The Number Ones

October 23, 1999

The Number Ones: Santana’s “Smooth” (Feat. Rob Thomas)

Stayed at #1:

12 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

The last #1 hit of the 20th century wasn’t just an unlikely smash. It was a blockbuster that defied all known laws of cultural consumption. Santana’s “Smooth” could’ve easily been a hackneyed, desperate grab for relevance from an artist who hadn’t had a radio hit in many years and who hadn’t been in the top 10 in decades. Instead, the song took advantage of a few different cultural headwinds and snowballed into its new role as a nearly Thriller-level cultural phenomenon. Nobody could replicate what Carlos Santana and his collaborators did with “Smooth” — not even Carlos Santana himself. The song was a one of one, a freak stars-aligning burst of consensus in an increasingly fracturing pop landscape.

In retrospect, “Smooth,” accidentally or not, rode a few different waves. The song came on the heels of the Latin pop explosion, the manufactured and hyped-up blast of excitement that still made full-on mainstream stars out of figures like Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, and Enrique Iglesias. The song also took advantage of the burst in growly post-grunge soft rock that had put “Smooth” singer and co-writer Rob Thomas’ band Matchbox 20 on top. And “Smooth” could also be considered the final chart eruption from the baby boomer generation that had ruled the charts for decades. It seems entirely fair to say that Carlos Santana was the last boomer icon to top the Hot 100. (Someone like Madonna, who will appear in this column once more, is technically a baby boomer. But Madonna is an icon who happens to be a boomer, whereas Carlos Santana is a boomer icon.)

Those factors all played a role in the story, but I don’t think any of them led to “Smooth” becoming the pop bulldozer that it was. Instead, I attribute the song’s success to something else: It was just too fucking catchy to fail. “Smooth” stacks hooks on top of hooks, and those hooks are the diamond-sharp type that sink into your brain, that can never be extracted. “Smooth” isn’t just stuck in my head right now. It’s stuck in yours, too. If you’re old enough, “Smooth” has been playing on loop in your head for more than 20 years. Right now, this very second, “Smooth” is squirming its way through some part of your cerebellum, and it will remain there until the day you die. It’s eternal. It’s just like the ocean under the moon.

Nobody could’ve predicted that “Smooth” would hit the way that it did, but a whole lot of people had to work hard to put the song in position to succeed. “Smooth” wasn’t a random occurrence that took everyone by storm. Instead, it’s the best-case scenario for record-label meddling, the kind of thing that every A&R rep envisions when they give notes about how an album really needs a single. The people who made “Smooth” all deliberately set out to craft a hit, and they all succeeded to a degree that they couldn’t possibly have imagined.

One of those people was Carlos Santana. In 1999, Santana’s legend status was secure. He’d made hits. He’d sold millions of records. A year earlier, he’d joined the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and he’d convinced one of his heroes, the enigmatic ex-Fleetwood Mac axe-wizard recluse Peter Green, to play with him at the induction ceremony. But that wasn’t enough for Santana. He wanted to get back into the game. He wanted hits.

When he made “Smooth,” Carlos Santana wasn’t a contemporary hitmaker, but he was a familiar name. The man wasn’t starting from zero. He’d already done that. Carlos Augusto Santana Alves was born in the Mexican city of Autlán, and he eventually moved with his family, first to Tijuana and then to San Francisco. Santana’s father was a mariachi musician, and Santana and his brothers all learned guitar when they were young. Carlos Santana loved blues guitarists like BB King and John Lee Hooker, and he played in Tijuana clubs when he was still a little kid. In San Francisco, Santana got into jazz and folk and psychedelia. After high school, he worked as a dishwasher and saved up enough money to buy a Gibson SG. In 1966, when he was 19, he started the Santana Blues Band.

The Santana Blues Band spent a few years gigging around San Francisco during the ’60s. The big-deal concert promoter Bill Graham was a fan, and he booked them to play the Fillmore Auditorium early on. In 1969, the young Columbia label head Clive Davis signed the Santana Blues Band and changed their name to just Santana. That summer, Bill Graham called in a favor and got Santana booked to play at Woodstock before their self-titled debut album had even come out. Santana blew a lot of minds that day, and they blew even more when Michael Wadleigh’s documentary Woodstock came out a year later.

