Gregg Rolie was the epitome of genius when it came to creating and fronting monumental rock groups. But he also perfected the art of cool as lead singer for the Latin Rock/Jazz Fusion band Santana and the Progressive Rock band Journey.
Although Carlos Santana gained most of the bands notoriety for his impressive guitar virtuoso, the band would not have become commercially successful without Rolie’s undeniable trademark articulation and gifted keyboards. A similar realization for the quest for commercial success occurred in Rolie’s second pilgrimage with Journey. Rolie relinquished his frontman duties to Robert Fleischman and eventually to a charismatic Steve Perry to sell more records.
Gregg Rolie’s amazing vocals and extraordinary keyboard playing can be heard on Santana’s chart-topping classics including “Black Magic Woman,” “Evil Ways,” and “Oye Como Va.” Not only was he co-founder of the group, Rolie was a huge factor in the success of Santana’s masterpiece Abraxas. Despite repudiation from the rest of the band, it was Gregg Rolie who suggested Santana’s most recognizable tune “Black Magic Woman,” (reaching #4 on the U.S. charts) a song written by guitarist Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac.
Santana with Rolie on lead vocals and keyboards performed an unprecedented set at Woodstock on day two of the three day event. Woodstock documentation of their electrifying performance of “Soul Sacrifice” made rock and roll legendary status.
Gregg Rolie and Santana were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.
Rolie left the band after their fourth album because of Santana’s eclectic musical styles; he formed Journey with ex bandmate Neil Schon in 1973. Journey continues to be one of the most commercially successful rock bands in history.
Today his prodigious group of accomplished musicians forms the Gregg Rolie Band.
His latest endeavor is Gregg Rolie - Five Days a new EP/CD consisting of 6 songs with Gregg playing acoustic piano and singing live. He recorded these tracks in his living room and as Gregg says, "It's from my house to yours.”
Here’s my interview with legendary singer/songwriter/musician/entrepreneur Gregg Rolie.
Gregg thank you for spending time with me today, how are things in Austin Texas?
“It’s been a little too hot in the last three weeks but I don’t mind, it’s okay. Keeps you warm. Again, I don’t get hurricanes but I do get snow it actually does snow here. It snowed here last couple of years. It has full seasons which I kind of like, you know I’m from California and San Diego has one season, actually two it’s either gray or sunny. It doesn’t rain, doesn’t do anything.
California is insane, they just kept voting in the same idiots while I stayed there so I ran away. They just keep doing the same things over and over and one day they’re going to have to pay the price for it. Right now they want every other state to pay for it and I don’t want to. I came here to Texas to escape them and here they’re going to the Federal Government which means I’m paying for them anyway along with everybody else.”
Gregg, do you have Latin roots, you seem to have a genuine affection for Latin music?
“No I don’t, but I can guarantee you that every Latino has some Viking in him. I’m Norwegian –Swedish and the joke between Ron my drummer and I is if you want that real Latin sound you got to have a couple of Norwegians in your band.”
It’s funny I always assumed that you had a Latino background because you meshed so well in Santana.
“I just always loved it. Those rhythms are infections and are driven by Afro-Cuban rhythms. Started in Africa, moved to Cuba and then into America. Tribal instinct music with a lot of electricity on it. And that’s kind of what we did; we built a kind of music in Santana that never existed before.”
My Mom is Cuban so I can certainly Identify Gregg.
“When I was young, I didn’t have any of the Mexican or African- Cuban rhythms in our house other than Sergio Mendes and things of that nature that my Mom liked. The kind of rhythms that was there were like Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. But I always liked that stuff even though I was listening to rock and roll and Chuck Berry but once she put that on I always liked it. And I had no dreams whatsoever of ever getting into something like I ended up doing, it was one of those things. At least I didn’t say no.”
How did you meet Carlos Santana?
“The story about Carlos is a friend of mine Tom Fraser who I played in some frat bands with right and you get paid in alcohol, he saw Carlos play on a Tuesday night with Mike Carabello who ended up being the original Congo player and two guys from Carlos high school playing bass and drums. They played at The Fillmore on Tuesday nights which Bill Graham allowed locals to come in and play, local bands, just for free just to be there. And he said I’m going to go find him Gregg .We lived 30 miles south of San Francisco. So he went up and found him working at Tick Tock hamburger stand on Columbus Street. So he said I’ve got a keyboard player that you can play with and so he goes okay, so he came down to Mountain View to a little farmhouse where we were playing which ended up being Shoreline and Shoreline Amphitheatre.
We were playing and making a lot of noise and there was marijuana and the cops came. So I turned and said “We got to get the hell out of here” and as I turned to Carlos all I saw was his elbows and the back of his feet you know, he was twenty yards down the road already out on this field. And so I thought, what a great idea, so we ran and hid in this tomato patch and that was the beginning of the whole thing.”
Wow that’s so funny what a story.
