Santana's Return To Top Of Pop Charts No Accident, Label Boss Says

'Smooth' Latin rocker sought out industry veteran Clive Davis, who counseled him on making hits.

Although Santana's Supernatural features such pop stars as Dave

Matthews, Lauryn Hill and Eric Clapton, the veteran record-company president

who helped the band make the album likens it to the no-name, low-budget

horror flick "The Blair Witch Project."

"The word of mouth is the number one [thing] on this album," said Arista Records President Clive Davis, who signed Santana to Columbia Records in the late 1960s, when he was president of that label. He hooked up with the Latin rock band again three decades later for an album that has returned Santana to the pop charts in a big way.

"We just started hearing ... all summer that it made ... every dinner

party, every lawn party, every family outing, whereby they put it on,

and they just loved each cut," Davis said. "When you've got that combination

of great reviews coupled with hits coupled with word of mouth, that's

what keeps building it. Nothing more than that."

But, Davis continued, "It's certainly not an accident."

The buzz reached its height Thursday, when the single "Smooth"

(RealAudio

excerpt) climbed to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles

chart, becoming Santana's highest-charting single ever. That fulfilled

bandleader Carlos Santana's desire for a hit, which led him to sign with

Davis' label.

After years of less-accessible, new-age-influenced albums, Santana and

his wife decided to work with Davis again "so that we could get into radio

again, because radio is the frequency that a lot of young people are

tuning in to," the guitarist said shortly before the album came out.

Santana said he believes people are in need of spiritual healing, and

he sought airplay not so much to sell records, but to carry his message

of universal love to more listeners.

To get that airplay, Davis, who is credited as co-producer with Santana

on Supernatural, said he told the artist, "The best way to approach

this would be for you to do half the album in a vintage way — vintage

meaning the 'Oye Como Va' way, so that each of your hot Latin or

Spanish-language cuts would be really in the best of that tradition

— looking obviously to expose it to the incredibly musical virtuosity

that you've got, but also really looking to be on the radio with every

single cut."

"Oye Como Va" (RealAudio

excerpt), a Tito Puente cover from Santana's Abraxas

(1970), was one of the early-'70s Latin-rock staples that sealed Santana's

reputation. It was also one of the band's last giant pop hits.

"[For] the other half of the album," Davis recalled saying from his New

York office, "I'd ... suggest collaborations that made sense for something

that would be special."

The album's commercial success has been driven by "Smooth," a sultry,

Latin-flavored cut featuring Matchbox 20 singer Rob Thomas. Its sexy

video, starring Santana's fingers, Thomas' face and the bellybuttons of

a harem of women, is in heavy rotation at MTV and VH1.

The song has transcended radio formats. According to this week's issue

of the trade magazine Radio & Records, "Smooth" is the most-played

track at adult-alternative stations in the U.S., ahead of songs by the

much younger Melissa Etheridge and Sugar Ray. It's also #5 on the Hot

Adult Contemporary chart, where its competitors include pop upstarts

Tal Bachman and Lou Bega; #9 on the Rock chart, sandwiched between veterans

Lynyrd Skynyrd and Tom Petty; and #9 on the Pop chart.

The album is #5 on the Billboard 200 albums chart and has sold

more than 1.2 million copies.

"['Smooth'] is the number one most requested record in the studio at the

moment," said Julie Stoeckel, music director at San Francisco's KLLC-FM,

which identifies its format as adult top 40.

"The juxtaposition of Carlos Santana's signature guitar licks and

contemporary artists such as Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20 ... makes him more

accessible to our listeners, who might not otherwise know him or embrace

him," Stoeckel said. "I think 'Smooth' is going to be around for a while.

It's just getting started."

Rich Westover, Arista's national promotion coordinator, said getting the

song on the radio involved the usual courting ritual — phone calls

and visits to stations, "getting them to listen to it, to like it and

believe in it." A memorable melody helped, he said.

"I actually heard people singing the ['Smooth'] hook to program directors

to show how it's stuck in our heads," Westover said.

Arista first pitched the song to rock stations, then it moved on to

mainstream and adult-contemporary stations, Westover said.

In an unusual move, Arista next plans to push two more singles while

still working "Smooth." "Maria Maria" (RealAudio

excerpt), produced by rapper Wyclef Jean of the Fugees, has been

sent to R&B and hip-hop stations. "Put Your Lights On" — which

hip-hopper Everlast wrote after a recent heart attack and recorded with

Santana — is going to alternative radio.

Davis said Arista also is contemplating pitching the spicy "Corazon

Espinado," with Mexican rock superstars Mana, to Latin stations.

"We want every format to be a part of this," he said.

The big-name guests have helped. "Love of My Life," featuring rock

bandleader Dave Matthews, and "The Calling," with Santana's classic-rock

contemporary Eric Clapton, are getting regular play on rock stations

such as KFOG-FM in San Francisco.

"The tracks that we play off this feature the artists we play —

Dave Matthews, Eric Clapton, Matchbox 20," KFOG DJ Annalisa Parziale

said. "A day doesn't go by without someone wanting to hear some new

Santana," she added. "The album is sensual, spiritual and stellar."

The album also fits neatly into a pop environment in which five of the

top six songs on the Billboard Hot 100 — including "Smooth,"

Ricky Martin's "She's All I Ever Had" and Enrique Iglesias' "Bailamos"

— have Latin roots.

"Latin stuff has been really big here," said Brian Davis, an assistant

buyer at the Amoeba Records store in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury

district. "[Supernatural has been] in our top five every week

since it's been out. ... It seems like everyone's buying it. Everyone

who's not buying electronica is buying Santana."

Though Santana is no stranger to success, he hadn't had a top-10 single since his cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Black Magic Woman" reached #4 in 1971. That was the era of Santana (1969), which is certified double platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America,

and the quadruple-platinum Abraxas.

In the 29 years between Abraxas and Supernatural, the band

— which has been a steady concert draw all along — saw seven

studio albums turn gold or platinum.

But much of Santana's more recent music leaned toward less-accessible

new-age jazz. It didn't do as well among rock record buyers.

"There was certainly a latent interest," Davis said, "because in the same

way that he would sell out Radio City [Music Hall in New York], if

[audiences] heard something that stoked their interest, they would

certainly buy it. To sell a few million, you need hits. Without hits,

you can't do it. It sounds simplistic, but that's the answer."