Santana's 'Smooth' Co-Writer on The Song That Changed His Life -- And What Happened After That

Itaal Shur
Lauren Toub

Itaal Shur

The grass on the other side of the fence may be greener, but sometimes it's way deeper than it looks. Itaal Shur saw that grass, jumped into it with both feet, almost got swallowed up, and came out the other side ready to do it all over again. But, you know, different this time.

If the name doesn't ring a bell, check the songwriting credits on the No. 2 Billboard Hot 100 song of all time: Santana's 1999 smash "Smooth." Shur was the co-writer of that mega-hit -- which began a 12-week run atop the Hot 100 18 years ago this week. The song, which he wrote with the track's vocalist, Rob Thomas, got a bump this summer when it was used by Spain's Severo Jurado Lopez during the Olympic equestrian competition.

But its origin story is one of those only-in-Hollywood tales that the Cincinnati-bred Shur was happy to share with Billboard. After years of trying to make it in New York as a session musician, producer and writer/leader of an acclaimed acid jazz band, everything changed for the polymath when he met former Arista Records senior A&R director Pete Ganbarg.

"Pete played me an early version of Supernatural and he said they were still looking for something," said Shur, 48, of the missing piece Arista was searching for to cement the all-star comeback album from the classic rock band led by the iconic guitarist. "Because when he played me everything, I heard that there was a hole in the album. That hole was a classic 'Black Magic Woman' beat. The classic Santana sound wasn’t there. I thought, 'I'm gonna do that.'"

Shur played a song he was working on, and while Ganbarg liked the music, he said the lyrics weren't right for the album. "He was looking for something more universal, he wanted love, something romantic, with a universal appeal," Shur recalled. "The original song was about a love tryst between people who hadn't seen each other in a while." Ganbarg took the music and played it for Matchbox Twenty's Thomas, who, unbeknownst to Shur, was then living just two blocks from his Soho apartment. "I didn't even know about Matchbox Twenty -- I mean, I knew '3AM' from MTV, but [Thomas] came over and he had these great verses," Shur said. "I was just like, 'How do you do this?'"

Shur couldn't figure out how Thomas had so much Latin flavor -- until he met the singer's wife, Spanish/Puerto Rican model Marisol Maldonado. "I was like, 'I get it.' [Thomas] said, 'I have a beautiful wife and I wake up with her every day and I'm gonna write about it,'" Thomas told him. The pair collaborated on the chorus, reworking it three times before they got it right. Thomas never imagined that he'd sing the lyrics, thinking they would be handed over to a bigger pop star, like George Michael.

"Santana and [Arista Records boss] Clive Davis heard the demo with Rob and said, 'You have to sing it,' and the band went in and recorded it with that guitar line, which was from the demo," Shur said. "The melody was on the demo, which I played on piano. For me, that was the biggest compliment: that Santana liked me copying Santana!" Shur liked the original melody he came up with, which was two beats slower and a half-step down, with more of a hip-hop feel layered with scratchy horns and a funkier groove. "At the time, when we had the new version, I would play friends the old version I came up with and I'd ask which they thought was better."

History, of course, had its say, as the first single from the album (originally released June 29, 1999) spent a stunning 58 total weeks on the Hot 100 tally, winning three Grammy Awards, including record of the year, song of the year and best pop collaboration with vocals. The album, which featured duets with Lauryn Hill, Dave Matthews and Eric Clapton, eventually sold close to 12 million copies in the U.S. alone, according to Nielsen Music.

Speaking to Billboard in 2014, Santana said, "'Smooth' was the last song for Supernatural ... 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 Mona Lisa,’ 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,” Thomas said at the time. “Carlos and I have always been kind of precious with what we did with that moment."

The hit was the culmination of a slow, steady climb for Shur, who comes from an artistic family, with a choreographer mother, classical composer father and a filmmaker brother, Michael, with whom he collaborated on the award-winning 2014 documentary Alive Inside, about the revitalizing force of music. "We grew up with music, dance and art, in a free-thinking environment where improvisation was encouraged, where you were taught to be spontaneous and educated at the same time," said Shur, who only heard classical music until he was around 10 years old. 

He began playing in bands in high school, dove deep into jazz during a stint at the University of Cincinnati's College Conservatory of Music, then bailed and moved to New York at age 20 in 1990 to pursue his dream. "I didn't have a plan, applied, but didn't get accepted to the New School and worked restaurant jobs, as a messenger, telemarketing... every crap job while I was also hustling for gigs, playing in piano bars as an accompanist and in bands," he said of that difficult time.

The turning point came when he discovered a downtown club called Giant Step, the nexus of a scene mixing live instruments with DJs that was a major part of the U.S. contribution to the 1990s acid jazz soul revival. "I said, 'I want to play,' and I brought my keyboard down and the club ended up getting massive," he said. That led to the formation of Groove Collective, which would play every Thursday night for years and drew sit-in spots from members of A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr, as well as Jamiroquai and the Brand New Heavies. "That was my thing: blurring together hip-hop, jazz, funk and soul, and it was a good time," said Shur. "The club became fashionable, beautiful people started coming down, and that's when I met my manager, who hooked me up with better artists and got my songs on albums." 

Shur began producing dance tracks for indie labels around the same time he met Maxwell, with whom he co-wrote the hit "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)" for the soul singer's classic 1996 debut album, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite. Groove Collective got signed to Warner Bros. Records and was playing four sets a night at clubs like The Cooler and Sybarite as the acid jazz scene blew up, even as Shur was looking for his next gig.

He sought out unsigned artists to produce, started a band, Itaalatron, collaborated with singer Lucy Woodward and considered going all-in as a performer before realizing he was seen as more of a songwriter and producer than a band leader. "I just had to prove it," he said. "I was 26 or 27 at the time, had a killer band and one of the songs from that band turned into 'Smooth.' The creative ground for that started when I went to Brazil. Latin rhythms were always my thing."

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"My favorite artists were people like Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, Prince, where every record was crazy different," he said. In the wake of "Smooth," Shur followed that path and sought to work with as eclectic of a group of artists as he could -- he even tried to pen songs for a major country star, but found that his heart wasn't in it. He wrote some music for TV and got nominated for a 2004 Latin Grammy for "Mas y Mas" by former Menudo star Robi Draco Rosa, and after years of hustling, finally had some money in his pocket thanks to the Santana smash.

You probably know what happens next: Around a decade ago, he found himself at a crossroads with a big question mark hanging over his head. "I got disenchanted with it and music was not inspiring me anymore," he said of the time. After working on the movie with his brother, though, Shur found his groove again (in part thanks to the uplifting grooves of Pharrell Williams' "Happy"), recently signing with Downtown Music publishing and working on a new style that he described as "new but familiar." 

That sound is based on good grooves, with good melodies that help create a sense of community. "Songs like 'Happy' and [Adele's] 'Hello' blow up really big, but they don't follow a formula," he said of his new inspirations. "I feel like I can fit in at a time when people want something real and tangible."

Still living in New York after traveling the globe, Shur also wants to share his knowledge and teach a younger generation of composers. "I have this wealth of knowledge that I think can help other artists come from a deeper place. There's a segment of kids out there who don't realize how much fun they could be having."