Rock and Roll Fantasy Personified
Gregg Rolie: Black Magic Woman's voice and Santana and Journey co-founder
Al Carlos Hernandez, Contributing Editor
Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame master musician and vocalist Gregg Rolie has done what millions have aspired to, but only a handful have ever accomplished. His life is a Rock and Roll fantasy personified. He started his career on the stage of Woodstock as a founding member of Santana and has a legacy of over forty years of topping the worldwide record charts and selling out arenas all over the planet. He is the co-founder of two internationally known super groups, Santana and Journey, whose music helped define a generation. For many his melodies are the sound track of their lives. Gregg, in humility, told me, "Our music happened to connect with the generation and with the times."
Published on LatinoLA: December 20, 2009
LatinoLA Contributing Editor Al Carlos Hernandez had a chance to reflect with Gregg, a truly a great guy, about his stellar career.
His journey began in the Northern California mid-sixties, where Gregg recalled meeting Carlos Santana.
GR: "I actually met Carlos in a tomato patch. What happened was a friend of mine saw Carlos play at the Fillmore on a Tuesday night, which was "locals" night. Bill Graham would put on local bands that could just come in and play. My friend saw him play, came and told me about him, and then decided he'd go find him. He went into San Francisco -- I lived in Palo Alto, which is 30 miles south. He went and found him working at a Tic-Toc's hamburger place in the Mission District, and invited him to come down and jam. He drove him down to Mountain View and we played at somebody's house.
Of course, marijuana was a very happening substance back then, and we were doing all those things. When the noise got to be too much for the neighbors and the police started showing up, I turned to Carlos and said, "We'd better get out of here." All I saw was his back. He was about twenty yards down the road, very hip to everything, running to hide in a tomato patch. I ran after him and we sat there until the cops went away. That's how I met him."
Carlos Santana said; "Gregg and I were like John Lennon and Paul McCartney in collaboration. We still have not been able to define who the needle was, and who was the thread."
AC: What was your original vision for Santana?
GR: At the time we wanted to be an international band. We wanted to be huge. Coming from San Francisco was wonderful but it's a big world out there and we wanted to play to everybody. We looked at ourselves and tried to be like the people we admired, which were jazz greats and blues greats. We approached our music in that fashion. It just seemed to have an impact. It kept growing and growing and people loved it. We just kept doing it. We were a group of guys doing the blues-based music that we enjoyed playing. We wanted to be a big band; our focus was much larger than a local scene and I think that added to that attitude.
AC: Lately there has been a lot said and written about the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock music festival. I asked Gregg about the Woodstock experience.
GR: I was talking to Mike Shrieve (Woodstock Hall of Fame drummer for Santana) about this. I guess I'll have to make up some stories because I don't remember much.
AC: For many of us, seeing Santana playing Soul Sacrifice on screen changed our lives.
GR: Interestingly enough, we had our own problems. There were tuning problems because it was outside. The instruments back then didn't have the tuning heads that lock in like they do now. All the technology that's going on is now is much more advanced, so you don't end up with quite the same problems. Bill Graham, who was a mentor to us, got us the gig without even having an album out yet.
It really came together on "Soul Sacrifice." The band played well and it was energetic. We got put in the middle of that movie. If you were at Woodstock and in that movie, you had a career. And that's pretty much what happened. It just kick-started the whole thing internationally for us. Our reputation preceded us playing Woodstock. We'd never been on the East Coast and that was our first trip. We played a couple of gigs out there. People knew of the band from San Francisco because that was the place where it was all coming from. Back then it was like what Seattle was in the 90s for the whole grunge scene.
We (Santana) flew in to Woodstock, and I remember Barry Imhoff, who worked for Bill Graham, was in there with us. He said, "Look at all those people down there!" I looked down, and it didn't really strike me, because it looked like ants on a hill, peas on mashed potatoes or something. It didn't really strike me at all. We had played in front of 10,000 people, but I had no consciousness of what 500,000 people looked like. From the helicopter, it looked like a lot of people. So we landed since you couldn't drive in anymore. Everyone had parked on the highway and blocked everything.