In some ways, the pan-racial and stylistically omnivorous Santana fit right into a psych-rock zeitgeist that also included bands like fellow Woodstock standouts Sly & The Family Stone. In other ways, though, Santana were a true anomaly. The band played blistering blues-rock, but they also went heavy on percussion, bringing in sounds and rhythms from different forms of Latin music. People did not know how to talk about music that didn’t fit into the Black/white racial dynamic of ’60s pop; my friend Jack Hamilton’s book Just ‘Round Midnight quotes some of the truly insane descriptions of Santana’s music from the rock critics of the day. But even if their music resisted easy categorization, Santana still caught on. The band’s debut album came out a couple of weeks after Woodstock, and their first single “Jingo” entered the Hot 100 exactly 30 years before “Smooth” reached #1. “Jingo” peaked at #56, and that first album’s biggest hit, a cover of jazz percussionist Willie Bobo’s 1967 song “Evil Ways,” peaked at #9. (It’s an 8.)

Santana got even bigger with their second album, 1970’s Abraxas. That album achieved early-’70s blockbuster status, going platinum five times over. Its biggest hit was the band’s cover of “Black Magic Woman” a song that former Number Ones artists Fleetwood Mac recorded during the pre-Stevie Nicks/Lindsay Buckingham period when they just weren’t breaking through in the US. (That’s the one that former Fleetwood Mac leader Peter Green played with Santana when both bands went into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.) Santana’s version of “Black Magic Woman” became much bigger than Fleetwood Mac’s original, and it climbed as high as #4 on the Hot 100. (It’s a 9.) Up until “Smooth,” “Black Magic Woman” was Santana’s biggest hit by far.

After “Black Magic Woman,” Santana wouldn’t make another top-10 hit for another 29 years. There were a number of reasons for that. Carlos Santana remained the only permanent member of Santana — a definitive example of why it’s always a good idea to name your band after yourself. Carlos Santana didn’t sing, but his fluid, conversational guitar tone was always recognizable right away. As the ’70s went on, Santana played with a huge range of musicians. Neal Schon and Greg Rollie both played in Santana for a while before they broke off to form Journey. As the ’70s progressed, Carlos Santana got more and more into mysticism and jazz fusion, influences that pushed him further and further from the pop charts. He recorded with jazz adventurers like Alice Coltrane and John McLaughlin, and he briefly adopted the Sanskrit name Devadip. His particular form of weird was not especially suited to the pop charts of the later ’70s and ’80s.

Over the years, as the band’s lineup continued to fluctuate, Santana did make a few more hits. In 1981, Santana reached #17 with a version of Russ Ballard’s “Winning.” A year later, Santana got to #15 with a cover of the Ian Thomas song “Hold On.” Both of those songs were straight-up early ’80s studio-rock jams with all the yowling vocals and pillowy synths that you’d expect, and they sounded absolutely nothing like the Santana of Abraxas. Maybe Carlos Santana saw what his ex-bandmates were doing in Journey and wanted a piece of that pie. But Santana always drifted back to his more indulgent tendencies. Carlos Santana would occasionally take on vaguely commercial projects, like scoring the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba, but he’d always go back to jamming with jazz musicians whenever possible. At a certain point, his records just weren’t selling. After 1992’s Milagro, Santana went seven years without releasing a studio album.

One day, Carlos Santana got in touch with an old friend. Santana’s kids had been pointing out that they never heard his music on the radio, and Santana felt some kind of way about this. He talked to his spiritual guru and his wife, and both of them asked who he associated with being on the radio. Santana said that Clive Davis was that person. Davis had long since moved on from Columbia and turned his Arista label into a commercial powerhouse. Santana invited Davis out to see his band play Radio City Music Hall one night in 1997, and he also mentioned that he’d love to work with Davis again. At the time, Santana was trying to get out of his Polydor contract, and he wanted to go join Davis at Arista.

