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A ‘Heaven’-sent event

Sony brings out big guns for Santana concert

In a display of showmanship seldom seen in recent years, Sony Music Entertainment and its colorful chief creative officer Clive Davis will unveil Carlos Santana’s upcoming album, “Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time,” to about 20 media outlets Wednesday at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.

The event, which will include a concert by Santana and the album’s featured vocalists India.Arie, Chris Daughtry and Gavin Rossdale, represents a generous show of support at a time when the record business continues to suffer from flagging album sales, and when one of its few signs of health, the concert biz, has sustained the weakest summer touring season in five years. Among other expenses, Sony is footing the bill for flights and accommodations for national media outlets and major overseas organizations from the U.K. and Germany.

“We don’t do it as often as we used to, of course,” said exec VP/g.m. of Sony’s RCA Music Group Tom Corson, who pegs the cost of the affair in “the low six figures.” “Back in the heyday of the record business these junkets, for lack of a better word, were de rigueur.”

Davis said it was important to create a memorable event because the label is depending on word of mouth more than radio play to create buzz about the record. Both he and Corson contend that “concept albums” are less radio-friendly than the typical pop release. It’s due out Sept. 21.

“So we’re having an event not to dazzle or glamorize or put celebrities around,” Davis said. “I think it’s more important to get those people in the media to listen to it, and hopefully, they’ll spread the word that this is a very unique and special album, and a must-have album.”

The last time Sony staged such a coming-out party was last July, when it held listening sessions of Whitney Houston’s “I Look to You,” her first album in seven years, in Los Angeles, New York and London. Again, it was Davis — who has a long association with Houston and Santana — who led the charge. But for that effort, Sony took its show on the road, and Houston didn’t perform.

In this case, holding the event in Las Vegas made sense since Santana has a residency at the Hard Rock, via AEG, that began last year. It’s called “Supernatural Santana: A Trip Through the Hits.”

Corson acknowledged that the Clive Davis factor is a “huge part” of the Santana push, the kind of effort that the label reserves for those considered its legends — Santana, Houston, Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow — all of whom have worked closely with Davis over the years.

It was Davis who prodded Houston out of a long period of inactivity for “I Look to You,” and the idea of Santana doing a sort of guitar hero album was pure Davis.

“There are very few label executives or producers or even artists who can suffer this kind of scrutiny,” Corson said of Davis. “And he’s such a great spokesman for his projects, and he brings you in behind the scenes to reveal his thought process — because it was his concept. And it took a little salesmanship and prodding to get Carlos to sign on. … But that’s the brilliance of Clive and his persistence.”

Santana was one of the first acts that Davis signed, along with Janis Joplin and Blood, Sweat & Tears, when he became president of Columbia Records in 1967. It was Davis who revived Santana’s career with 1999’s “Supernatural,” on which he paired Santana with such artists as Rob Thomas and Wyclef Jean. Although the album debuted at No. 19 on the Billboard Top 200, it eventually landed the No. 1 spot and held onto it for 12 consecutive weeks. It sold 27 million copies worldwide (15 million in the U.S. alone) and won nine Grammys, including Record of the Year.

Davis has established a pattern of pairing some of his biggest acts with big-name songwriters, producers and guest artists, which he continued to do with Santana post “Supernatural.” With “Guitar Heaven,” he and co-producers Howard Benson and Matt Serletic cherry-picked classic tunes like Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” much like he did with Harry Connick Jr.’s recent collection of

covers, “Your Songs.”

Whether the gamble on the promotional event will pay off is anybody’s guess. In Houston’s case, her last album sold well, but not spectacularly, compared to past efforts. Nevertheless, Corson considered that campaign a success.

“We’re over 2 million albums (sold) worldwide — a million here and a million overseas,” Corson said.

Corson said more promo activity is planned for Santana, including appearances on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” “Lopez Tonight,” “Dancing With the Stars,” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

Sony is also compiling a doc/TV special from the three performances at the Hard Rock, as well as background and studio footage with many of the artists on the album as well as Davis. Davis said he considers all this activity as “getting back to basics” by “perpetuating the careers of artists for the long term.”

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