There was never a period with Santana during which I was like oh, man; I’ve gotta dig deeper into this guy’s catalog. That changed with 1999’s Supernatural. Placing a ’60s guitar legend in a contemporary setting with modern-day vocalists was, at the very least, a marketing masterstroke. And I dug most of Supernatural the first 100,000 times I heard it. While it sold multi-millions and won a shit ton of Grammy awards, I can’t say the album has aged very well. I certainly haven’t felt much of a pull to revisit it. Twenty years later, it’s a strange mix of songs that have worn out their welcome (“Smooth” and “Maria Maria”) and collaborations with artists that now seem dated (Eagle-eye Cherry, Everlast).
I wasn’t completely sick of Supernatural when its follow up, Shaman, came out in the fall of 2002. I became especially intrigued when the album’s first single, “The Game of Love”, was released. It’s certainly my favorite of later-period Santana songs. Hell, it’s my favorite Santana song ever. And the reason I love it so much has very little to do with Carlos Santana himself. No disrespect, just saying.
The two things “The Game of Love” has going for it that other Santana songs don’t: Gregg Alexander and Michelle Branch. Mr. Alexander was the frontman of New Radicals, who had a smash hit with “You Get What You Give” (spoiler alert: 5 stars). After the success of that song, Alexander retreated behind the scenes to become a songwriter. However, he did contribute the original lead vocal for “The Game of Love”, which does bear quite a bit of melodic similarity to “You Get What You Give”. Santana’s boss, Clive Davis, decided “Game” would be better served with a female vocal, so he got Macy Gray to tackle the track. He didn’t like that version (it’s all good; Gray appeared on Shaman anyway) so it was recorded a third time, with Tina Turner on vocals. The iconic pairing didn’t make it to wax until a few years later on a Santana hits compilation; Turner decided she didn’t want to make a video, so the job of singer was delegated to teenage guitarist/vocalist Michelle Branch. Her girlish approach was perfect for Alexander’s summery song. It’s one of the few Santana sons that feels fresh and youthful, although apparently Mr. Santana feels as though the definitive version is the one with Tina’s vocals.
There’s only one Tina Turner…No one can hit a note like Tina Turner…I love Michelle and she did a great interpretation of it. It’s just that with all honor and respect to Michelle, there’s the girl and there’s the woman, and Michelle is unfolding into a woman…but it takes time to go from a girl into a woman.
All due respect to Carlos Santana, but he’s very wrong here.
“The Game of Love” is a great marriage of songwriter and vocalist. Santana’s signature guitar licks are present enough to mark it as his song, but unobtrusive enough to let Branch fly. And…well, it didn’t suffer from gross overplay like its immediate predecessors, meaning that I enjoy it a hell of a lot more these days than I do the other two. Ultimately, “The Game of Love” is my favorite song released by either of the featured artists (although, to be fair, Branch has made a remarkably consistent set of albums over the years.)