“Yea we just laid there until the cops left and we went to pick up the van and got all our stuff.”
So you guys hooked up and just started jamming after that?
“Yea, I was going to college at the time. I ended up going up to San Francisco all the time, it was 30 miles in my 55 Chevy and jumping over to go rehearse and I had a B3 organ that I left up there in this guy’s garage. We’d go back and forth and while I was playing in the band I wasn’t doing any college work and while I was doing college work I wasn’t rehearsing with the band so I had to make a decision and chose the band. I was going to be an architect otherwise."
Well Gregg I’m glad that you didn’t become an architect.
“Well I designed my last two houses and they came out really good.”
I guess the story went that after your audition, promoter Chet Helms told the band that you guys would never make it in the San Francisco music scene playing Latin Fusion and suggested Carlos keep his day job?
“I don’t know if it was Helms, we went to the Avalon to try and get a gig there, which is what you had to do back then, a couple of times, and one time we did play for Helms I think, but there was this one guy we played for and he just didn’t get it at all. What do have a conga drum and an electric guitar and an organ… what is this? They all wanted The Jefferson Airplane. Well there already is one.”
And there’s Moby Grape and Quicksilver Messenger Service and Blue Cheer… all very similar.
“Yea, all of those bands and they were already there. Playing what they played. And the music that we were going after was blues and jazz based with conga drums on it and actually one of the songs that kind of kicked us into playing a little bit differently was from the Butterfield Blues Band East-West. The way they jammed on that song we were enamored with and we started jamming our way through this stuff and doing a little bit more of it. Santana was a Jam band and built by all six guys, not one guy, not two guys, and without all the other members of the band that music wouldn’t be what it is.”
There were a lot of Jam bands back in those days right Gregg?
“Most bands were, in fact when we did the first Santana album we called in Albert Gianquinto who was a piano player for James Cotton, he was a friend of ours and quite a musician and asked him what should we do with this music to record it and how we could make this better? And we played it for him and he goes, “Shorten the solo… see ya.” That was it, we shortened the solos and that was our first album.”
And you recorded that first album pretty quick too didn’t you?
“Yea, we did that as a recall in about 2 or 3 weeks from front to back. We were working 14 hours a day and sometimes all night. We weren’t really happy with the sound of it compared to the other records at the time but it was definitely a milestone. And it came out right after Woodstock. Timing is everything in this business.”
How did you guys get invited to Woodstock, how did that happen?
"Well that was Bill Graham. Bill Graham was talking to Michael Lang and he said, “You must have Santana.” And it was an unknown band. Mike Lang told me this story; He told Bill “Send me a tape.” And he got the tape and said, “Okay, we’ll have Santana.” And that was it. So Bill Graham was the one who got us in that and Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson and all kinds of stuff. And at the time I really didn’t know that."
Bill Graham was so important to music.
“Graham was very important to the career of the band Santana. He just loved live music. He brought us “Evil Ways” we didn’t want to do it, I mean when you think about it, singing about pots and pans. We want to rock, you know? But we did it for Bill. “Okay Bill we’ll do that. And that was another time when we didn’t say no."
Santana was so awesome at Woodstock.You guys played Day-Two between The Keef Hartley Band and Canned Heat. Santana pretty much ruined any chances for The Keef Hartley Band to gain any kind of success after Woodstock because of a monumental performance that followed them.
“You know what happened for us was being an unknown band, but the atmosphere was really right for the song “Soul Sacrifice” and at that point the band really kicked into what it could do. Until then Carlos had tuning problems plus he had taken some acid earlier but it finally all peaked for Soul Sacrifice and the energy at that peak is really what the band was all about.”
Gregg, tell me about the atmosphere at Woodstock?
“When we flew in, I really didn’t have any bearing to say that 500,000 people meant something to me, it looked like ants on a hill. I didn’t know what to think about it. I just didn’t find it that striking. We played earlier than we were supposed to and everything was screwed up and we were signing papers just before coming on and Bill Graham signed the okay for the band to play and wasn’t even the manager. And we’d say, “Oh yes that’s fine Bill represented us on this,” and that’s all we would have said. But it was helter skelter getting that thing going. And then we played and I stayed to see Sly Stone and that band was awesome. So I stayed to see that and we drove out. When we drove out it finally struck me just how huge this thing was.”
Wow you guys drove out?
“Yea, we drove out and it took forever. And driving through all these people and watching what they’ve gone through and where they were living and all that, I was amazed at it. And I’m glad I didn’t drive in because it probably would have scared the hell out of me.”
Who would have ever thought that a three-day music festival would have had such a lasting impact?
“Yea, festivals were everywhere but it just turned out to be the mother of all of them. It was like Field of Dreams –If you build it they will come, and that’s what happened. And the smartest thing that I found was that they documented it from the building of it to the garbage. And it turned out be a success and even financially a disaster for years. It turned out to be one of the biggest music successes ever. And if you played Woodstock you had a career."
