Santana and The Isley Brothers talk new socially conscious album Power of Peace, their mutual respect, and Santana sampling three decades before rap.
The pairing of Carlos Santana and the Isley Brothers is something the GRAMMY Awards could have totally dreamed up for a once in a lifetime performance. Both iconic acts, having come out of the Sixties, are true GRAMMY heavyweights with over a dozen awards between them, including Santana’s Album and Record Of The Year in 2000 and the Isley Brothers’ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.
But since the GRAMMYs didn’t get to it yet, Santana and Ronald and Ernie Isley decided to take matters into their own hands, teaming up for the new collaborative album, Power Of Peace. Featuring their takes on some of the most recognizable and important socially conscious songs of the rock era, songs from Stevie Wonder to Marvin Gaye, the album is a powerful statement to try and lift people up in 2017.
GRAMMY Pro spoke by phone with Santana and Ronald Isley in separate interviews about the new album, their mutual respect and how Santana was sampling three decades before rap turned it into an art form.
How important was it, to you, to have music to uplift people in these crazy times?
Carlos Santana: To bring clarity, courage, certainty and a healing medicine to all of us, sound resident vibration, frequency of collected commonality, is a healing thing. John Lennon “Imagine,” the Beatles “All You Need Is Love,” Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On,” “A Love Supreme,” [John] Coltrane, “One Love,” Bob Marley, this is the same frequency as Power Of Peace with Ronnie Isley. When you hear “What The World Needs Now,” especially because we arranged it so has a sound like Mary Poppins. I said, “Let’s just spread it out in 4/4 instead of ¾.” Then we did “God Bless The Child,” “Mercy, Mercy,” “Higher Ground.” If they would play this music in shopping malls, parking lots, elevators, this music will help heal those people who are strapping themselves with bombs tonight to hurt other people. This music says to the listener, in any language that you can understand, “Divinity does not demand death in the name of whatever you believe in.”
Were there songs on this album you heard differently after recording them?
Santana: I heard my brother, Harry Belafonte, say at the NAACP event, there’s a river of blood flowing down the stream from blacks and browns. I tried to not only use that, so I put it in the song [“Mercy, Mercy Me”]. I also put “Ain’t no future without forgiveness,” which is something that Desmond Tutu said. So, at the very, very end I put a quilt, I create quilts from all these sayings and then puts it’s to rhythm, that’s what I do. From Abraxas to Supernatural that’s what I do. Some rappers sample, I sample too. But I’ve been sampling since the beginning. So in “Mercy, Mercy Me,” we put, “There’s a river of blood flowing down the streams from our sisters and brothers, mercy. Ain’t no future without forgiveness, mercy.” That comes from Desmond Tutu. So I’m able to create and I’m really grateful and honored that people trust me, like Ronny Isley, with my vision as an offering to him. This is a love offering to Ronny Isley and Ernie Isley because they’re family. I love them. There were the Isley Brothers before the Beatles because they’re the ones that started with “Twist And Shout” before the Beatles came to Ed Sullivan. So Ronnie Isley was the first Michael Jackson, he was just a child when he was singing those songs.
Were there things that surprised you about the Isleys once you got in the studio with them?
Santana: All of a sudden things take over beyond my imagination or beyond my expectations. Being in the studio with them it was such an inspiring thing. We did 16 songs in four days and I’m very grateful and honored that they trusted me. We were doing sometimes five, six songs a day, but they trusted me. I was waking up every night like 2:30, 3 in the morning and jumping into the pool while my wife was asleep and I could hear and see everything. And then I’d get of the pool, get a towel and write down what we were gonna do the next day as soon as we’d get to the studio. I would hear the arrangement and hear how everything was gonna go.
Was there one song in particular that came to you that surprised you?
Santana: It was “Gypsy Woman,” I said, “I want to try to do ‘Gypsy Woman,’ a Curtis Mayfield song, and I want to try a little bit of Sketches Of Spain with Bob Marley.” That’s what we did.
How gratifying has it been to bring in a new flavor, Caliente BBQ, as your brother calls it?
Ronald Isley: It’s been really gratifying. This is something we always wanted to do. We’ve talked about doing it for so many years and finally the last three years it came about where we could do it.
You can be best friends with somebody but it does not mean you have chemistry. When did you realize you had that chemistry to play together?
Isley: We were talking about the songs, he knew the songs that we did and so he could hear my voice on certain things. So I could hear his music on certain things. We did the song “Gypsy Woman,” my brothers and I have a thing for guitar players, ever since Jimi Hendrix sat in with us. I understood what Carlos knows about music is good. And he knows the same things about music that we have studied for years and years. When I start to set up a song a certain type of way he knows where I’m going with it. When I did the Burt Bacharach song, “What The World Needs Now,” he was one of the people who got married to the songs I did with Burt Bacharach, “The Look Of Love.” He knows where I want to go with a song and I know what he feels and that’s what we want to show other people. Like on the song “Gypsy Woman,” we see how it starts off, then we want to do the song. We have the same feelings for the same songs that we did. The song we did that Billie Holiday did, “God Bless The Child,” he had that song set up for how the ending would go and how it should begin.
Were there any songs that changed for you as you began singing them?
Isley: Yes, “Let The Rain Fall On Me,” and especially the song “Body Talk,” I never heard it before. That was the song Eddie Kendricks did with the Temptations. Carlos heard the song and said, “Hey, man, you gotta sing the song. I can hear you doing this song.” I know all the Temptations’ music, but that was a song I hadn’t heard. I think Eddie did that when he started his own career. And anyway that was a song I had a lot of fun with even though I didn’t know too much about it. But it turned out really great.
What songs worked best for you guys to do together?
Isley: The Stevie Wonder tune [“Higher Ground”], I love doing that with him. That was the song I could picture us doing with him when we first started the album, that was the song I wanted to do with Ernie and him and myself. That was one of the first or second songs that we did. Carlos’ catalog is just as big as mine. He knows about everything from Jimmy Reed, B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf and Miles Davis, so he brought songs to the table and I said, “Wow.” I had to learn, myself, I heard them before, but I had to learn the way I would do it, what kind of style I would bring to the song. I wanted to do “Mercy, Mercy Me,” by Marvin Gaye, and I wanted to do that song “God Bless The Child,” I wanted to do it somewhat like Ray Charles would do it. But I didn’t want it to sound too much like I was imitating him.