Jorge Santana, Guitarist Who Helped Shape the Sound of Latin Rock with Malo, Is Dead at 68

May 18, 2020

Jorge Santana, a guitarist known for his central role in the Latin rock band Malo, as well as his collaborations with the Fania All Stars, died on May 14. He was 68.

His older brother, Carlos Santana, announced his death on Facebook. The family said Jorge died of natural causes.

Jorge Santana’s guitar was a central feature of “Suavecito,” the lead single of Malo’s self-titled 1972 debut. Done to a quasi-bolero, cha-cha-cha beat, the song, whose title means “smooth” in English, was a Top 20 hit, breaking Malo into the pop mainstream. A cultural touchstone for Mexican-Americans, it has been hailed as “the Chicano national anthem.”

Jorge was still in high school when, in the late 1960s, he joined a horn-driven rhythm-and-blues band called The Fabulous Malibus. An active part of the San Francisco scene, the group was renamed Malo and signed by Warner Brothers. From 1972-74 Malo released four albums on the label: Malo, Dos, Evolution, and Ascención.

Like the eponymous band led by Jorge’s brother Carlos, Malo was born from the Chicano multicultural experience found in San Francisco’s Mission District. But it was on FM radio that the band achieved cult status. Their second album, Dos, combined the horn-driven approach of bands like Blood, Sweat & Tears; the propulsion of Afro-Cuban rhythms; and the power of rock in Jorge’s soaring guitar leads. Compounding the band’s strengths were ace musicians like lead trumpeter Forrest Butchel, tenor and flute player Hadley Caliman and legendary Cuban conguero Francisco Aguabella.

The band’s front man, Arcelio Garcia, was born in Puerto Rico but raised in San Francisco, from age 3. “He had that James Brown thing happening which matched the power of our horn section,” Jorge said. Tunes on the album like “Momotombo” and “Latin Bugaloo,” which were arranged by trumpeter Tom Harrell and guitarist Abel Zarate, exemplified the in-your-face explosiveness and highly arranged music the band became known for and made fellow musicians take notice.

But the Top 40 pop hit they had produced with “Suavecito” was both a blessing and a curse. For artists in that world, it’s a given that you have to continue producing radio-friendly hits. Malo wasn’t that type of band.

At the time, though, it seemed like the stars were aligning for Latinos. Jorge’s brother, Carlos, had become a bona fide rock star while simultaneously introducing the world of hippie culture to congas, timbales, and bongos. Nuyoricans were coming into their own by redefining Cuban music into what today is known as salsa. The Civil Rights Movement socio-politically inspired Chicanos on the West Coast and Nuyoricans on the East into fighting police brutality and political injustice while investigating their cultural heritage.

Fania Records, the New York label synonymous with salsa, brought it all together on Aug. 24, 1973, with an event at Yankee Stadium that became transformative. Jorge Santana got off of a plane at JFK Airport with three things: a suitcase, his guitar, and an amp. 

“No one picked me up at the airport,” he told me. “I took a cab to the hotel, then I took a cab to the sound check. I brought my own amp with me on the plane.” More than 40,000 people, mostly Nuyorican’s, attended the event and witnessed Carlos’ younger brother rock the house over the montuno of a Cuban guajira entitled “El Ratón,” sung by its composer, Puerto Rican Cheo Feliciano. It was salsa’s first mega-concert, comparable to The Beatles at Shea Stadium. The subsequent album, and his performance in the event, appeared in the theatrically released film Salsa. It cemented the moment and his name into the annals of Latin music history.

Guillermo “Jorge” Santana was born June 13, 1951, in Autlán de Navarro in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. His father, José, was a violinist who performed popular and mariachi music. His mother, Josefina Barragán Santana, was a homemaker. The family’s eventual move to San Francisco and the variety of music the city had to offer began influencing Jorge’s older brother Carlos in ways that would eventually change music history. By 1963, Jorge began following in his brother’s footsteps, playing guitar himself.

As a founding coleader of Malo, he earned considerable acclaim. But the constant grind of the road and changing personnel — along with the record company asking for another hit — took their toll. The band was eventually dropped by its label, and Jorge departed. He would lead his own groups, recording several solo albums, and occasionally joining his brother on tour; he is featured on the 1993 Santana album Sacred Fire: Live in South America.

Jorge also worked in a management capacity with his brother’s band, he decided to leave that as well. He would devote his life to his family while still performing, and becoming a chief elevator inspector dealing with the complex systems employed in high rises. 

He is survived by his daughter, Michelle (“Misha”), and son, Anthony; two brothers, Tony and Carlos; and four sisters, Irma, Maria, Lety, and Laura. 

I got to know Jorge in 2015, when we played in Japan with Larry Harlow’s Latin Legends band on a weeklong engagement at the Tokyo Blue Note and Tokyo Cotton Club. The nightly standing-room audience was a platform for a Japanese fan club that showed up every night, greeting his every solo by waving a giant banner with Malo’s famous Aztec-inspired snake insignia.

Jorge Santana jamming with young Evan Carson at the Roberto Ocasio Latin Jazz Camp for H.S. Students Concert in Cleveland, 2017.
Credit Mark Horning

In 2017, Jorge accepted our invitation to be Special Guest Artist at the resident Roberto Ocasio Latin Jazz Camp for high-school music students at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where I serve as Artistic Director/Artist-In-Residence along with Executive Director Bev Montie.

Jorge Santana had recently completed a new album called Restoration, consisting of all new songs by himself and Marcia Miget. This week on the Latin Jazz Cruise, I will be doing a special segment on his career.

Rest in peace and power, brother Jorge. It was an honor and a privilege to call you a colleague, but more importantly a friend who lives in our our hearts forever.