35 Years Ago: Santana Enjoy a Brief Resurgence With ‘Zebop!’
When Santana released Zebop! in April 1981, they'd spent several years dabbling in more fusion-leaning sounds. That meant the group largely disappeared from the charts. Carlos Santana hadn't had a Top 20 single in 10 years – a dry spell that dated back to 1971's "Everybody's Everything."
"Winning" changed all of that. A No. 17 U.S. hit sung by Alex Ligertwood, the song was very much in keeping with the general tone of Zebop!, which settled into a more commercial sound. Only a few tracks (notably "American Gypsy" and "E Papa Re") focused on Santana's now-familiar Latin-inspired flavors. Instead, the album was stuffed with other radio-friendly fare like "The Sensitive Kind."
Zebop! became Santana's first Top 10 U.S. album since 1976's Amigo, and just their second since 1972's Caravanserai, which featured the last remnants of the band's heralded classic-era lineup. Not that it started out that way. "Winning" was the third single pulled from the project, but neither "Changes" nor "Searchin'" charted. But something clicked with their update of the Russ Ballard-written pop-rock tune.
Strangely enough, Ligertwood – who had only just begun the first of several stints in Santana, joining in 1979 after time spent with the Jeff Beck Group – had a connection back to Santana's original sound. "The ironic part was, I was living in Woodstock when I got the call – and Santana is famous for Woodstock," Ligertwood recalled in 2011. But Santana, after leaving an increasingly unhappy apprenticeship under guru Sri Chinmoy, was ready to reemerge in the mainstream.
"We know that by going in a certain direction, we'll lose people," Santana told the Daily Register in 1982. "But that's all right, because you can gain knowledge and fulfillment in stretching out and pushing the audience. Once I fulfill that side, then I want to do back and see new faces, see the new energy that the kids bring out. So then we consciously play material that is more accessible for the kids."
Unfortunately, Santana would have to take his next musical adventure without a key figure from the past, and Santana's career seemed to go off track again. Zebop! marked Santana's final producing collaboration with Bill Graham, a figure who had meant so much to the band since its inception.
Santana endured a long string of disappointing chart finishes, failing to touch the Top 40 again until 1999's guest-packed comeback album Supernatural. By then, however, Graham had long since passed. "The last one he produced was Zebop," Santana later lamented. "I like it when Bill and I just produce, because it’s different."
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