This wasn’t necessarily an easy sell. Clive Davis had all kinds of warm feelings towards Santana, but Clive Davis wanted to sell records. Santana hadn’t made hits in years. He hadn’t even made records in years. But when Davis watched Santana playing Radio City with his new band, his mind got to working. Talking to Rolling Stone for a “Smooth” oral history a few years ago, Davis said how much he loved that Radio City show, but he also thought about it from a business perspective: “It triggered thoughts about the growth of the Hispanic population in America. And I saw a very diverse audience there: ethnic makeup, racial makeup, age makeup. I started thinking, ‘Wow, I wonder if Carlos could come back?'”

Clive Davis agreed to sign Santana, but he’d only do it if Santana agreed to his stipulations. If Santana wanted to record an album for Arista, then Santana would be able to control half of the album. The other half would be Clive’s territory: “I would look for writers or material that would certainly not bastardize your integrity, but that could be to potential hit singles or cuts that you would have come up with on your own.” Davis put it to Santana as a sort of challenge. Did Santana have the willingness, the discipline, to bring real energy to the studio? To make hits? Santana said that he did, and Davis signed him to Arista.

Clive Davis spent a lot of time and money on Supernatural, the album that was set to be Santana’s big comeback. Davis and his A&R reps went looking for commercially relevant artists who had said nice things about Santana in interviews, and they came up with a sort of dream roster. A&R guy Pete Ganbarg had paid attention to what happened with BB King’s 1997 album Deuces Wild, which was full of collaborations with King admirers like D’Angelo and Tracy Chapman: “I noticed it was selling better than a B.B. King record should be selling. I went out and I got the record, and I’m like, ‘Wow, great concept, flawed execution,’ because the songs weren’t great.” So Ganbarg set out to come up with a bunch of fresh collaborators and an album’s worth of good songs.

The people at Arista soon found that there were a great many artists who wanted to work with Carlos Santana. They lined up collaborations with Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, Everlast, Dave Matthews, and even Santana’s guitar-hero peer Eric Clapton. Even with that lineup, plenty of the people at Arista weren’t convinced; Clive Davis said that the album was nicknamed “Davis’ Folly.” At a certain point, someone from the label told Davis that the label needed to stop spending money on this thing, to put the album out already. Davis refused. The album didn’t have a single yet.

One of the songwriters who pitched a track to Santana was Itaal Shur, the co-founder of the acid jazz group Groove Collective. Shur had one hit under his belt; he’d co-written the neo-soul star Maxwell’s 1996 single “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” which peaked at #36. Shur tried to write something that would have the same kind of groove as Santana classics like “Black Magic Woman,” and he came up with “Room 17,” a track about a couple getting together for an illicit tryst in a hotel. Shur recorded a demo for the track, arranging everything himself, and he was convinced that it was a hit. Pete Ganbarg loved the music, but he didn’t think the lyrics would work for Carlos Santana at all. Santana was a family man, and he wouldn’t want to get into anything sexual like that. So Ganbarg said that he could use the song’s groove but that another songwriter would have to come up with the lyrics and the vocal melody. A publishing exec suggested Rob Thomas.

Rob Thomas was (and is) 25 years younger than Carlos Santana. Thomas was born in Germany, where his father was stationed in the Army, six months after Santana released Santana III. (When Rob Thomas was born, the #1 song in America was Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”) Thomas had a rough, chaotic upbringing in South Carolina and Florida. He dropped out of high school, spent a few months in jail for car theft, and went homeless for a while. Eventually, Thomas became the singer for an Orlando club band called Tabitha’s Secret. When that group broke up, Thomas and two other ex-members started a new band called Matchbox 20.

Matchbox 20 signed with Lava Records and released their debut album Yourself Or Someone Like You in 1996. At first, the record went nowhere, and the band almost lost their contract. But a radio station in Alabama started playing their song “Push,” so Lava made it a single. On the strength of “Push” and the similarly yarly “3AM,” Matchbox 20 took off nationwide, and Yourself Or Someone Like You eventually went platinum 12 times over. (Thanks to the goofy-ass chart rules of the ’90s, “Push” and “3AM” never made the Hot 100. But Matchbox 20 will eventually appear in this column, so we’ll get deeper into their story then.)

