It's a cliche, but for Carlos Santana, the year of 1976 was a critical turning point in his long career. Coming after Borboletta, his third consecutive jazz fusion record, he was catching heat from the execs at Columbia Records to come up with something reminiscent of the classic Latin rock which had made him a star at Woodstock.
Santana changed managers and looked change course by bringing in an outside producer (David Rubinson) and recruited a new vocalist in Greg Walker. The rest of the band, Armando Peraza (percussion) Ndugu Leon Chancler (drums), David Brown, the orginal bassist from the classic Santana line-up and Tom Coster, on keyboards returned from the previous album, the lackluster Borboletta (Columbia, 1974), but now instead of jazz-rock hybrids, the Mexican-born guitarist returned to the fiery Latin rock roots which had been mothballed since Santana III (Columbia, 1971)
The switch back to a more overtly commercial sound followed a five year phase where Santana had grown restless with fusing Latin rhythms with rock n' roll riffs. He dissolved the Santana III line-up firing Brown and percussionist Michael Carabello with Gregg Rolie (organ), Neal Schon (guitar) in tow though they too would soon go their own way to form Journey. Both would appear on the radically different Caravanserai (Columbia, 1972) where Santana began a four-year experiment with jazz fusion that so annoyed Columbia Records president Clive Davis, he reportedly told Carlos he was committing "career suicide."
Davis was half-right. Caravanserai reached number seven on the rock charts, but confused fans who wondered why there was nothing remotely commercial in the new sound of the band. The next three albums, Welcome, (Columbia, 1973), Lotus (Columbia, 1974), originally a three-record live album released only in Japan and available as a pricey import, and Borboletta were fine additions to the collection of a completist, but overall the arc of Santana's popularity was trending downward.
reversed the slide, went gold in sales, returned Santana to FM radio and established the path of his career until sales flagged again until he reunited with Davis to craft the 15 million in sales and nine Grammys-winner, Supernatural in 1999, but that story is not this story.
One of the best things about vinyl is the sheer size of a record album provides an ample canvas for an artist to express themselves and the cover of Amigos by Japanese graphic designer and illustrator Tadanori Yokoo is either gorgeous or garish depending on your viewpoint. Mine is its gorgeous as even the "Santana" script logo larger than normal as if to announce, "We're baaaaack!"
Equally so is the music inside the gatefold cover where "Dance Sister Dance (Balia Mi Hermana)" signals Santana is all done with the moody navel-gazing. With Rubinson handling the production duties Amigos seamlessly shifts from propulsive dance tracks to pop-funk ("Let Me," "Let It Shine") to R&B, ("Tell Me Are You Tired") to Latin folk ("Gitano") and a Chancler/Coster penned instrumental ("Take Me With You") which must have sounded pretty on a lot of hipper jazz radio stations.
Santana's return to commercial relevance is fueled by Walker's vocals which offer far more soulfulness than Rolie's limited ranger was capable of. But though calculation is part of the album's conception, Amigos isn't a sell-out pandering for radio airplay and awards. At the time, Peraza's "Gitano" seemed like one of the weaker cuts, but four decades later, it's become one of my favorites due to Santana's luscious flamenco solo and it is decidedly not aimed for pop music appetites.
Rumors have abounded that Amigos was designed as a concession to the demands of Columbia for something they could sell than Santana's early 70's experimental output. The fact Santana shares songwriting credits on only two of the seven tracks lends some credence. In a 1976 Rolling Stone interview, Santana cops to his return to "earth music" had distinctive commercial considerations in mind.
"Whatever type of music you play, whether it be Mexican folk music or rock & roll, if you're sincere, what you are projecting has life and joy. If it's not sincere, it's weak, wherever it's coming from. I was very sincere about Amigos; I think it is one of the most challenging things I've done in a long time, as far as reaching the people again. With the last three albums, as far as being commercial, we weren't that successful, but that's not what we wanted. I was looking to fulfill a vision, that vision being to remind everybody that we have a promise to reveal, manifest and fulfill God. But with spiritual music I couldn't do it all the way because the people who are already into some kind of religious path are there. So why not play music for the people who aren't...but who are almost on the verge of turning the leaf. I'm still not looking at Billboard. But I do care about people. Touring with Earth, Wind & Fire made me realize that a lot of people are still waiting for the band Santana, not for any other reason than to receive what Santana, at one time, was offering thema different type of music."
Though the band bears his surname, Carlos has never been reluctant to allow other musicians to take the lead and Amigos is fueled by Coster's keyboards and Chancler's drumming as much as his guitar for reasons he explained to Rolling Stone.
"When I listen to the album I feel I gave my best to each track," Carlos said. "Tom and Ndugu wrote a lot of the tracks and they wanted a certain sound from the guitar and they didn't care who it was. And I think I came about as close as any guitarist would have come. I take pride in that because I'd like to feel I'm as open as possible. If somebody wants to hear a George Benson type of solo, a Wes Montgomery type or a Buck Owens type, I'm going to do my best to please them. To be confined as just a blues or Latin playerto hear people say, 'You sound just like Carlos Santana'is a drag."
Amigos is many things. Danceable. Highly listenable. Obviously designed to entice back listeners who wandered away during the jazz fusion era of the band and with one particular standout, "Europa (Earth's Cry, Heaven's Smile), a Coster and Santana composition which still appears on the live show set list 40 years later.
"Europa" has become a tunes in the Santana repertoire which retains a timeless quality. It's right up there with staples like "Black Magic Woman," "Soul Sacrifice" and "Smooth." As soon as the opening notes kick off, this is the song on Amigos which has aged the most gracefully. Clocking in at 5:06, it's the second shortest track on the record, but the interplay between Coster and Santana is perfectly in sync in a way the guitarist has been with few musicians since Coster departed the band in
In the discography of Carlos Santana, Amigos isn't his best record and it's certainly not his most interesting. In fact, you might even call it a little safe, but there is safety in returning to familiar territory and that's no knock on the jazz-fusion era when Carlos went exploring for new musical territories to discover. Amigos was a successful "welcome home" to the wandering guitar prodigal son.
Dance Sister Dance (Balia Mi Hermana), Take Me With You; Let Me; Gitano; Tell Me Are You Tired; Europa (Earth's
Cry, Heaven's Smile), Let It Shine.
Devadip Carlos Santana: guitars, background vocals, percussion, congas, jurro; Tom Coster: acoustic piano, Rhodes
electric piano; Hammond organ, Moog synthesizer; Arp Pro-Soloist; Arp Odyessy; Arp String Ensemble; Hohner
clavinet D6, background vocals; Ndugu Leon Chancler: drums, timbales, Remo-Roto toms, percussion, conga,
background vocals; Armando Peraza: congas, bongos, background vocal, lead vocal (4); David Brown: bass; Greg
Walker: lead vocals; Maxine Willard Waters, Julia Tillman Waters, Ivory Stone: background vocals
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