In 1965, Hal David first made the observation, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love…it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.” Over fifty-two years later, there’s still just too little love, and it’s a situation which Carlos Santana has aimed to remedy. The guitar hero was inspired by seeing the velvet-voiced Ron Isley, longtime lead singer of The Isley Brothers, performing with Burt Bacharach in a 2004 television special promoting their collaborative album Here I Am. Santana envisioned working with Isley, and although it’s taken more than a decade, that joint project is finally here. Power of Peace, available on CD, LP, and DD/streaming from Legacy Recordings, is the first-ever full-length pairing of Santana and The Isley Brothers. As if to bring it full circle, one of the highlights of this celebration of peace and love is a recording of “What the World Needs Now is Love” – one of the Bacharach/David classics that Isley didn’t sing on Here I Am.
Both Santana (the band as well as its leader) and The Isley Brothers have been preaching the gospel of peace since their earliest days. This new release channels the spirit of the generation in which they first flourished. Santana’s funky fusion of rock, Latin sounds, and jazz first enchanted the world with the band’s 1969 debut album on Columbia Records, then under the aegis of Clive Davis (to whom Santana has dedicated Power of Peace). With 1973’s transformative 3+3, Davis would sign the Isleys to Columbia sister label Epic, via their own T-Neck imprint. Though line-ups have shifted since then – Santana now is represented on Power of Peace by Carlos and his wife Cindy, plus veterans Benny Rietvald, Karl Perazzo, Tommy Anthony and David K. Matthews, and the Isleys by Ronald and his guitar-slinging brother Ernie -what hasn’t altered is the two groups’ commitment to affecting real change via their powerful music. (Keyboard virtuoso Greg Phillinganes also makes his touch felt on Power of Peace, adding texture to each track he graces.) For this release, producer-arranger Carlos has looked back to a number of the classic songs that inspired both bands to craft an eclectic set of enormous appeal and uplift.
The Chambers Brothers’ fiery 1969 “Are You Ready” was very much in the mold of Santana’s music at the time: driving, funk-infused Latin rock. Now, it’s the opener of Power of Peace, with Carlos’ fluid and distinctive guitar lines and Cindy’s forceful yet fleet drums carrying on the Chambers Brothers’ message of togetherness. Though the album’s themes encompass the personal as well as the political, and songs veer from ballads to hard rock, a streak of positivity is evident throughout. Another Chambers tune given the Santana/Isleys treatment here, “Love, Peace, Happiness,” is an equally primal mission statement. There are other callbacks to the history of both bands. Kandy Isley and Kimberly Johnson supply the sweet backgrounds for Kathy Wakefield and Frank Wilson’s smooth “Body Talk,” first recorded at Motown by Eddie Kendricks. The track is squarely in the vein of Ron’s classic bedroom ballads.
Searing and extended guitar work from both Carlos and rhythm player Ernie (also a remarkable lead guitarist in his own right) permeates Power of Peace. Though the heavy rock guitar pyrotechnics threaten to overtake Willie Dixon’s venerable blues “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” they shine on Swamp Dogg’s fast and furious “Total Destruction of Your Mind,” on which Ron delivers a throat-shredding vocal. There’s a newfound heaviness to Stevie Wonder’s bright “Higher Ground” as Ron dials up the grit in Wonder’s spiritual anthem. A new rap section may lend currency to the Wonder song, but the powerful sentiments of Wonder’s original lyrics still speak volumes on their own.
Ron summons his most smooth vocals for an impassioned take on Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” rendered with a “People Get Ready”/Impressions-esque background vocal arrangement, and on Leon Thomas’ intimate, piano-led ballad “Let the Rain Fall on Me.” Embracing a supper club jazz vibe for this track, Power of Peace takes on an altogether new and welcome dimension. Curtis Mayfield himself is evoked with the fine, languid rendition of his “Gypsy Woman.”
The most successful moments on Power of Peace are the quieter, most organic ones, such as the heartfelt “What the World Needs Now.” Santana, in his arranger’s hat, bravely recasts Bacharach’s 3/4-time waltz into 4/4 without sacrificing its integrity, even reassigning some of Bacharach’s famous horn lines to guitar, and Isley delivers one of the LP’s most heartfelt vocals. The Bacharach/David milieu is a natural fit for Isley, but perhaps surprisingly, also for Santana. Marvin Gaye’s equally iconic and still too-relevant “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” likewise is touching in its subtly-rearranged version, with Cindy’s percolating percussion and the cooing backgrounds supporting Carlos’ and Ron’s strong instrumental and vocal leads, respectively. Cindy Blackman Santana penned the album’s one new song. She also joins Ron to sing the lead vocals on “I Remember,” the breezy bossa nova groove of which bolsters her gently reflective lyrics.
Jill Jackson and Sy Miller’s 1950s plea “Let There Be Peace on Earth” closes out Power of Peace on a high note of joyous Latin-infused rock and soul. The pairing of Santana and The Isley Brothers has yielded a varied collection of songs united by impeccable musicianship and, yes, love, sweet love.