Following His Heart to Wherever the Music Takes Him

A Q & A with Jorge Santana, one of the architects and founding fathers of Latin Rock music

By Al Carlos Hernandez - Contributing Editor
Published on LatinoLA: April 13, 2010

Following His Heart to Wherever the Music Takes Him

Jorge Santana is credited as one of the architects and founding fathers of Latin Rock music. He and the band Malo back in the day married Latin rhythms, intricate horn arrangements with screaming blues based guitars which created a unique and rocking sound that has endured the test of time. Malo's greatest Hit was Suavecito a cultural anthem for several retro cool generations. Jorge traditionally is not a public person, he is content to stay in the shadows happy to be a part of an engine that drives the larger machine. Jorge is the youngest of the three brothers and the second after Carlos to pick up the guitar. Being a part of a musical family and having his ear constantly exposed to music was a definite influence, and Jorge was inspired by the musical activity in the household. However, Jorge hadn't had formal music instruction when he started playing the guitar at age 14 in San Francisco. At first, Jorge was drawn to the sounds and rhythms of the blues and Carlos' interpretations of that style of music. In fact, he credits Carlos for introducing him to a wide range of music, musical styles, personalities and experiences.

By the late 60's and while still in high school, Jorge was playing with a four piece blues band in local San Francisco clubs. He was asked to join a band called THE MALIBUS'S, a nine-piece R & B group with horns. After a steady club gig which helped the band refine their sound, they changed their name to MALO. And, as part of the active scene in San Francisco in the early 70's, the band was signed by Warner Brothers.

The group released four albums, with the self-titled debut album their biggest, driven by the single, "Suavecito." By 1974, when the last MALO album was released, Jorge had found a comfortable identity as a career musician and was involved in all aspects of music.

On his own in 1974, Jorge appeared as a special guest with the FANIA ALL STARS in a concert held at Madison Square Garden in New York City. This performance has been released as both a video and CD on the Fania label.

After that show, Jorge moved to Mill Valley, California, and devoted his time exclusively to a personal exploration of music. Between 1975 and 1977, when he started putting a new band together, Jorge did little but play the guitar.

That period led to his first solo project for Tomato Records. Titled "Jorge Santana", the album featured his own songs and arrangements. It was produced by Tony Bongiovi of the Power Station in New York and mixed by Bob Clearmountain. The album was well-produced and had a good selection of songs - all in all, a very commercial album.

That album was followed by "It's All About Love", which was produced by Allen Toussaint. His involvement with the two albums kept Jorge busy until 1982, but lacking a good agent and proper management, he decided to take a year's vacation. But, the year hadn't passed before he ended up getting married and moving to Walnut Creek, where he and his wife started a family.

The one year turned out to be seven, during which time Jorge even had a job outside of music. But then, in 1989, Carlos asked Jorge to join the team at Santana Management. He was put in charge of artist relations and his skills and experience led to his involvement in production, music clearances, publishing and a number of other responsibilities and eventually got him on the road with the Santana band.

It was while on the road and as Jorge performed with the band on various dates that the idea for the "Brothers" album came up. Jorge has taken an active role on the album, writing, arranging and producing both his own songs and collaborating with Carlos (and nephew Carlos Hernandez) on others.

The experience with the "Brothers" album has given Jorge additional inspiration to continue his own musical career. Currently, Jorge Santana continues to live in the Bay Area and is working on a new website and some very interesting new music. Contributing Editor, Al Carlos Hernandez interviewed Jorge back in the 70tys while Malo was all over the charts and AC was a talk show host at KFRC in San Francisco. The two recently had a chance to catch up and look back and talk with the reclusive Jorge, who at times has lived in the shadows.

Q: At what age did you come to SF, did you experience culture shock, why did your Dad choose SF?

A: I was 12 years old in January 1962 when I arrived in San Francisco. My dad Jose Santana came to visit our family in Tijuana Mexico from San Francisco where he lived and worked. After his visit I returned with my Dad to San Francisco not knowing I was leaving Tijuana forever. That day I left behind everything a 12 year old boy experienced growing up in Mexico. Since, all I have are memories of all my friends, school, neighborhood and Tijuana itself where I remember walking the streets everywhere. My mother Josefina Santana, Brothers Antonio & Carlos, and Sisters Laura, Irma, Lety & Maria arrived in San Francisco about six months later. It was my mother's dream and determination that brought us all to San Francisco, I have no regrets.

