Long relegated to classic-rock radio and nearly forgotten by the youngest generation of music fans, legendary guitarist Carlos Santana's faithfulness to spiritual goals result in something akin to divine intervention. His aptly titled "Supernatural" album, currently resting comfortably near the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart, has sold more than 1 million copies since its release in June. The disc's stunning commercial success is due in part to the ascent of "Smooth," an irresistible Latin-flavored slab of scorching guitar rock and salsa rhythms topped by the vocals of Matchbox 20 singer Rob Thomas. The tune, accompanied by an omnipresent video clip featuring a harem of dancing women, is Santana's highest-charting single ever, with a rocket ride up the singles charts adjoined by forays onto adult alternative, adult contemporary and rock radio formats.
"Supernatural" gets its lift, too, from other notable collaborations, including "Love of My Life" with Dave Matthews, "Put Your Lights On" with rapper Everlast, "Do You Like the Way" with Lauryn Hill and "The Calling" with Eric Clapton. The star-packed "Supernatural" looks like a bona-fide smash for the 52-year-old guitarist, who last raided the top 10 in 1971, with a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Black Magic Woman."
Santana's earthy blend of blues, rock and Latin music first connected with audiences in San Francisco during the psychedelic '60s, and he played Woodstock in 1969. His band of the same name made its recording debut the next year, with an eponymous album that yielded the hit "Evil Ways." The group's early-'70s hit parade also included a catchy version of Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va." Who might have figured that Santana would remain relevant, three decades later, long after so many of his colleagues faded into obscurity, quit the business or died?
"Believe me, I thought about it really deeply and by meditation," he told Rolling Stone recently. "I am really grateful. One part of me is a little scared, because I have been enjoying my cake and eating it, too. I get to play, walk down the street, and nobody gets in my face. I don't need bodyguards and stuff like that. However, now it is going to start changing."
Santana's heroic return isn't exactly a product of happenstance. The guitarist, always a solid draw among concertgoers 30 and older, was yearning to make a connection with a new audience. With a game plan mind, Santana signed with Arista Records president Clive Davis a few years back (Davis was the one who signed Santana to Columbia in the late '60s). Supernatural, co-produced by Davis, is the first recording resulting from that deal.
Davis' idea to mix old and new on the project was the key, apparently, to keeping the guitarist -- possessor of the warmest, most adventurous, least domesticated six-string sound in rock & roll -- from succumbing to the temptation of releasing a recording that sounded too dated.
"I didn't want Santana to be a Seventies jukebox," he told Rolling Stone. "I want to be relevant today." "Supernatural," indeed, seems to have fulfilled that wish, from the stinging, trilling, distortion-laced guitar runs and bouncy, Spanish-language vocals to the thoughtful instrumental dialogue. The entire disc, Santana says, is a secular, musical version of an evangelistic tract, sort of his attempt to lead listeners to a higher plane of existence. "It's sort of like the Blues Brothers: It is a mission from God -- but it's not a cartoon, like that movie. I know it sounds very new age and far out, but that's my frequency.
"That's why they call me Cosmic Carlos.