians about to embark on a roller coaster of excess in the early 70s did not prevent the only foretold outcome – sex and drugs and rock n roll. Aside from the obvious mental drain that follows the excessive use of drugs and alcohol, Carlos Santana was concerned about the negative impact on the music. It is difficult to bring new innovative music to light when part of the band is heavy on drugs. Santana had to take a stand and let some of the musicians go, including bassist David Brown and percussionist Michael Carabello. They were replaced in the beginning of 1972 with acoustic bass player Tom Rutley and percussionist James Mingo Lewis.
Other currents where also at play within the band. With the influence of drummer Michael Shrieve, who was into jazz before he joined the band, Carlos Santana started listening to John Coltrane, Miles Davis and other jazz artists. Up to that point jazz was not a major part of the band’s vocabulary and aside from Shrieve’s light touch on the drum kit and some instrumental passages on Treat from the first album and Incident at Neshabur from Abraxas and a cover of Gene Ammons’ Jungle Strut from the third album, the band was a Rock, Blues and Latin melting pot. The impact of listening to albums such as Love Supreme, Sketches of Spain, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew was life changing for Carlos Santana. In them he found not only a new music language that expanded way beyond what he knew, but also a spiritual expression that served as a grounding place during the havoc of life on the road. Santana about Michael Shrieve: “I owe Michael a lot; He’s the one who turned me onto John Coltrane and Miles Davis. I just wanted to play blues until Michael came. He opened my eyes and my ears and my heart to a lot of things. Some drummers only have chops, but Michael Shrieve has vision.”
Some of the band members were not that into the new musical journey that Santana and Shrieve started on. Keyboardist and singer Gregg Rolie (Lead singer on Black Magic Woman) and guitarist Neil Schon (his solo is on Everybody’s Everything) wanted out to start a new band, which eventually became Journey. They stayed for a little longer and participated in some of the recordings for the next Santana Album, which would eventually become Caravanserai.
Caravanserai is influenced by the exploding jazz rock genre of the early 70s. Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, Tony Williams’ Lifetime, Weather Report’s first album and Mahavishnu Orchestra’s The Inner Mounting Flame were all released in the two years leading to the recording of the album. It is mainly an instrumental album with segues between the tracks and is best listened to as a whole. It moves between atmospheric pieces like the opener Eternal Caravan of Reincarnation to fierce groove-oriented pieces such as La Fuente del Ritmo.
Carlos Santana’s favorite tune on the album is Every Step of the Way, and I share his opinion. It starts as something out of a late-60s Miles Davis track, a band jam that in a Miles Davis record could last a whole side of an LP, but here shifts to something different after three minutes.What ensues is one of Santana’s greatest instrumental achievements. There is a great Congas solo by James Mingo Lewis, an even greater solo by guest flute player Hadley Caliman and a fine orchestral arrangement by Tom Harrell. In his biography The Universal Tone Santana says of the tune: “For two reasons my favorite song on Caravanserai is Every Step of the Way – first because it sounds like what we really loved back then: Herbie Hancock’s Crossings. The song also reminds me of Shrieve because he wrote it and because of how we played together.”
The new direction the band has taken did not find sympathy with their label Columbia. Clive Davis who run the company at the time and was very supportive after the success of the previous albums, came to visit them in the studio one day. Carlos Santana recalls: “I wouldn’t look at him, I kept looking at the light of all these candles we had in the studio. He was telling me, “this is going to hurt you artistically, not to mention monetarily, you’re making a big mistake”. So I’m looking at the candle and I said, “Well, you did what you were supposed to do. Now we’ll do what we are supposed to do. And we are going to do it like this.” I mean, he was right – there ain’t no singles in there!”
Even without any single, and maybe riding the high of the band’s previous success, the album reached no 8 on Billboard’s Top 200 LPs list in December 1972. On the same week Yes reached no 5 with Close to the Edge and the list is topped with Seventh Sojourn by the Moody Blues. Those were the days.
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