Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our show 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 53, which explores Santana’s supernova return to chart dominance, the Rob Thomas–assisted “Smooth.”
Were you aware that “Smooth,” by Santana and Rob Thomas, is the third biggest song of all time, in the 63-year history of Billboard’s fabled Hot 100 singles chart? Since 1958. Quite a convoluted chart, to regard historically, I imagine, in terms of the methodology changing over the course of 63 years, from vinyl to CDs, radio play to streaming, etc., but still: top three of all time according to Billboard, the authority on such matters.
Here we go: top five greatest of all-time Hot 100 songs. That’s what Billboard calls it. No. 1: “Blinding Lights,” by the Weeknd. Recent addition. That’s streaming for you. Streaming and cocaine. No. 2: “The Twist,” by Chubby Checker. No. 3: “Smooth,” by Santana featuring Rob Thomas. No. 4: “Mack the Knife,” by Bobby Darin. And No. 5: “Uptown Funk,” exclamation point by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars. Weird chart, dude. I love it. Real quick. No. 6: “How Do I Live,” by LeAnn Rimes. No. 7: “Party Rock Anthem,” by LMFAO. God bless. No. 8: “I Gotta Feeling,” by the Black Eyed Peas. No. 9: The “Macarena.” No. 10: “Shape of You,” by Ed Sheeran. Just chaos. Weird chart, dude. I love it.
“Smooth” was the last no. 1 song of the 20th century. “Smooth” was the first no. 1 song of the 21st century. “Smooth” reigned at no. 1 for 12 weeks, total, but it felt like two whole centuries. “Smooth” somehow sounds, today, like it’s still the no. 1 song in America, today. At the 42nd-annual Grammy Awards, held in February 2000, Santana and his buddies won 45 Grammys in one night. Sorry, I’m exaggerating. Nine. Nine Grammys in one night for Team Santana. Album of the Year for Supernatural, and then Record of the Year (for the performance of a song), and Song of the Year (for songwriting, awarded to Rob Thomas and his cowriter, Itaal Shuur) for “Smooth.” That’s a clean sweep of the top three categories. They should’ve just given Santana Best New Artist, too. Supernatural was like his 18th album but the Grammys don’t give a shit if the Best New Artist is actually new. Anyway, then Santana won six other Grammys. Nine total. Eight of those were his. Eight Grammys for one guy in one night ties the all-time record. Ties whom, you ask? Michael Jackson, in 1983, the year after Thriller came out.
“Smooth,” by industry metrics, is massive on a scale far beyond any song we have yet discussed. What’s the deal here? Is this about the song or the industry that invented the metrics that measure the song? How hot are we talking, exactly? There’s a short answer and a long answer. Let’s let Carlos Santana give the short answer. In 2019 Esquire did a big oral history of “Smooth,” for the song’s 20th anniversary. (So did Rolling Stone.) Anecdotally, “Smooth” is the most oral history’d pop song ever, and each and every one of those oral histories is essential. Excellent oral history material, “Smooth.” But so Carlos Santana told Esquire, quote, “This song belongs with something that people need every day in their lives: air, water and sex. You can have food—granola, or whatever. But basically, air for your lungs, water for your body, and s-e-x for your psyche.” End quote.
Above we have the relatively unknown San Francisco rock band Santana, featuring righteous lead guitar from then-22-year-old bandleader Carlos Santana, performing the song “Soul Sacrifice” at fuckin’ Woodstock. Not Limp Bizkit Woodstock. The original, legit 1969 Woodstock. Can you imagine Carlos Santana’s rad-guitar-solo face onstage at the original Woodstock? The ecstatic, cosmic wince on his face? Like he asked God to kick him in the nuts and God complied. Carlos has got the black vest on with no shirt underneath. Carlos has a world-historically rad band gathered around him—shout-out the drummer, Michael Shrieve; the top YouTube comment for this “Soul Survivor” Woodstock video reads, “Whole band is battling quantum realities but the drummer is keeping the portal open.” Fact check: true. You want some drums? Of course you do.
