A unifying person – walking the talk with Carlos Santana

The following post was written a few years ago, but I felt the words and actions of Carlos Santana are more needed than ever. Santana is one of the greatest guitarists and is known for his collaborations. And, let me add that collaborations must be nurtured and cultivated.

I was watching an excellent documentary film on HBO about Carlos Santana, which included the lead up to and concert in his birth country of Mexico at the Festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The music is terrific, but the stories from Santana and his fellow performers, friends and family are enlightening and confirming. Santana received a Kennedy Center Honor from President Obama in December, 2013 for his life’s work and devotion to making great music and sharing it with us and his fellow performers.

As one of the best guitarists around, Santana has a gift of working well with other performers and using their talents to make beautiful music. In the documentary, he was described as a “unifying person” which may be one of the nicest compliments you could pay to someone. The story-teller said Santana had a gift for unifying diverse music and musical talents to make a unique and wonderful sound. Three quick stories, two from Santana and one from his wife Cindy Blackman, will provide great glimpses into Santana’s make-up.

Someone asked Santana how he was able to collaborate so well with other musicians in recordings and in performances. He said, “I just show up with a smile on my face and a willingness to work together with others.” If we could bottle that and give it to everyone to drink, what a difference that would make. A simple example of this was when Santana was talking to his fellow musicians about “not playing too loudly, so as not to drown out the voice of the singers.” I had heard him earlier describe that you have to provide some space for people to listen to the various subtleties of the music. To me, this is giving of himself to make the whole sound better.

The last example comes from his relatively new bride, Cindy Blackman, whom he married in 2010. She was describing how at the Kennedy Center Honors banquet, Santana went back to the kitchen to thank all of the chefs and wait staff for their help that night. He noted later in the documentary, many of us immigrants came to America and took jobs to have a chance to live in a great country. They work hard and we should acknowledge them.

I purposefully did not make this about his wonderful repertoire of songs. His music will live on. I was so moved by this quote of him being a “unifying person” I felt the need to share his example for us all. Muchas gracias, amigo.

Two brother Seals, two different duos

Two very good singing groups that are likely not top of mind have a connection. The 1970s duo Seals and Crofts has the greater notoriety, but England Dan and John Ford Coley had some hit records later in the decade as well. The connection is Jimmy Seals and (England) Dan Seals are brothers.

If you listen carefully, you can hear the vocal resemblance. Seals and Croft hit it big with “Summer Breeze,” but also had several other hits “Get Closer,” “We may never pass this way again,” and “You’re the love,” to name a few. The following lyric is from the chorus of “Summer Breeze.”

“Summer breeze, makes me feel fine, blowing through the jasmine in my mind”

From “Get Closer,” here is the straightforward chorus:

“Darlin’ if you want me to be closer to you, get closer to me
Darlin’ if you want me to be closer to you, get closer to me
Darlin’ if you want me to love, love only you, then love only me
Darlin’ if you want me to see, see only you, then see only me”

While “Summer Breeze” is more whimsical, “Get Closer” is more direct – the singers are not looking for unrequited love. I am committed to you, but I need you to be committed to me,

England Dan and John Ford Coley are remembered for a couple of big hits “I’d really love to see you tonight,” “Nights are forever without you,” and “Love is the answer.” The last song makes you question which of the two duos is singing it. Here are a few of its lyrics:

“Name your price
A ticket to paradise
I can’t stay here any more
And I’ve looked high and low
I’ve been from shore to shore to shore
If there’s a short cut I’d have found it
But there’s no easy way around it

Light of the world, shine on me
Love is the answer
Shine on us all, set us free
Love is the answer”

The latter duo was arguably more pop oriented than Seals and Crofts, but it does not mean their songs were not good. I encourage you to visit or revisit their songs. And, I wish a nice summer breeze for all of us.

Competition and collaboration

I am reading a wonderful book on the life of Paul Simon. His story of dedication and diligence to his craft is an amazing read. He is a highly competitive, yet very collaborative professional. And, he notices these qualities in others.

Simon noted after meeting the driving forces of The Beatles, he saw how competitive John Lennon and Paul McCartney were. They made each other better trying to outdo the other. But, they also were highly collaborative with each other and other musicians within the band and recording studio.

Don Henley and Glenn Frey of The Eagles were similar. Like Simon and the lead Beatles, Henley and Frey are highly prolific songwriters. Yet, they worked relentlessly on their harmonies. They were as close to flawless as possible. Regardless of who sang the lead, the others contributed to making the music sound even better.

The Beatles were known for their harmonies as well, with numerous takes and much practice. Like The Eagles, regardless of the lead, they all worked together to get the right sound, either vocally or instrumentally. There is a great documentary on the making of Sgt. Pepper that highlights the competition and collaboration which created the most acclaimed album of its time.