We got there and played, and looking out, it didn't bother me too much because you could only see so far. Past that all you could see was brown - all the hair. So it wasn't frightening because it didn't gel. We'd played, as I said, to 10,000 before. Thank God it didn't, because I'd probably have been scared to death knowing what was really going on. I remember staying to watch Sly & The Family Stone because I wanted to see him play, and we left after that. They drove us out, and that's when it hit me -just how big this was. It took forever to get through 500,000 people in a car. It was pretty amazing. If you were there and you played, and then got into the movie, you had a career.
I have a great story about Jimi Hendrix. I never really met him, but when we went to go play Woodstock, I was in our truck, and I went swimming every day at this waterhole. I was coming back in our truck and I got behind somebody in a Corvette doing about fifteen miles per hour. I couldn't believe it! It was a winding road in upstate New York and I was honking my horn. I was really angry. I went by, and looked over, and it was Hendrix. I'm honking and flipping him off, and I went, "Oh my God!" I just kept on going. I'll never forget that. I was like, "Man, he can't drive."
Speaking of driving, Gregg is a hot rod enthusiast, and almost missed the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony because he was working on the restoration of a '32 Ford. He is currently building a '56 Chevrolet that will corner like a Porsche. He plans to tour his Chevy at auto shows.
AC: Rock folklore has it that you once walked into a luxury auto dealership and bought an exotic car in cash. True?
GR: That's true. I love cars. I went to this auto dealership in downtown San Francisco and was looking at this mid-engine sports car called a De Tomaso Mangusta. It had a Ford 302 engine. The sales guy was telling me about the radio, the seats and all that. I wanted to know about the braking system, the engine, performance specs - I was really into understanding the engineering. The guy gets fed up and says, "Kid, I don't have time for this!" I was livid and stormed out. The girl that I was with stood there for an minute and told the guy, "You shouldn't have done that. He can totally afford this car." The next day I showed up with a bag of cash, went to the guy next to the guy who gave me a hard time and handed him the money for the car. I looked over at the guy who didn't have time for me and told him, "Never judge a book by its cover!"
Gregg left Santana in 1972 after four very successful groundbreaking albums.
AC: Why did you leave Santana while the band was still red hot?
GR: I guess Mike Shrieve said it best this way: "It was too much, too soon, A bunch of young guys on top of the world." It just got to everybody. But at the same time, the one thing that we had in common was the music and that drive for the music. We did not know each other all that well so when the music faltered, we didn't know how to express to each other what was going on, going wrong, or why. I look back on it and it was a moment in time that was really special and great for me.
It was kind of painful towards the end but I look back and it was great. What was accomplished by the six musicians (seven with Neal) was a whole different kind of music that no one had ever done before - an approach to music that no one could ever replicate. We were in the middle of making it happen - just striving to do what we did. It all came together in that little point in time and I'm glad it all happened. I listen to that music and, to this day, I could go right back to it.
AC: It was right after that when you and Neal Schon formed Journey. What was the plan behind putting that band together?
GR: Actually, I had opened a restaurant in Seattle with my father when I got a call from Neal and Herbie Herbert, the manager. You know, it was "What are you doing? You wanna do this?" And I said, "I'll give it a shot." It was really like that. I didn't have any plans of being in the music business after Santana. They were very serious about it, and I was kind of like, "Okay, let's see what it is." Pretty soon it turned into a full-fledge band and we really went after it. Journey had to be built. Santana was a phenomenon -- we built Santana and worked hard on it as well, but it happened pretty quickly. Journey took a long investment to make it happen.
AC: Journey started as the Golden Gate Session band, which was like a progressive rock thing. Then it went really pop - what do you feel about that?
GR: I thought the change was great. It was really challenging for me because I came from playing Santana music to playing something that was all majors and built for singers. In Santana, singing was almost the last thing you thought about. It was all about solos. Mainly the keys were minor. In Journey it was all major keys and a little happier, not as blues-driven. That's where I came from. It was like two ends of the spectrum for me. Journey at first was pretty much like Santana without the congas and timbales - it was happier music
AC: After a few albums Journey hired Steve Perry to take over most of the lead vocals. You two sang together on those early radio friendly hits. Tell me about that.
