'Smooth' at 15: Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas Reflect on Their Billboard Hot 100 Smash
Back in 1971, guitarist Carlos Santana hit No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart with “Black Magic Woman.” It would take him nearly three decades to make the top 10 again, but what a comeback it was. “Smooth,” featuring Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas on vocals, topped the chart for a stunning 12 weeks and stayed 58 total weeks on the list, making it the No. 2 Hot 100 song of all time. "Smooth" also went on to win three Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.
“Smooth,” released as a single on June 29, 1999, was a magical song. Penned by Itaal Shur and Thomas, it was the first single from ‘Supernatural,’ Santana’s groundbreaking duets album, which also featured collaborations with the likes of Lauryn Hill, Dave Mathews and Eric Clapton. ‘Supernatural’ hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart and eventually sold 11.8 million copies in the U.S. alone. according to Nielsen SoundScan.
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“’Smooth’ was the last song for 'Supernatural,’ Santana remembers. “I’m very grateful to Clive Davis, Itaal Shur and of course Rob Thomas. All three were supremely successful in bringing this masterpiece that makes women very happy. It makes women go bananas. Every woman claims she is the ‘Spanish Harlem Monalisa’ and rightly so.”
“I look at the whole moment like it was a giant parade -- the ‘Supernatural’ parade -- and 'Smooth' got to be the first float,” recalls Rob Thomas. “Carlos and I have always been kind of precious with what we did with that moment.
Below, Santana and Thomas tell us how the magic came to be, in their own words:
Rob Thomas: I’d just gotten off the road from our first record [with Matchbox Twenty] and was back home in New York. I got a call from our publisher, Evan Lamberg. He said “Itaal Shur lives around the corner, and he’s working on a track for Carlos Santana and we want you to come in and help with some lyrics that work.” It was just dumb luck. The record had already been completed and I knew Dave Matthews had a track, and Lauryn Hill, and I felt this is nice, but maybe this will be the pop song. And when [the press] started writing about the record -- obviously because there were such huge heavy hitters in it --my name never popped up. And I thought, well, at least I got a chance to work with Carlos Santana one of my musical idols.
Carlos Santana: When they sent me the demo, it felt a little like in an embryonic state. I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl singing. By that time, I was getting antsy pantsy -- but it was the last song, we had the album ready and Clive said, “Please be patient. We need a song like this and I think it’s going to surprise everyone.” Clive was always very gentle with his presentation to me, very gracious.
Thomas: I was really aware of the fact that this was something I was writing for Carlos. There’s really few people like that, like Santana and Eric Clapton, where the singer is really secondary to the music. When I got the phrase “Smooth,” it was kind of a double meaning, because it was the girl in the song, but it was also about Carlos. That popped out. I remember my wife [Marisol, who is half Puerto Rican, half Spanish] was out somewhere walking around the city and I had gotten the first verse and chorus and I played it for her, and I said, “I’m not sure about this.” She said, “this is going to be huge.”
When I met Carlos, the first thing he said was, “Hey you must be married to a Latin woman.” Because of the lyrics. He said, “That's the kind of thing a white guy married to a Latin woman would tell her. “
The original plan was I was going to be a writer for it. I thought George Michael should sing it. But I guess they liked my voice in the demo. I don't think Carlos even knew who sang in it.
Santana: I said, “we need to record it live because right now, I don't believe it. I’m gonna play the song the rest of my life and I have to feel that it’s 150% of 100%.” And Clive pushed the button, we got Matt Serletic [who had done the Matchbox 20 album] to produce and we all decided to do it live. And that’s when the energy [kicked in]. As soon as I heard it, even when I was in the middle of the song, I was like, man, this song is big. I didn't know it was going to be that big, but I knew it was big.
Thomas: I flew out to San Francisco and we recorded it together. What’s kind of amazing is the band … felt it out and what you hear there is three takes. That's a big testament to Matt Serletic and the vision he had when heard the track. He didn't want it sound like a dance track. He wanted it to be danceable, but in the context [of Santana and the album]. And Carlos has a signature guitar sound. And then maybe just the excitement. For me, I was in the studio with Carlos Santana, and we’re in the studio playing together. It was an exciting time and that excitement comes through.
Santana: I didn't want [the guitar part] to have brain or mind or energy. I wanted it to be with innocence. Innocence to me is very sacred and very sensual. People should never lose their innocence. So I didn't practice, purposefully. As soon as I found out where my fingers go on the neck, you close your eyes and you complement Rob. Kind of like a minister: He says Hallelujah, and you say your name. As a guitar player, when I’m next to Rob Thomas or Rod Stewart, my role is to be present with love and not step on his vocals.
Everything I’ve ever done with Placido Domingo or Rob Thomas --and I mean that in a very soulful way --I know my place. Not like a maître d or a servant, but I am part and parcel of a complete voice. I’m not anybody’s shadow nor am I not going to disrupt their light. But I am part of their whole song. I learned that from my dad and from BB King. Never compare or compete. That’s ok for soccer or for World Cup. But music is just complementing.
Thomas: I didn’t even know it was going to be a single until one day I was walking in Soho and there was a convertible stopped at the light and these girls were blaring it. And I called Evan.
Santana: When you make it memorable, you hang around with eternity. Eternity doesn't recognize seconds, and minutes and hours and days. There’s two different energies. Bob Marley, Michael Jackson; they’re memorable. And I don’t mean it to sound [conceited], but I say it from my heart. I’m going to be here. I’m going to stay. It’s not just music for Americans or Mexicans; It’s for humans, period. 20 years from now you’re going to say, turn this song up.
Thomas: I’ve been really fortunate over the last 20 years. It’s kind of amazing if you get to be part of something so big; it’s outside of mine or Carlos’ control. It has its own world and its own entity. After 20 years and many singles in the radio, when people say, “Hey I love that song,” I know what song they’re talking about.
I do a version of it solo that's almost devoid of any guitar, because I don't want to try to recreate Carlos’ magic. But whenever we get together, he’ll get on stage. And there’s not one birthday or anniversary that I don't get a giant bouquet of white roses from Carlos. White, which means friendship.