'Smooth' Operators

In the late 1990s, Carlos Santana was still drawing big crowds to his live shows, but he hadn't had a top 20 pop hit since 1982. It had also been decades since he'd worked closely with Clive Davis, wh

In the late 1990s, Carlos Santana was still drawing big crowds to his live shows, but he hadn't had a top 20 pop hit since 1982. It had also been decades since he'd worked closely with Clive Davis, who signed him to Columbia in the late '60s.

Their reunion after a 1997 show at New York's Radio City Music Hall led to "Supernatural," on which Davis paired Santana with young stars of the era (Dave Matthews, Wyclef Jean, Rob Thomas). The album was a smash, having now sold 11.7 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and spawning the No. 1 hits "Smooth" featuring Thomas and "Maria Maria" featuring Jean and the Product G&B.

Billboard asked Santana, Davis, Thomas and then-Arista senior director of A&R Pete Ganbarg to reflect on the "Smooth" phenomenon.

Clive Davis: After the concert, we set up a meeting. His young children were growing up without ever having heard him on the radio. He really felt he wanted to be on the radio again. I said, "What I would suggest is for half the album to be true to what you, Carlos, do, whether it be the merger of African music with rock [or] fusion or jazz. It reflects where you are musically today. And for the other half of the album, I will go out and find, in a special way, people that are affected by you [and] ask them to write those radio-friendly cuts."

Carlos Santana: "Supernatural" was designed to reach junior high schools, high schools and universities. It was designed to assault the radio airwaves with the Santana vibration, in unity with all these incredible artists.

Pete Ganbarg: It was like a toy story. I would run into Clive's office: "Hey, I'm gonna go get [Eric] Clapton!" "Go get Clapton! Great!" It was like this big A&R sandbox. Then all of a sudden I get this cold call of reality: "You've got to finish this record. It's got to come out by the end of June." All of a sudden the clock was ticking. I thought we were creating something amazing, but there was something gnawing at me. I wasn't sure if we had our first single yet. I didn't think we did, and I didn't want to tell that to anybody.

Ganbarg is introduced to songwriter Itaal Shur through fellow A&R veteran Gerry Griffith. At their first meeting, Shur plays Ganbarg the song "Room 17," but the lyrics don't seem right.

Ganbarg: The line was, "Room 17, on the 17th floor, meet me at the elevator and I'll take you to the door." It sounded like a groupie meeting a musician after a concert-not something Carlos Santana would be associated with.

Ganbarg convinces Shur to let him use the musical track and begins searching for somebody to turn it into a different song. EMI Music Publishing's Evan Lamberg suggests Matchbox Twenty's Thomas, who coincidentally lives two doors down from Shur in Soho.

Rob Thomas: I was kind of thinking about my wife. We had just moved into New York at the time and were feeling young and hot. I think it's got to be a moment of inspiration to write a line like, "You've got the kind of loving that can be anything," or else it's going to sound fuckin' cheesy as hell. It's one of those times it worked for me.

After numerous revisions, Ganbarg finally plays the demo for Davis, who loves it. But Santana and his manager do not.

Ganbarg: So [the manager] goes back to Carlos, then comes back to me and says, "With all due respect, he's known you for around two or three years now. He's known Clive Davis for 30. If Clive Davis tells him this song is a hit, he will cut it."

I go to Clive, sheepishly, with my tail between my legs. I tell him, "Carlos doesn't like the song. If you tell him the song is a hit, he will cut the song." Clive says, "Alright, I'm gonna dictate a fax: 'Dear Carlos, I really believe in this song. We're gonna hire Matt Serletic to produce it. I think with Matt's vision, with Rob Thomas on vocal and with your guitar, I think it would be very special.'

An hour later Carlos' manager calls me back and says, "Carlos says thank you for doing what he asked, and he'll cut the song."

"Smooth" is recorded at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, Calif. Thomas reluctantly agrees to sing the track, insisting he'd prefer somebody like George Michael instead.

Thomas: When I got there, I realized they hadn't even played anything. And Carlos got there like five minutes after I found this out so I was still fuckin' freaking.

Santana: I knew this was a Santana-identifiable song as soon as we hit the last note, because I could see it in everybody's eyes: "Oh, we found the mother lode! This is it!"

The song goes to radio in July 1999, eventually hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Oct. 23 and staying there for 12 weeks.

Davis: I wrote a letter to every key programmer. We pulled out all the punches. Gradually phones lit up wherever it was played. It became everybody's favorite song.

Santana: I was in L.A. getting a Jamba Juice and I was blown away at just how good it sounded on the radio.

In February 2000, "Smooth" wins Grammy Awards for record of the year and best pop collaboration with vocals.

Ganbarg: Carlos calls me later. He says, "Pete, it's Carlos. I'm calling to apologize." I said, "Apologize?" "Yeah. I just want to say, you were right. I was wrong. And thank you for giving me a song I'll be playing for the rest of my life."