A little less than 20 years ago today, the music industry was oh-so-gently rocked by the syrupy tones of Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas imploring the world to give him our “heart, make it real or else forget about it” over Carlos Santana wailing on guitar. “Smooth,” the lead single from Santana’s 1999 comeback album, Supernatural, is Billboard’s number two song of all-time, an aural time capsule to the previous century, and, thanks to the combination of Thomas’ deeply earnest vocals and Santana’s impassioned noodling, one of the most ridiculous pop songs ever made.
Now, graced with a monumental oral history by David Browne at Rolling Stone, we can finally know the full story behind the song that, for two decades, has been our collective “reason for reason”—and the step in our groove.
Massive as the piece is, we’ve put together a selection of some of the best quotes from Browne’s epic:
Santana finds a new record label before work on Supernatural begins: “I was in the process of getting out of my contract with PolyGram. I said to my brother Chris Blackwell, “I’m pregnant with a masterpiece and I don’t want to give it to you because I don’t think you have the capacity to deal with this baby.”
Arista Records A&R Executive Pete Ganbarg asks for help finding a writer to finish the song: “I held the phone up to the speaker and played him ‘Room 17' [the original title for ‘Smooth’] without the vocals and said, ‘I need somebody to write to this. Do you have any ideas? We just need the lyric and the melody that could complement this track.’ He’s like, ‘Pete, I’ve got the guy—Rob Thomas.’”
Rob Thomas explains his lyric writing process: “I think the ‘smooth’ part came first. I was thinking more about Carlos. I was thinking, ‘You’re so smooth,’ about Carlos Santana. And then, ‘You hear my rhythm on your radio.’ But then, I also realized somewhere in the middle of it that I had this wealth of information because I had this smokin’ hot Latin girlfriend already.”
Santana wasn’t sold on the “Smooth” demo at first: “I only had some doubts because when you’re cooking something, it needs to be really cooked through and through.”
He was very, very sold on Thomas’ lyrics, though: “When I listened to the lyrics and heard, ‘It’s a hot one,’ those lyrics are outside of time and gravity. I thought we had entered a place of immortality.”
Santana also felt very good about the beginning of the recording session: “As soon we went to the studio and I heard this sound, it was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is on a whole other level of trueness.’ It sounded true, all the way through. I knew this was very different.”
Thomas doesn’t care if you make fun of the song: “The amount of times somebody’s looked at me and said, ‘Man, it’s a hot one, huh?’ To this day. You got to have a big sense of humor about those kinds of things. It’s like the gift that kept on giving.”
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