When Matchbox 20 got done with the years that they spent touring behind their debut album, Rob Thomas moved in with his girlfriend in New York. One of Pete Ganbarg’s publisher friends told him that Rob Thomas was a brilliant songwriter but that he was “doing nothing except smoking pot and playing PlayStation.” (That sounds amazing to me. My guy was living the dream.) Thomas spent an afternoon working on the song, and he eventually hit on the idea that he should write about his girlfriend, the half-Spanish and half-Puerto Rican model Marisol Maldonado. In that Rolling Stone oral history, Thomas said that he was kicking around a few ideas and that he “realized somewhere in the middle of it that I had this wealth of information because I had this smokin’ hot Latin girlfriend already.”

Thomas took a crack at the song, and then he honed it further with Itaal Shur, who lived a couple of blocks away from him. “Smooth” turned into an ode to a “Spanish Harlem Mona Lisa,” even though Maldonado is from Queens. On the song, Thomas promises to “change my life to better suit your mood, ’cause you’re so smooth.” He liked the idea that he could be singing to a woman or that he could be describing the way that Carlos Santana plays. Thomas recorded the demo, thinking that another singer would be on the record. (Thomas had envisioned George Michael, who would’ve crushed it.) Carlos Santana didn’t like the “Smooth” demo at first because he thought it sounded too close to “Guajira,” a song that Santana had recorded in 1971. But when Clive Davis wrote to Santana and told him that “Smooth” was a hit, Santana agreed to record it.

Eventually, everyone decided that Rob Thomas should sing on “Smooth,” and they went through all the music-business headaches necessary to clear Thomas’ appearance. Since Matchbox 20 recorded for a competing label, these were considerable, but they got it done. Thomas finally met Carlos Santana for the first time when he joined Santana and Matchbox 20 producer Matt Serletic to record “Smooth.” In Leila Cobo’s book Decoding “Despacito”, Thomas remembers the first thing Santana ever said to him: “Hey, you must be married to a Latin woman; that’s the kind of thing a white guy married to a Latin woman would say.” I find that to be fucking hilarious. In that same book, Santana himself says that he did indeed tell Rob Thomas that: “He had a different type of sassiness about him.” That’s hilarious, too, not least because it’s true.

In general, I think of Rob Thomas as one of the most generic rock singers of an era that was absolutely infested with generic rock singers. But on “Smooth,” Thomas does manage to conjure a certain level of sassiness. (He says he was just imitating George Michael, the guy he’d imagined singing the song in the first place, which tracks.) There’s something vaguely uncomfortable about this chesty-bellow guy trying to get all soulful with it, but Thomas mostly succeeds. There’s a nice interplay between Thomas’ voice and Santana’s guitar solos. They know to stay out of each other’s way, to complement one another. Santana’s leads are big and clean and melodic, and they add drama to what Thomas does. For his part, Thomas does a nice job going from the sexy-crackle verses to the vein-throb chorus.

The whole thing is just catchy. It was always catchy, from the first time anyone heard it. The groove has a bright sparkle to it, all these horns and pianos and congas winding their way though the track. Thomas growls out stuff that will be stuck in our collective heads for all of eternity. You know all the lines already. “Man, it’s a hot one.” “My muñequita.” “Give me your heart, make it real, or else forget about it.” Those “Smooth” lines — the “it’s a hot one” bit in particular — become memes every few months because they’re just stuck in our shared brain-space.

When “Smooth” became unfathomably huge, those lines went from catchy to oppressive, which makes it hard to evaluate “Smooth” now. “Smooth” was an absolute leviathan of a hit, a song that permeated the air for months and months. (Maybe it’s no coincidence that “Smooth” went through much of its chart peak in winter. Maybe people were wishing for a hot one.) That omnipresence isn’t the song’s fault, but it’s hard to fully embrace something that was once so overplayed, something that can’t really be rediscovered because it never goes away. Even Rob Thomas has said that he’d be OK if he never heard “Smooth” again. A couple of decades later, though, I feel OK saying that “Smooth” is a pretty good song — not a great one, but a pretty good one.

