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Carlos Santana, Happy Birthday to a Woodstock Wonder and Guitar Hero

Do you need another good reason to support the DREAM Act? How about Carlos Santana? One of the world's great guitarists, he was born in Autlan de Navarro, Jalisco, Mexico, on July 20, 1947, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1965 after joining his parents in San Francisco as a teenager. During the city's 1960s musical renaissance, his namesake band -- along with the likes of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Quicksilver Messenger Service -- became the chief musical ambassadors of that time and place.

Santana later gained international notice at the famed Woodstock Festival in 1969, thanks to a sizzling set spotlighting their remarkable fusion of rock, African, and Latin rhythms. Their appearance preceded the release of their debut eponymous album, and it obviously left a profound impression.

Young Carlos admired Ritchie Valens, one of the few role models for young Latinos in the American mainstream at that time. Still, his experience in San Francisco opened his eyes to the possibilities of the new rock realms. In 1966, he got the kind of big break that happens only in a show business dream. He was hanging out, as always, at the Fillmore West when the scheduled headliner, blues man Paul Butterfield, became too drunk to perform. Fillmore impresario Bill Graham decided to put together an impromptu band to fill the void, and on the advice of Santana's manager, he opted to include the budding guitarist. His performance blew the crowd away. Shortly thereafter, Santana put together the first incarnation of his namesake band, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The albums recorded under the Santana banner helped accelerate the band's upward ascent throughout the '70s, eventually shifting focus from the populist appeal fostered early on into the upward gaze of fusion and meditative music inspired by his admiration for John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and English guitarist John McLaughlin, with whom he recorded one of several outside ventures.

Despite a series of hit singles in the late '70s and early '80s -- a remake of the Zombies song "She's Not There," "Winning," and "Hold On" being the most successful -- the Santana band began to fade from critical favor. Luckily, Santana was given a rare opportunity to reinvent himself as a mainstream artist with 1999's Supernatural, an album on which he collaborated with Rob Thomas, Wyclef Jean, Eric Clapton, Lauren Hill, Dave Matthews, and others. The lead single, "Smooth," featured Thomas as its lead singer and subsequently soared up the charts, bringing the song to number one for 12 straight weeks. Soon after, Santana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Santana's popularity continues to this day, making him one of the more visible members of the Woodstock generation and one of the few Woodstock veterans who still boasts continued success to this day. It's a select group of survivors to be sure, but one worth cherishing.

Happy birthday, Carlos Santana!

On a semirelated note...

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Lee Zimmerman

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