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Fillmore Fellow Travelers: Carlos Santana Reunites His ‘Santana III’ Band

Dean Budnick | October 21, 2016

It took quite some time for the years to melt away.

The alchemy itself was nearly instantaneous, as decades dissolved within moments, expunged by a few musical notes. The moment of inception, however, required countless months of preparation.

“I’m so glad I chased this with Carlos,” explains time-travel catalyst Neal Schon. “I was on a mission, and I just thought how great it would be to go full-circle. I was met with a lot of resistance, but I kept running into him. It felt like an omen. If I was down at the mall in Corte Madera, [Calif.,] then he was there. If I went to a restaurant, then Carlos was there. He probably thought I was following him… and I was.”

Schon, who was still a teenage Bay Area guitar prodigy when he spurned an offer from Eric Clapton and joined the Santana band in late 1970— only to depart a couple years later to form Journey—laughs at his joke.

“Seriously, though, at some point, it felt like a sign from above that I should pursue this. Carlos finally said OK because I was driving him nuts. So we sat down and talked about what we could do together, and putting the original band together was part of that discussion. I knew there was going to be healing involved, but I really thought this would turn people’s heads around.”

Carlos Santana acknowledges that Schon’s pure intention and raw indefatigability finally held sway. “My heart surrendered to Neal because he was so gracious and vulnerable in the way he was approaching me. It’s a supreme compliment that Neal’s heart and his graciousness were so diligent. He was looking at me the same way I look at John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. I needed to sit down with Neal and say, ‘That’s so complimentary’ because usually guitar players are like dueling banjos, and I never wanted to do that with him or Jerry Garcia or Eric Clapton or anybody.

“Some people want to compare or compete; I just want to complement and compliment. If Jerry Garcia goes up and down, then I’m going to go left and right. If Jerry Garcia goes left and right, then I’m going to go up and down. And Neal constantly put his ego aside in reaching out to me and saying, ‘I really want to play with you; I think we need to do something together.’”

While the impetus came from Schon, the musical direction flowed from Santana, who reflects, “When we finally decided, with clarity and integrity, to do a new album, I said, ‘Why don’t we call it Santana IV?’ Because I think, after the third album, it wasn’t Santana anymore. Caravanserai [the fourth Santana record] was an experiment. I think Santana III was the last collective, in unison—not looking over our shoulders at what Weather Report was doing or what Miles was doing. I thought, ‘Why don’t we accept that this is Santana IV, which is a continuation of Santana III.’”

Gregg Rolie, the group’s original keyboard player and vocalist, was touring with Ringo Starr in the Pacific Rim in early 2013 (at the same time Journey and Santana were making the rounds), when he received a few enthusiastic texts from Schon about the possibility of a reunion. “I called Carlos when I got home,” Rolie remembers, “and what he said was: ‘I want to get the guys together and call it Santana IV because the band stopped with Santana III.’ I thought that was brilliant because it should be Santana 40— he’s done so many recordings. But it expressed everything in those two words: Santana IV.”

Originally dubbed the Santana Blues Band, Carlos’ group was a true product of the collegial Bay Area music scene of the late 1960s. “I take it as a badge of honor,” the guitarist says, “when I tell people, ‘One minute I’m in Mission High School, and then, the next second, I’m playing on a truck at the Panhandle, and I just smoked a joint, and I’m playing ‘Jingo’ and ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ from Mary Poppins, and I open my eyes, and I’m sweating, and there’s Jerry Garcia and Michael Bloomfield, looking at me and laughing.’ Not laughing at me, laughing with approval.”