The first three Santana records—Santana in 1969, Abraxas in 1970, and Santana III in 1971—these first three records stand apart, I think, as a foundational trilogy in the distinguished academic field of rad guitar face rock ’n’ roll. And I think Carlos Santana distinguishes himself, immediately and permanently, as a singular, towering, instantly recognizable guitar-god-type dude. His guitar playing, to me, is conversational. He plays guitar in complete thoughts, complete sentences. Even when he’s shredding it’s legible, lyrical shredding. Sometimes this conversation is with you, the ideally stoned-out-of-your-gourd late-’60s/early-’70s listener. And pretty much always, in a strikingly easeful and generous way, it’s a conversation with his band. This is two minutes into the song “Waiting,” the first song on the first Santana record. Dig the high-level philosophical debate transpiring between Carlos on guitar and lead singer Greg Rolie on Hammond organ here. You wanted some Hammond organ, right? Of course you do.
If you know pre-“Smooth” Santana only for his biggest, gaudiest singles, you’ll find those on these first three albums. “Evil Ways,” “Oye Como Va,” “Black Magic Woman,” “No One to Depend On” (personal favorite)—it’s like a three-disc greatest-hits collection. I got a quandary here. I feel super weird telescoping the next 25-plus years and 14-odd albums of Santana’s history into like 15 seconds. The glib, insufficient, apologetic summary is that first of all, Santana, as a group of people, turns over personnel-wise several times in the next quarter-century. Pro tip for all you young rockers out there: Name the band after yourself. Make the band name just your last name. This makes it very difficult for your bandmates to fire you; this makes it much easier to jettison various bandmates. You know those colored timeline charts on Wikipedia, to show you who’s been in the band, in which years and for how long? The Santana chart looks like a 50-story-tall Atari game having a panic attack.
Also—glibly, insufficiently, apologetically—Carlos Santana, starting right with the fourth Santana album, Caravanserai in 1972, he starts pushing the band jazzward. In the cosmic, funk-inflected, Miles Davis fusion sense. Buncha albums like that. Stay stoned out of your gourd—that’s my advice. In the late ’70s, early ’80s, Santana as a band turns back toward rock radio, with modest success. This is a song called “You Know That I Love You,” from the 1979 album Marathon, we got Alex Ligertwood on lead vocals, we got Alex and Carlos having a lovely, lyrical conversation, albeit in a very goopy, era-appropriate, Ooh, you could hear this on the radio in the early ’80s sorta way.
It was a Top 40 hit, though. In 1981, on an album called Zebop!, exclamation point, Santana had a top-20 hit called “Winning.” It sounds like a Karate Kid movie three years before the first Karate Kid movie. The deeper I get into this, the shallower it feels to me. The last pre-“Smooth” Santana record came out in 1992, it was called Milagro, it’s a very chill, easier-listening fusion-type deal, lovely tributes to Miles Davis and legendary San Francisco concert promoter Bill Graham. But Carlos Santana doesn’t sound like a guy chasing hits, or pop clout, in any sense. This song’s called “Make Somebody Happy,” and it’s just Carlos Santana, guitar god, having an engrossing conversation with whoever wants to converse with him.
All of which is to say that every “Smooth” oral history begins with a version of the same anecdote: July 1997. Santana performs at Radio City Music Hall, in New York City. One of the most famous concert venues in New York City. Santana as an enterprise is doing fine. A best-case-scenario career now touching four decades. The following year, in 1998, Santana the band will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, alongside the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. This doesn’t mean Santana as a band is over, but it does mean Santana’s legacy is assured. There is no need, and for sure no expectation, that Carlos Santana will attempt, here in the late 1990s, to be a present-tense pop hitmaker. But that’s what Carlos Santana wants. Carlos Santana is tired of his children negging him by observing that they pretty much never hear him on the radio anymore, the way they always hear, say, Eric Clapton. Very rude children. Carlos went to his spiritual adviser, and told his spiritual adviser that he’d like to be on pop radio again. His spiritual adviser was like, Who do you associate with being on pop radio? And Carlos said, “Clive Davis.”
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.