Back to Paul Simon, he and Art Garfunkel would practice their harmonies facing each other to watch the other’s mouth as they sang. They even preferred to record singing in one mike because rhey felt it sounded better. And, like The Beatles, Simon constanty pursued makig the music better collaborating with other musicians who brought different styles of music.

Plus, Simon is competitive due to being told he was not tall enough, he wasn’t good enough, he didn’t have the right birthplace to be a folk singer, he wasn’t rock-n-roll enough, he couldn’t sing as well as Garfunkel, etc. Simon just learned his craft behind the scenes even going to England where he was more accepted for his unique style and songwriting.

Competition is a good thing. Yet, checking egos and working together make the product even better. Collaboration is vital, otherwise the competition can become unproductive through sabotage or rooting for failure. The dysfunction in Congress and White House are obvious examples where the absence of collaboration is stifling progress.

So, it is more than fine to compete, but do collaborate. That added seasoning could make all the difference.

 

A few cheers for George and Ringo

My friend Jill did an excellent piece yesterday on John Lennon, so I have been humming tunes of The Beatles all day. Without question, The Beatles owe their amazing success to the collaborative song writing of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Yet, to overlook the contributions of George Harrison and Richard Starkey (aka Ringo Starr) does a disservice to the band.

Harrison was the very young lead guitarist who learned how to play from banjo music. He was three years younger than McCartney and was only seventeen when they played for months on end in Hamburg. Lennon at first thought he was too young,

George Martin, their famous producer was walking the halls after Brian Epstein was unsuccessfully pitching the young band he managed to a Martin colleague. Martin overheard Harrison’s guitar playing on record and popped in the office and decided to take them on.

Harrison would flavor the Lennon and McCartney songs with his picking. He also penned some outstanding songs for the band such as “Something,” “Taxman,” “Here comes the Sun” and “Within you, without you” to name a few. He was accredited for introducing an amalgam of eastern/ western music which is unique to both cultures.

As for Ringo, he did not join the band until 1962 after the band fired their first drummer Pete Best. Starr had been following them even though he was drummer for another band. He liked to wear rings, hence the stage name.

I did not know this until later, but Starr is a left handed drummer who plays on a right handed drum kit. So, his style yielded an interesting sound. He also likes to record in the same room with the others to see and feel how they are playing. Starr collaborated with many artists following the band’s break-up, as he was easy to get along with and could play.

While he sang lead on a few songs “Little help from my Friends,” “Yellow Submarine,” and “Octopus’ Garden,” besides his playing, his main contribution was his effervescent fun loving spirit. He was the beloved jester in a band full of cut-ups.

One final thought comes from the excellent Ron Howard documentary “Eight Days a Week,” which highlights their touring period. Starr said he could not hear his band mates in the big arenas, as the sound systems were not ready for the challenge at that time. So, he watched their body language to keep in time with them. Now, that is professional.

A few distractions from unexpected guitarists

With so many things happening in the world, we could use a few distractions. The following music factoids on some interesting guitar collaborations are quite unimportant, but may bring a moment of relief and reflection.

Joe Cocker covered several songs making them his own with his unusual style, including The Beatles’ “Little Help from my Friends.” What I just learned this week, the beautiful guitar lead-in to and throughout the song was played by none other than Jimmy Page. Page had left The Yardbirds and had not started Led Zeppelin with Robert Plant.

– Speaking of great lead guitarists, Jeff Beck, who also played with The Yardbirds and with several famous performers like Rod Stewart, Mick Jaggar, Tina Turner et al, was captured in a collaboration on a very famous song with a Motown star. Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious” has a pulsating and memorable guitar riff throughout, played by Beck.

– Another guitar collaboration married a very talented songwriter and performer by the name of Michael Jackson with lead guitarist Eddie Van Halen. Jackson’s famous song “Beat it” has a Beck-like guitar riff and solo player by Van Halen, whose own band is quite successful.

Eric Clapton is arguably the best known guitarist in the world. He also played briefly     with The Yardbirds – an amazing line-up of guitar talent. Before he died, Duane Allman of The Allman Brothers joined with Clapton on his most famous song “Layla.” Allman was an expert slide guitarist, so he played the plaintiff crying sound on “Layla” for the last half of the song.

– Finally, although not quite the capable guitarists as the above players, two other famous musicians played on “Carolina in my Mind,” James Taylor’s song. Taylor was signed by Apple Records, which was The Beatles’ self-created label. Needing a bassist and additional guitarist, Paul McCartney and George Harrison decided to do the honors for Taylor. That was quite the set of studio musicians for the 18 year old Taylor.

I find these collaborations fascinating. When I learned of them much later than when the songs were hits, I enjoyed the songs even more. Give them a listen and hear past the singer for the guitar sound. There are some famous fingers strumming along in these songs making them even more memorable.