I fell in love with Santana III the first time I heard it.
Also, outside of being a fantastic album, there’s a pretty wonderful story behind it.
The details vary from telling to telling, but apparently, in 1970, a 16 year-old named Neal Schon got two phone calls from two very different people in fairly quick succession.
The first call came from Eric Clapton, who… you know, is like an OKAY guitar player (unless he’s playing with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, and then he’s GREAT).
Eric Clapton wanted Neal Schon to come play guitar in his new band that was coming together, a band that would go on to record as Derek and the Dominoes.
Shortly thereafter, young Mr. Schon also got a call from Carlos Santana, who wanted him to be the second guitar player in Santana.
Naturally, Mr. Schon made the right choice, and everything turned out okay for Eric Clapton too, because he snagged Duane Allman instead.
(Also, yes… Neal Schon would go on to co-found Journey after two albums with Santana, but we’re not going to talk about that right now)
In any case, this was the first Santana album in which there were two guitar players, and boy, oh, boy, are there fireworks to be found here.
The album opens with, “Batuka”, which is some raunchy shit. Most of the album is some raunchy shit, actually, but “Batuka” is a soundtrack worthy of a posse’s strut, and also, our first exposure to Mr. Schon’s lead work.
Throughout this album, Schon’s leads are both a guiding light, and a call to arms. For my money, he actually outplays Santana everywhere on this album. To be clear, he doesn’t do this in a mean way— but by playing the way that he does, Santana is pushed further than he had been previously, changing up both his attack, and oh-so-sacred tone in a few instances.
Schon’s leads are all heart, and all heat. His string bends are ludicrous, and at best, he’s able to make his instrument sound like a feral jaguar that just got out of the cage— one who’s looking to BITE, or give you whatever he’s got.
It’s the kind of playing that you really ONLY can get out of a 17 year-old— a player who’s by no means ignorant, but may not QUITE have the refined tastes of his bandleader. While Santana is often guilty of playing too many notes (not that I necessarily mind) it’s saying something when a charged-up young boy is making him look outright conservative in certain places.
This works well for the album too. There’s a give-and-go, and a start-and-stop motif that succeeds consistently.
“Batuka”, segues into, “No One to Depend on”, where things slow down for a moment, only to give way to fireworks from both Santana and Schon. Their efforts here are almost evenly matched— perhaps the only place on the album where they duel to a draw.
The album slows down significantly with the arrival of, “Taboo”, which might as well be a spiritual cover of Funkadelic’s, “I’ll Stay”, albeit one that includes that signature Latin percussion that the band is known for.
Both Santana and Schon solo on this song, with both of them stepping out of box a bit. Schon shows as much restraint as a 17 year-old is able to, and you could probably whistle along to most of his solo. Santana applies a phasing effect to his leads, which allows for both some really enjoyable ear candy, and an added layer of texture.
Following that, we’re treated to the album’s standout song, “Toussaint L’Overture.”
Certainly, one of my favorite songs ever recorded, the song is a barn-burning piece of swag that bowls you over every time. Also, Schon blesses us with not one, but two 8 bar guitar solos here, and they’re 100% flawless.
His second solo in particular is the epitome of the feral jaguar business I mentioned earlier— his notes scramble about, falling all over each other in frantic desperation, howling alternately with pain and ecstasy.
It’s gutter, gutter, and perhaps, mildly terrifying.
After this, the album keep up its pace for the most part, but it’s not QUITE as breakneck as what we started with.
While it’s not necessarily as strong as the first half, it’s still pretty damn solid.
“Jungle Strut” is a great tune.
“Everything’s Coming our Way” is a lot of fun too.
Also, it’s important to note that it’s really just not possible to keep the lamp burning like it does for the first four tracks. It would just be too intense, and the album needs some balance.
Basically, this is a wonderful album, and certainly my favorite Santana album. No, it doesn’t have either, “Oye Como Va”, or, “Black Magic Woman”, on it, but you’ve heard both of those a billion times, so give this a spin instead, and treat yourself to an under-appreciated classic.