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Published: Thursday, 9/30/2010

Carlos Santana's road to 'Guitar Heaven'

BY GARY GRAFF
NEW YORK TIMES SYNDICATE

His latest album, Carlos Santana admits, caught even him by surprise.

"I would've never seen this thing coming," the legendary rock guitarist says.

"Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time" finds the veteran six-string virtuoso playing 12 classic rock tracks by AC/DC, the Beatles, Cream, the Rolling Stones, and more in collaboration with a slew of singers and even a guest rapper and cellist - Nas and Yo-Yo Ma respectively. The brainchild of Sony Music executive Clive Davis, it's not unlike Santana's Grammy-winning comeback album "Supernatural" (1999) and its similarly guest-laden successors, "Shaman" (2002) and "All That I Am" (2005), but even so Santana says that the prospect of treading on such hallowed musical ground made him uneasy.

"Clive had to basically draft me into his supreme passion," says the 63-year-old Santana, who was born in Mexico and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. "I was like, 'No, I don't know if I want to do this one, Clive. This one's a little challenging. I'm kind of scared about this one.' And he would stay on the phone for at least 45 minutes to an hour, three times in one year, and I was like, 'Oh Lord.'•"

Davis had worked with Santana early in his career, however, and knew how to allay his fears.

"He was like, 'Carlos, look, "Black Magic Woman" (1970) and Peter Green. "Evil Ways" (1969) and Willie Bobo. "Oye Como Va" (1970) and Tito Puente. You've been doing this all your life,'" Santana says. "So then I started realizing that, again, someone with that intense passion of commitment, he couldn't be wrong. He convinced me to be without fear.

"So I had to trust him and, when I did, this incredible miracle came."

Even miracles take hard work, though. Santana and Davis each chose half of "Guitar Heaven's" tracks, working from a master list that Davis had compiled using Rolling Stone's surveys of top guitarists and top rock songs.

"Clive said to me, 'It's logical - one of the top musicians of all time with the top songs. What's the problem?'•" Santana says. "And I was like, 'Um, I don't know.'•"

He laughs, recalling that the same thing had happened with "Smooth" (1999), which went on to be a smash and win three Grammy awards.

"[He would say] 'You didn't trust me on "Smooth," and look what happened,'•" the guitarist says. "He always rubs things in my face when he's correct."

Santana and Davis assembled an impressive list of vocalists to put some dazzle into "Guitar Heaven." A couple were Santana contemporaries: Joe Cocker sings Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing," and the Doors' Ray Manzarek plays keyboards on his band's "Riders on the Storm." Most of the album, however, is populated by younger, contemporary rock figures: Linkin Park's Chester Bennington sings "Riders on the Storm," for instance. Soundgarden's Chris Cornell delivers Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love," Chris Daughtry sings Def Leppard's "Photograph", and Stone Temple Pilots' Scott Weiland performs the Rolling Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knocking." Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas, who sang and co-wrote "Smooth," returns for Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love."

"Being asked by [Santana] to sing on his album is like being asked by Mr. Music to just show up," says Bush's Gavin Rossdale, who sings T. Rex's "Bang a Gong". "When I went into the studio, Carlos hadn't played on it yet because he's the king. We all do our bit and then he does his thing, but there's never any question that it's going to be amazing."

Train's Pat Monahan was excited to be tapped to sing Van Halen's "Dance the Night Away."

"I'm a huge David Lee Roth fan and a big Santana fan as well," Monahan says, "so I was really pleased to be asked to be on it, and especially that song. There were a few choices, and that was the one I wanted to do. And Carlos is just such a gentleman and an amazing spirit. He sent two dozen white roses to my house and said, 'Thank you for sharing your gift with me.'

"What a great dude, man."

A spirit of sharing was key to all the performances on the album, Santana says.

"I never think of being Carlos Santana," the guitarist says. "The thing that I brought to this, what I brought to the table, is my heart. I complement. I don't compete, I don't compare. This is not NASCAR. I know all these musicians. I know Eric [Clapton], I know Jeff Beck, I know Jimmy Page. And they know me, and they know I'm going to do my best to make it completely new, totally familiar.

"So I brought my heart, trusting that there's enough in me of purity and innocence and genuineness that I couldn't possibly, excuse the expression, [mess] it up. I have supreme certainty and confidence they're going to say, 'Hey, man, I love what you did with my song.'•"

Some of the songs have personal resonance for Santana. He recalls first hearing "Riders on the Storm" in London, while shopping at a hip clothing store. "Bang a Gong" surfaced while he was spending time at Sri Chimnoy's spiritual commune in Queens, N.Y.

"I was a strict vegetarian," Santana says, "and when I recorded that song, I was transported back there. So I have no recollection of where my fingers were and what I did, the conscious mechanics of it. I don't even know what keys they are or where on the neck of my guitar the notes were. I just trusted ... and that's what's really beautiful about this."

Santana admits to having particular favorites among "Guitar Heaven's" 12 tracks, with George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," featuring Ma's cello and sung by India Arie, at the top of his list.

"It's like a masterpiece all over again, in a different way," he says. "It's such an all-encompassing thing. You bring the symphony and you bring Africa with India Arie and you bring the Beatles and you bring Santana ... Bam! What a concept."

After finishing the song, he says, he sent it off to Harrison's widow, Olivia.

"I got back an e-mail that says, 'Carlos, I listened to the song and I started crying and jumping with joy at the same time. And I want you to know that George really loved you, because he understood your passion for compassion. How could he not love you?'•" Santana says. "And I was like, 'Damn!' That's like George Harrison himself, through his beautiful wife, validating my existence and what I did with the song."

Another Santana favorite, and an intriguing blend of talents, is AC/DC's "Back in Black," with freestyle verses by the rapper Nas.

"Oh, he killed it," Santana says. "We took it to a whole other level. It's extremely vibrant. It's probably the most powerful thing on the album. 'Back in Black' is like the Hercules of all the songs on this album. It's just nasty, and I mean good nasty, mightily mean. When you listen to it you go, 'Damn, they sound like they're 17, with just supreme testosterone happening.'•"



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