Santana’s Debut

An album cover art story

Released two weeks after the band’s historical performance at the Woodstock festival, Santana’s debut album featured the hits Jingo and Evil Ways and a brilliant studio performance of Soul Sacrifice, the instrumental that forever immortalized the group in the movie that documented the festival. The album cover was as striking as the music and a perfect match to it, an artifact of the music and art scene in San Francisco in the late 1960s, created by Lee Conklin.

Conklin’s career as a poster artist started immediately after meeting Bill Graham in January of 1968: “It was a Friday night …. I went into the Fillmore with my drawings, and Bill Graham just liked what he saw. He needed a poster done that weekend for the following week’s show, so I went to work adding lettering to a drawing I had previously done – one that he especially liked.” The poster was for a January 4 concert featuring Vanilla Fudge, Steve Miller Blues Band and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, moving to the Winterland Ballroom the next two nights. Conklin’s signature black ink technique is evident here, a style he will keep using on some of the most spectacular posters promoting shows at the Fillmore West.

In contrast to many poster artists who worked with Bill Graham, Conklin did not follow the promoter’s instruction to “… make it bright!” This distinguished him from many other wonderful artists of that period such as Rick Griffin, Stanley Mouse, Wes Wilson, Victor Moscoso and Alton Kelly. Two months later, in March of 1968, he created a pen and ink drawing for a concert by Cream. It was printed in yellow, turquoise and red inks, but this is the original drawing:

The first use of an optical illusion in his posters comes with the meticulously detailed drawing for Moby Grape’s concert, also in March 1968. The motive of multiple heads that in combination form a different face will repeat on Santana’s album cover.

Conklin created many other posters in the following months, but we jump to August of 1968, for that is when one of the most celebrated posters to grace the Fillmore West went on display. The week of 27 August – 1 September 1968 featured three nights headed by Steppenwolf and also featuring the Staple Singers and an opening act by… you guessed it – Santana. The other three nights were headed by venue regulars the Grateful Dead. Conklin tells the story: “One day, Bill asked me to do a poster for a show and so, with a little inspiration from a muse named Mary Jane, I remembered seeing a picture of a lion in a book of animal pictures I had and used that image as the basis of my drawing. Even then, I knew that I was making art for future generations and so even though Bill usually liked posters in color, I detailed this one in pen-and-ink. I only made one image, and the next morning he told me that he was going to print is as it was, so he must have been happy with the results.” This is a complex drawing featuring a head of a lion composed of a number of faces for the cheeks and brow. The lion’s nose is yet another face, this one connected to a woman’s body made of the lion’s open mouth and legs stretching out of it. Quite magnificent, and the lettering is no less impressive, weaving into the image organically.

We fast forward 12 months to the release of Santana’s debut album. The band was obviously aware of Conklin and that particular poster, and asked him to redraw it for the cover of their album. The immediate success of that album, peaking at #4 on the Billboard 200 pop album chart, and the mass exposure of the band after the Woodstock film, forever linked that lion image with the band. The album cover became way better known than the concert poster ever could, and many of the band’s fans do not know the cover’s origin. Here is the album cover in all its glory.

Conklin continued to make posters for Bill Grahams concerts until May 1969, at which point they had a dispute over financial matters and parted ways. Things came full circle when the Fillmore West closed its doors with a final show on July 4th 1971, including Creedence Clearwater Revival and Tower Of Power. That night was headed by…. you guessed again – Santana.

Here is one of my favorite songs from that album, the lesser known instrumental Treat:


If you enjoyed reading this article and find yourself craving for one more about Santana, this article takes you deep into their 1972 masterpiece Caravanserai:

Categories: Album Art

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