The boots are more than just boots. Much like everything in Carlos Santana’s life, they provide a lesson, a microcosm. Carlos found the boots he’s wearing this day—lilac snakeskin—on a recent visit to a shop in West Hollywood. They weren’t for sale; they belonged to the shop owner’s son. But with his rock-star charm, Carlos cajoled him into selling.
It’s just a little story he tells at the end of a lengthy interview, but one that reveals the full Santana mythos: “It’s like everything in life right now; it has to do with being in the right place at the right time,” he says. “The universe will bring you an abundance of opportunities and possibilities. It’s really all about trusting that before you got there, when you were sleeping, the universe was conspiring to give you something to blow your mind. Would you be open to receive it?”
That sums up the 72-year journey of Carlos Santana. He became a pioneer of Latin rock primarily through talent and determination, of course. But there was a large element of being in the right places at the right times. As a boy in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, Carlos was turned on by the Latin tones and rhythms of his ancestors. His father, a violinist, taught him to play the violin, but the instrument’s nuance eluded Carlos, who describes his playing as that of “a scroungy cat in an alley in the middle of the night.” He picked up the guitar instead. He learned to make that instrument sing like Agustín Lara, the Mexican composer and bolero singer who was his father’s favorite. But Carlos also couldn’t resist the popular blues-guitar sounds coming from the U.S. “I wanted to sound like B. B. King and Otis Rush and all the people I loved,” he says. “Go inside a closet, turn the lights off, and play, and try to sound like them. And then I didn’t sound like them. I sounded like me. I didn’t realize that it was a blessing instead of a curse. But when I stopped trying to sound like somebody else and really paid attention to me, I heard that sound that goes through all people’s hearts.”
The universe did bring Carlos abundance. He moved to San Francisco (again, the right place at the right time) and became a key part of a flourishing psychedelic-rock scene. His style—melodic guitar lines soaring over Afro-Latin beats in thrilling free-form jams—was not intended as commercial music, but fans responded and made the songs hits. Among them were “Evil Ways,” “Oye Como Va” and “Black Magic Woman.” He played the Woodstock stage at age 22, which ignited his career even before his band had released an album. He went on to record some 40 LPs, including 1999’s multiple-Grammy-winning Supernatural. That was three decades into a music career, a point by which many legacy artists are relegated to the oldies circuit. Never the lead singer himself (others have performed that role in the band Santana), Carlos has been an unusual front man by rock standards—more like the bandleader of Latin-music tradition. It was a decided departure from convention. And yet, more than 50 years in, Carlos Santana is still recording and performing and drawing crowds.
Watch: Carlos Santana Wants to Make You Cry, Laugh and Dance
“He sings with his guitar,” says Colombian rock star Juanes, who collaborated with Carlos on the 2014 hit “La Flaca.” “His melodies and solos are as catchy as a singer’s. Somehow his fingers are an extension of his soul. They have his stamp, and that’s everything when you’re an artist.”
Another Carlos Santana hallmark is his way of talking—of thinking, really—in metaphors, more than specifics. He loves to dispense pearls of wisdom, not because he fancies himself a preacher or a shrink. Quite the contrary; he says he’s been to therapy maybe twice in his life. Rather, it’s that he’s figured out his path to happiness and wants to share the goods.
“You stay relevant by trusting you have something people need. You know, people need air; people need water; people need some serious rrrrrromance,” he says, rolling the “r” for emphasis.
“Humans without romance become curmudgeons and predictable with misery.” Carlos believes his music helps. “I know that we bring something to the four corners of the world. When you play music and can actually see people cry, and then laugh and dance at the same time, honey, that gives you confidence.”