“Black Magic Woman” fittingly has had two major lives. The first came from Fleetwood Mac for whom Peter Green wrote the song and then, of course, the second coming from Santana in the classic form that moved Rock-N-Roll heaven and earth. (The Fleetwood Mac line up that invented “Black Magic Woman” is a far cry from the latter-day Stevie Nicks/Lindsey Buckingham band.
The original Macs were a hard driving blues band. Composer/guitarist Peter Green previously had been part of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, at first as a fill in for the absent Eric Clapton. Mayall considered Green to be a more-than-adequate sub for Clapton and once predicted he would be greater than the great god Eric. It didn’t quite pan out that way, but Green is nonetheless a terrific guitarist.
The Fleetwood Mac version is noteworthy because it is deeply planted in the psychedelic era, and has the air of quasi-mysticism that suffused mid-to-late ‘60s Britain and America. It is also a true grit Chicago blues number that starts with the instantly recognizable sinuous guitar featuring the bending notes that migrated so thoroughly to the Santana version. Around 2:10 into the original release the Mac version shifts gears to a 4/4 blues boogie that takes the song all the way home. The band accomplishes quite a bit in 2 minutes and 54 seconds of the original.
One of the definitive live versions of Fleetwood Mac’s rendition was performed in 1970 at the Boston Tea Party, a legendary venue that showcased just about everybody who was anybody back then. Watch and listen and you’ll grasp why B.B King said Peter Green gave him the cold sweats.
Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” incorporates a neo-Hungarian folk composition called “Gypsy Queen” by Gabor Szabo, which is comprised of central European rural music, modern jazz, and Latin elements. Think of the villagers hunting down Frankenstein’s monster with a Caribbean rhythm section playing in the background while Victor Hugo’s Esmeralda dances wildly.
Carlos Santana used the intro to great effect, indeed turning it into the musical equivalent of opening credits for the main part of a very cinematic song. As the Hungarian mélange dies down, the guitarist lays down his venerable, honeyed lead guitar that flows like deep water over pebbles in a winding river.
Even before the vocals kick in, you know you are going to be hoodooed by the voodoo. It is largely on the elemental power of “Black Magic Woman” that Santa’s Abraxas album went quadruple platinum.
Two verses sung by keyboardist Gregg Rolie open up a Pandora’s box of memory and desire for the listener. We know we shouldn’t be enchanted by the black magic woman, but like Odysseus’s shipmates we are drawn to the Siren through sound, rhythm, and a mournful voice that both warns and beckons us. Rolie does a singing job for the ages. Particularly mesmerizing is his use of sibilance on words like “tricks” and “sticks.” Almost creepy but so sensuous you, too, want to surrender.
Got a black magic woman
Got a black magic woman.
I got a black magic woman
Got me so blind I can’t see
That she’s a black magic woman
She’s tryin’ to make a devil out of me.
The lyrics are made of straight ahead no nonsense phrases. The guy is hooked so bad he may never get better. He is a zombie of love, a voodoo doll with pins sticking out of him. He’s helpless, hasn’t even a vague clue as to what to do.
Got your spell on me baby
Got your spell on me baby.
Yes you got your spell on me baby
Turning my heart into stone
I need you so bad – magic woman,
I can’t leave you alone.
It would be an easy trap to fall into to grade Santana’s soloing against Peter Green’s. They are both superb efforts, just very different in approach. Santana engages in pyrotechnical “Rock” melody lines and riffs, and more highly controlled and well-produced distortion and feedback. Green is churning up the Mississippi headed toward the Windy City and its golden age of Blues.
What clearly sets the Santana version off from the Mac version is Santana’s rhythm section. While Mick Fleetwood does a very good job on the original, the drumming, congas, triangle, cowbell and blocks on Santana’s take are utterly supernatural. It is one of the greatest rhythm section executions in musical history and so places the version among the top 100 Rock songs of all time.
The last section of “Black Magic Woman” by Santana reverts to Szabo’s opening theme except by the time the fevered examination of this voodoo woman is completed, the band is in a mad, mad, mad sweat, a pace that projects not so much a frenzy as it does a demonic possession. Chepito Areas lifts this section up to genius level through his timbale solo.
As the song closes, Carlos’s playing speeds up, yet is tender at times, although he picks and scratches in other moments. “Black Magic Woman” ends in such a way that you might think it could have gone on forever except someone had held up a hand and said, “Stop! The spell is over,” and the tape machines were simply turned off.