GR: I liked doing that. I liked having a lead singer. It didn't bother me at all. I had been the lead while playing keyboards and harmonica. It was pretty spread out. I thought it was a new challenge, a new way to go. Why not? Steve Perry had a great voice. It was that simple.
AC: Okay, again, you are at the top of the Rock food chain and then you quit Journey. Why?
GR: I left to start a family. I was really tired of the road. I'd built two bands and had been on the road for fourteen years. It was the end of it for me. I didn't want to travel anymore. But look what I'm doing now with the Gregg Rolie band. I'm doing the same thing. At the time, I wanted to change my life and so I did. I made a conscious effort to start a family and I've done that. Now the wife and kids have kicked me out of the house, now that the kids are grown up.
Journey attained multiplatinum success in the 80's. Gregg returned briefly to the Santana fold before going on hiatus to start a family. Rolie eventually came back to music, working on various one-off projects including Abraxas Pool. Pool included all of the original Santana members with the exception of Carlos and bass player David Brown.
Santana Woodstock drummer Michael Shrieve recently told me, "It wasn't until I did the "Abraxas Pool" project with Gregg Rolie, Michael Carabello, Chipito Areas and Neal Schon that I realized how the rhythm section fit like a glove. It was amazing how we had the feel and that sound again immediately. But also, one of most surprising things to me was that Gregg Rolie's sound had so much to do with the sound of Santana. Sure there was the percussion section, and of course, Carlos Santana, no small thing! But, Gregg Rolie's sound on the Hammond B-3 added so much to the sound of the original band! And don't get me started on his voice!" Shrieve went on to tell me, "The original Santana band was a street gang who used musical weapons."
The Gregg Rolie Band plays between forty and fifty dates a year. It's a perfect situation for the laid back, hot-rod-loving Hall of Fame musician. He has lived with his family for three years in Austin, Texas and loves it there. His kids are unaffected by his fame. His son helps him as a gifted recording engineer. His daughter's only response to seeing Pops in the film Woodstock was, "Dad, I didn't know you smoked."
The Gregg Rolie band is releasing its first concert DVD, recorded at the Sturgis Rally, and has issued a live CD entitled Rain Dance, a must for any Santana/Journey fan.
GR: The DVD is about an hour. We were slotted for an hour and I'm known to be pretty good with timing at this point in my career. If you need an hour, I can play an hour. It covers the material from Santana that I did with (Michael) Carabello and the original band. It covers Santana from the first three albums, as well as new material that is unreleased and also includes material from the Roots CD I put out in late 2001.
No Journey tunes. The band has timbales and congas, and that doesn't really work (laughs). I basically went back to the roots of where I started. When I sit down and play the piano, that's the kind of the music that comes out. That's the way it happens. So I just went to whatever was comfortable. That's what I was weaned on, so that's where I went.
Mike Carabello plays with me and he was the original conga player with Santana. The timbale player is Adrian Areas who is Chepito's son. Alphonso Johnson played bass with Santana - actually playing longer with the band than I did after I left. I was there for about five years and I think he played for about six, so Al's played the Santana stuff as well.
I'll just tell you the rest of the lineup. Ron Wikso played with me in the Storm and has played with many, many people as well. I've known him for fifteen years. Actually, he's kind of the instigator of the whole thing because I was in a hammock and he kind of dragged me out of it. He's the drummer. The keyboard player is Wally Minko. He played with Jean-Luc Ponty and Tom Jones and a host of others. He's very much like Alphonso -- the list is so extreme and we don't have time. The guitar player is Kurt Griffey, who's virtually unknown to people, but he's a shredder. He's a phenomenal player. He plays all the signature lines that he needs to play, takes it to where he wants to, and it does not miss at all. This is the Gregg Rolie Band.
There is no doubt that if Gregg can strike mulit-multiplatinum twice with two legendary rock bands, the smart money is on the fact that he could do it again - whenever he wants to.
Al Carlos Hernandez, Contributing Editor:
Edited By Susan Aceves
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