Q: Your Dad was a Mariachi, how did his music or the music of the household affect your musical muse?

A: Yes I was influenced by my father's playing. When we arrived in San Francisco the two of us lived upstairs from the night club where he worked. There for the first time most every night I heard him play and sing with his band. I will always remember my father's sensitivity when he played his violin. He had a natural ability to entertain you and make you feel the song he was playing.

Q: Did you always want to be a musician? Why guitar?

A: Being a musician was not my first desire. Because my father and Carlos played guitar, I learned from them basic chords. Then, as time when by, Carlos turned me on to one recording entitled "John Mayall and the blues Breakers", featuring Eric Clapton and Peter Green, followed by "Cream". Well, I was captured by the guitarist's performance and the sound of their guitars. I continued playing the guitar but with more interest and appreciation of what I could get out of it.

Q: What was the exact experience when you realized that music was the career you wanted to pursue?

A: My decision to commit to a career in music happened in 1973 when I was in San Francisco recording Malo's last album for Warner Bros. " Ascencion" is the title of the last studio recording the original Malo band recorded, it was considered, "musically ahead of its time". While the band was in the studio laying down the basic last track entitled "No Matter" we stopped on the first take due to technical problems. Then, on the second take we were able to lay down the entire song, arrangement and guitar solo. After hearing a portion of the play back I walked-out the studio telling the musicians that it was not happening and that music was not my thing. Shortly after, the musicians and engineers asked me to come in and listen to the recording once more time.

Then it happened, I heard the playback, and for the first time, I felt my performance, execution, emotion and tone of the guitar... I had never heard or felt that way before. I was totally against it at first and willing to leave the music behind, because I did not remember anything I did or what happened while I was recording that song. Since then, that feeling I experienced, has become my reason for playing the guitar.

Q: What other vocations interested you at the time, did you feel limited because you were Latino, and how did being Latino color your grade school and High School experience?

A: When I arrived in San Francisco my English was limited to no, yes, thank you. My parents right away enrolled me at Edison Middle school; from there I went to James Lick Junior high and finally graduated from Mission high School. I also attended John O'Connell a vocational school for one year. The year at John O'Connell was to keep up with what I thought was going to be my trade, a machinist "Lathe Operator". In that year I applied for work everywhere, any apprentice position, but no one hired me. That was OK because during all that time I had various jobs plus I was already making a living playing the guitar working in nightclubs.

Q: As a local player, you had a great reputation in your own right, when the Malibu's, who became Malo hired you I heard that they didn't know that you were Carlos' Brother?

A: Carlos Gomez was the Malibu's guitarist, we were casual friends in High school, he the one that brought me to the bands audition, I don't know if they knew that I was Carlos' brother.
I was still attending High School when the Malibu's hired me to be the second guitarist, I guess they liked my playing cause I never left. Soon after the band became Malo, we were signed to Warner Bros, recorded the first album, for the first time I heard Suavecito on KFRC AM radio, we went on the road and we continued all the way to "Carnegie Hall". What a ride, all by the age of twenty two.

Q: What has been the relationship with you and Carlos since the beginning? Is it tough to sometimes be in his shadow; is he cognizant of this sibling dynamic?

A: Since the beginning and as I mentioned before, Carlos had influence my guitar playing and has been the main source for broadening my musical listening horizon. We are four years apart, enough years that kept me often from been around him and his circle of friends, his music environment, his musical experiences. You are only in somebody's shadow when you allow yourself to be there. The fact that you participate in life makes one Dynamic.

Q: What were the Malo days like, greatest success, greatest failure, I'm told that the manager ripped everybody off, is that true?

A: The fans made Malo popular after our song Suavecito played on the radio. Malo's ten piece big band sound was a groove to listen too. It had the percussion, horn section, great up tempo tunes, and we where Latinos from the San Francisco Mission district. Everywhere we performed our popularity grew. It was three years of recording, traveling, partying, and enjoying success. Unfortunately, the band did not follow up with more radio hit songs, the costs of a large band and a traveling crew made it almost impossible to stay on the road, plus a constant change of musicians did not help. Fortunately we were not terribly hurt or seriously ripped off.

