We had gotten through the Y2K scare unscathed, so by this day in 2000, we could all relax a little and take a deep breath…and chill while enjoying some tunes. And the tune many of us were enjoying that day was from an icon of the Hippie era. Topping the Billboard charts to both end the 1900s and kick off the 2000s was Santana, and the tune was indeed “Smooth.”
Of course, he had a little help on this astounding career revival. The voice you heard, or couldn’t avoid in fact for months on end, was Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20 who sang the tune with Santana’s distinctive guitar stylings behind him.
The smash single, from the smash Supernatural album (which would become the biggest of Carlos Santana’s career, selling 15X platinum in the U.S. and topping an incredible 30 million worldwide) came about from a meeting almost three years earlier. Clive Davis had been the head of Columbia back in Santana’s heyday in the Woodstock era. Over the years, Davis had left and done various things, by the late-’90s running the Arista Records label. Santana, meanwhile, had fallen out of fashion, with (as Davis describes it) music that “swung unpredictably” from spiritual new age stuff to “less than successful attempts” to sound modern and relevant. He invited Davis to a show he was playing, and chatted with him afterwards. Davis said “he had lost none of his energy and passion” and he “still had his magical touch” on the six-string. And he wanted to be relevant again. “He had three children and it was hurtful to him they had never heard him on the radio.” He asked Davis for a contract, and a comeback.
Davis, and Arista were willing…with reservations. While they knew Carlos’ remarkable capabilities playing guitar and improvising, they questioned his ability to write material that sounded radio-friendly. Davis asked him if he would take advice and work with current, pop radio hit-making artists. Santana said yes.
“Smooth” was actually one of the last tracks to be done for Supernatural. It began with writer/producer Itaal Shur. He visited the studio and heard several of the recorded tracks, including ones with Dave Matthews and Wyclef Jean. He said “there wasn’t one with a standard Santana groove like ‘Black Magic Woman’, ‘Oye Como Va’ … I went home and wrote this track on guitar.” He also penned lyrics about a couple getting back together after years for a tryst in a motel, and called it “Room One Seven,” and presented it. Arista loved the tune, but not the lyrics. They felt they were too overtly sexual for Carlos or for radio, and brought in Rob Thomas to fix it. Thomas was at the time a hot commodity, being the singer for Matchbox 20, whose debut album was only just starting to drop down the charts after being a #1 for them with radio smashes like “Push” and “3AM.”
Thomas wrote the lyrics for “Smooth” thinking about his wife Marisol, a Puerto rican lady (which explains the latin references) as well as songs of his youth that he loved like Elton John’s “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters.” He wrote the lyrics thinking George Michael should sing them, but Arista figured he was perfect himself, but “if you listen to the melody and the cadence, it’s an attempt to emulate (Michael) in many ways,” Thomas says.
Whoever he was thinking about or singing like, it worked. The song hit #1 in the U.S. for a remarkable 12-straight weeks (and also topped Canadian charts) the first top 10 single he’ d had since “Black Magic Woman” nearly three decades earlier. It managed to end up among the 50 biggest-sellers of both the 1990s and the 2000s. Santana was clearly back. “Smooth” went on to win the Record of the Year Grammy, and the album, the Album of the Year one.