It took time for “Smooth” to bubble. The song and the Supernatural album both came out in June 1999, after Clive Davis made a hard push for radio stations to play a new Santana song. This wasn’t easy, since Santana was a 51-year-old legend who didn’t sing and who hadn’t had a hit in forever. But Davis booked Santana and Rob Thomas to play “Smooth” at his big annual pre-Grammy party. And Carlos Santana was already in the air, too. In 1998, Lauryn Hill had invited Santana to play on her song “To Zion,” making him one of the few big-name guests on her massively huge album The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. At Grammy night in 1998, the night that she won a vast armload of statuettes, Hill closed out the show by playing “To Zion” with Santana.

“Smooth” ultimately spent more than a year on the Hot 100. For three months, the song sat at #1. The song fit with the Latin pop hits that were all over pop radio at the time — tracks like Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5” and Marc Anthony’s “I Need To Know,” both of which kicked around the top 10 while “Smooth” was on top. (“Mambo No. 5” peaked at #3. I don’t know how the fuck to rate it. I guess it’s a… 5? “I Need To Know” also peaked at #3. It’s a 9.) Thanks to Rob Thomas’ presence, “Smooth” also got play on rock radio. The “Smooth” video got a ton of MTV play, too. Santana and Thomas shot the video in a closed-off-street in Harlem, and Thomas’ girlfriend Marisol Maldonado played the girl in the video. Thomas and Maldonado got married a couple of weeks before “Smooth” hit #1, and they’re still together today.

A few years ago, Billboard published a very strange and aggravating list of the biggest singles of all time, and “Smooth” was at #2, behind Chubby Checker’s “The Twist.” (In a more recent version of the list, “Smooth” had moved down to #3. I implore you not to look at this. It will give you a brain bleed.) In 2013, The Onion ran a bit about “Smooth” dominating the Grammys for the 13th year in a row. “Smooth” was so big that it almost doesn’t seem real. Even with all that context above, it’s still a little hard to figure out how this fun little song became such an unstoppable maddening juggernaut. Some songs can survive that kind of overexposure and still sound great. I don’t put “Smooth” in that category, but it deserves credit for being a fun little song.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter whether I want to give “Smooth” credit for anything. “Smooth” is “Smooth.” When the earth is consumed by the sun, the last surviving humans will still have “Smooth” playing in their heads as they breathe dying breaths. (It will be a hot one.) Soon enough, we will see both Santana and Rob Thomas in this column again.

GRADE: 7/10

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BONUS BEATS: In the 2000 movie Keeping The Faith, there’s a scene where Edward Norton and Ben Stiller walk down the street, attempting to look cool, while “Smooth” plays. Edward Norton directed this movie, so we have to assume that this scene was his idea. Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: The dumbest plotline in 2003’s Love Actually, a movie that is not exactly hurting for dumb plotlines, is the one where Kris Marshall goes to America because he knows that American girls like British accents and that his life will become a nonstop orgy. Late in the movie, Marshall’s suspicions are proven correct. Naturally, “Smooth” soundtracks this scene. Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the deeply unpleasant “Smooth” cover that the Las Vegas metalcore band Escape The Fate contributed to the 2009 compilation Punk Goes Pop:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The extremely online comedian type Neil Cicierega has released a bunch of mash-up albums that smash together the most infernally catchy moments from a lot of big songs. Naturally, “Smooth” makes a great many appearances in his work. Here’s his 2017 track that’s also called “Smooth”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2018, a musician who calls himself Jetski released a full album of nothing but “Smooth” samples, which is some true meme-brain at work. Here’s the record:

THE 10S: Len’s delirious slacker-bubblegum reverie “Steal My Sunshine,” a song that was the subject of a long and fascinating Stereogum article a few years ago, peaked at #9 behind “Smooth.” It’s a big fat slurpy treat, a total 10.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.

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