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July 29, 2014

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With all-star release, Hard Rock Hotel’s Joint is guitar heaven

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Erik Kabik/Retna/ErikKabik.com

Gavin Rossdale, Chris Daughtry, Carlos Santana, Mary Wilson and India.Arie at a listening party for Carlos Santana’s new album Guitar Heaven The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time at Vanity in the Hard Rock Hotel on Aug. 25, 2010.

Clive Davis readily remembers the chills, proverbial and otherwise.

In 1968, Davis' spine braced upon watching Carlos Santana perform in San Francisco for the first time. He told of that sensation Wednesday afternoon at the VIP listening event unveiling Santana's new, terrific release, "Guitar Heaven ... The greatest Guitar Classics of All."

The CD was formally launched at the event, but Davis preferred to reach back more than 40 years, to when he was introduced to Santana's guitar magic.

"At the time I'd signed some big acts," said Davis, the contemporary-music legend who signed some of the greatest artists in rock history as president of Columbia Records in the late-'60s and early '70s, and who also founded Arista Records. Some of his earliest finds were Janis Joplin with Big Brother & The Holding Company, and Blood Sweat & Tears. As he rose to prominence, Davis says, "A very special gentleman told me something very special was happening in San Francisco, and asked me, 'Would you come out and see this group?' And I did fly out so I could see the Santana band."

The man was Bill Graham, instrumental in the careers of dozens of influential artists who grew from the San Francisco rock 'n' roll scene of the late-'60s. Davis said when the band began playing that night at the Fillmore West, "I got the proverbial tingle up my spine."

That tingle is still evident for Davis, and everyone else touched by Santana's music. This week he unveiled the highlights of a terrifically entertaining release, "Guitar Heaven ... The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time" which hits stores Sept. 21.

Davis and Santana appeared at Vanity nightclub at Hard Rock Hotel for a VIP listening event, during which eight songs were played for an audience that included a few of the artists who appeared on the CD: Gavin Rossdale, India.Arie and Chris Daughtry. Longtime Davis friend Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Mirage headliner Terry Fator, and George Harrison's widow, Olivia, were present (one of the songs covered was a spirited "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" by India.Arie and Yo-Yo Ma). Also on hand was former hoops star (and noted Grateful Dead fan) Bill Walton, whose frequent standing ovations made it clear he was enjoying the flash back in time.

The album — and we'll use that term, as Davis reminded that albums and radio play helped shape the music industry — features some real gems. Rossdale joins Santana's band for the T-Rex (and, later, Power Station) classic "Bang a Gong," Daughtry is featured on Def Leppard's "Photograph," and the first single is to be "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." If you aren't moved by india.arie's enveloping vocals and the cello work of Yo-Yo Ma, you might well be Vulcan. Or a piece of furniture.

The balance of the CD: "Whole Lotta Love," with Chris Cornell; "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," with Scott Weiland; "Sunshine of Your Love," with Rob Thomas; "Dance the Night Away," with Pat Monahan; "Back in Black," with Nas; "Riders on the Storm" with Chester Bennington; "Smoke on the Water," with Jacoby Shaddix; "Little Wing," with Joe Cocker; and "I Ain't Superstitious," with Jonny Lang.

A generation ago this release could have been called, "K-tel Heaven".

The project reminds of Barry Manilow's "Greatest Songs of the Fifties" release from 2006, early in his run at the Las Vegas Hilton. The album, to be followed by similar all-cover CDs from Manilow spanning every decade from the '50s to the present, shot to the top of the Billboard charts and helped boost interest in Manilow's residence at the Hilton Theater.

"It's ironic that in both of those careers, Clive Davis was involved," said John Nelson, vice-president of AEG Live in Las Vegas. AEG Live books shows at the Joint and also lured Manilow to Paris Las Vegas. Of Santana's new release, he said, "This is a rare chance to remind the world about the legendary performers they can see in Las Vegas, who they can't see anywhere else, and give music fans more of a reason to come here."

Santana signed a contract to perform at the Joint at least through the spring of 2011. But he has since bought a home in Las Vegas, and in July became engaged to drummer Cindy Blackman (typical of a master showman, he proposed to her onstage during a show in Tinley Park, Ill.). The hope from Hard Rock Hotel and AEG Live officials is he'll be around a lot longer. B.B. King moved to Vegas 30 years ago and seems to like the city, and he could well join Santana onstage at the Joint if the stars align, figuratively and literally.

Through it all, Santana remains the same humble musician who wowed Davis that night in San Francisco.

"I want to thank Clive Davis for the vision and clarity he has," the legendary guitarist told the VIP audience. "I wanted to go to the same house as Miles Davis, Johnny Mathis, Barbra Streisand and Bob Dylan. That's where I wanted to be, even if I had to serve hamburgers or do the dishes."

Santana laughed when recalling the first time he saw one of his favorite guitarists — and fellow Las Vegans — play live.

"I saw B.B. King perform in San Francisco, and from the first note he started to cry," he said. "All I could see was the tears, and those diamonds he had on that had that said, 'B.B. King.' And I said, 'Damn! That's what I want to do. That's who I want to be.'"

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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