Q: What was your artistic vision for the band, did it play itself out or did the whole Latin Rock scene disappear?

A: Collectively all of the musicians that at one time or another recorded with Malo contributed to the musical legacy that Malo left behind and is still known for. The core and what I call the "engine" of Malo, will always be to me the three original members and partners: Arcelio Garcia Vocals, composer, Pablo Tellez Bass, Vocals, composer and Jorge Santana Guitarists, composer. It's our worldwide fans that won't let us and our music disappear. We are grateful to our fans where ever they are.

Q: How did that whole Fania all stars gig happen? What was that like?

A: In 1975 Jerry Masucci president of Fania Records called to ask if I wanted to do a guest appearance. The invitation lasted one year after my initial recording in New York on a song entitled 'El Raton" with Cheo Feliciano on vocals. This recording added enormously to my popularity, since my fans have reminded me of my "dynamic" performance on the song. Altogether I toured with Fania for about one year. Various live performances are available on VHS and DVD... location from Madison square Garden, Shea Stadium, and Zaire Africa.

The performance with Fania all Stars at Shea Stadium by far is the most overwhelming musical experience of my life. Must see the performance footage to believe what took place and believe what the fans took with them, they took everything they could carry including my custom snakeskin Mesa Boogie amp-.... but they left me the protective traveling anvil case, and the piano that they couldn't carry. Very Cool.

Q: As a solo artist what do think your best project was, greatest song or Album you have ever written?

A: My first solo recording is self titled "Jorge Santana", for me this recording is a masterpiece. All the songs were well written mostly by myself and Richard Bean, great horn and string arrangements, very well produced, a great sounding record. "Love The Way" one of many great tracks on this album, this has become another classic evergreen recording that I'm happy to say I'm a part of. I have the greatest memories having recorded this entire album in Manhattan. We where there the entire summer of 1978, I truly learned to love New York and everything about it.

Q: You quit the business and went to raise a family for 7 years, why, where did you go, and what did you do?

A: I did leave the music scene, and have not one regret about. I got married and helped raise a family in Walnut Creek CA USA. I wanted that great experience that life has to offer, which is watching your kids grow. Not only did I learn to appreciate life more, but experienced the day to day - year to year workforce. Enjoying a traditional lifestyle, the way most men and woman provide for their family with good honest hard work. Also, in this time period I wrote the most profound songs I've ever written, I felt they were waiting for me to create. These songs will be released in the near future.

Q: Why did you decide to accept Carlos' offer to help manage his company. Did you retire from performing?

A: I'm sure Carlos' intention was to help me-help him. Yes I accepted Carlos' offer. I was given the position of Artists Relations but primarily assisted Carlos on all his music clearances. A wealth of knowledge is what I learned. Besides talent, Music Law should be the second strongest asset every artist should have. I never thought then or now of retiring from music, I'm simply following my heart and seeing where my personal music desires are taking me.

Q: Occasionally, you used to tour with his band, how and when do you decide to go out, is it like a hobby? I understand you still tour with a new Malo group.

A: In the years I was part of Carlos' managing team I often went out on tours and played with the band. Carlos had given me an open invitation to sit in with his band, how gracious. The traveling with his band resulted in recording the Brothers CD, Carlos Hernandez our nephew joined us as the third guitarist, a very powerful recording. For years now I've been guest appearing with Malo, the band is held together by one of the original members Arcelio Garcia. I really look forward to every event,.. the band has a great great friend of mine and superb guitarist Gabriel Manzo, my Bro.!

Q: You have a new website what are you working on now?

A: I'm working on releasing all my studio-outtakes and general "dynamic" performances I've collected. My recent CD was released late 2009, it's the first in this series recording. I have also invested in a basic Pro-tools system to allow me at home to record basic tracks. (For more info on his new CD visit.

Q: What has been your greatest achievement in life so far, what has been a major regret?

A: I don't measure my achievements in awards or popularity, rather the peace and strength I feel inside me brought there by the love and trust I get from my two kids Anthony Santana and Michelle Santana. I have no regrets.

Q: What are some of the things you still plan to achieve?

A: A nice country style place where dogs, goats, ducks, chickens and myself can all get along would be groovy.

Q: How would you like history to remember you?

A: A good person, a good father, a good musician.

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