There were a lot of bands that were supposed to play at Woodstock like Iron Butterfly?(Some of the performers who snubbed Woodstock – Bob Dylan, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Joni Mitchell, The Doors, Eric Clapton, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones)
“Yea there were bands that turned it down because they weren’t going to get paid. Sometimes getting paid or being a headliner is not the big deal. On a three-day festival and you play last? Everyone’s pretty burnt out by then, Hendrix ended up playing to a handful of people."
Did you know Jimi Hendrix?
“I never met him. However when we were living in Woodstock New York, he didn’t live far from there and I use to drive our truck to go swimming in this reservoir and I got behind this guy, this blue corvette and I asked Eddie Kramer(Woodstock sound engineer) about this just last year and he said, “Oh yea that was Hendrix” he was driving five miles an hour, I was honking the horn trying to get around him and I was ready to flip this guy off as I go by and I looked over and said, “All crap, it’s Jimi Hendrix” and I stepped on it and just kept moving. He sure could play the guitar but he can’t drive.”
Who were some of you musical influences growing up Gregg?
“Beatles, Stones all that kind of stuff, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley. Other than the Beatles I was kind of Helter Skelter, I liked this song that song, Blues Project, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and then turned on to Peter Green, I thought Peter Green was phenomenal. I guess Clapton first and then Peter Green. Where do you find these guys man, they’re both such great guitar players. And which also led me to Black Magic Woman through Mike Shreve.
Mike Shreve (Santana’s drummer) turned me on to Fleetwood Mac where Peter Green was the guitar player. And Black Magic Woman was on there and I said, “I can sing this song, I think this is a great, great song.” And it took me a year to talk the band into playing it. (Carlos Santana finally caught- on after Gregg suggested it over and over again during countless jam sessions.)
We use to rehearse and who was ever in their first would be noodling on something and we’d come in and start playing on whatever whoever was doing. I made a habit of being there first a lot and I’d play that, without the vocals or anything just playing the music. Finally Carlos started playing on it and said, “Wow that’s really cool, what is that?” I said, “It’s Black Magic Woman a song that I’ve been telling you guys for a year now.” And they really grabbed a hold of it which is really how we did things; everybody had to have something in a song that moved them. It didn’t have to be the whole tune but there had to be something there. And so it was a package deal for everyone and a feel good about the music and so when that happened we arranged it and went after it and it became what it did.”
I guess Abraxas was Santana’s Sgt. Pepper’s or Dark Side of the Moon?
"It really was, it’s still one of my favorite works that I ever did because it was so new and different. That album get’s rave reviews all the time, it’s in the top 100 of all time albums. And I agree. Black Magic Woman by the way is the only song I ever sang where I just did it once. Didn’t overdub anything just sang it."
One of my favorite tracks on that album which I think is somewhat overlooked is “Hope You’re Feeling Better” written by you (Gregg Rolie).
"Yea I wrote that kind of based off a guitar- you know that whole opening line with what a guitar player would play. I played way down low and made it as gritty and nasty as I could make it. And it still has that feel to it. Yea it’s a cool tune, it just is."
I kind of forgot that “Oye Como Va” was a Tito Puente composition?
"I forgot who brought that one in; it was either Carlos or Carabello. And I remember thinking to myself, “What am I going to do on this?” You know really I was like, Holy Cow, I’ve got an organ and an electric piano what do I do? I simulated the instrumentation basically and played it on the organ. And it ended up being one of my favorite solos that I ever did. It just really came out right."
Not many keyboard players can play Latino music.
“You know in my mind I‘m playing guitar somewhat, now I don’t know how to explain that but I don’t necessarily play strictly keyboard parts. It’s definitely by ear, left is more and like that. I love guitar and I’ve played with great guitar players all my life including the one I have now Alan Haynes who is a blues guitarist out of Austin and is killer and different from the other guys. I’ve always picked real good guitar players and love playing with guitar players and getting those solos up in the stratosphere if I could do it. I really enjoy that.”
Do you still keep in touch with Carlos Santana?
“No, I really haven’t. The last time I saw him was a few years back.”
I think he’s been playing casino’s lately out in Vegas.
“Yea, I think he lives out in Vegas.”
You left Santana when the musical direction changed but then started a little band called Journey?
“I was up in Seattle with a restaurant with my Dad and I really quit the music business and we were running this restaurant and thank God somebody called. Herbie (Herbert) and Neal (Schon) called me up and said, “What are you doing, we’re starting a band up.” And I said, “I’m not doing anything.” And so I thought I’d give it a shot. What I was told is that we were going to be The Golden Gate Rhythm Section and it was going to be a band for people that came through town or whatever. And within a week we were writing our own material. Which would have been normal for all of us and doing our own songs. And it was a band and then it took off.
Santana was a phenomena and everything kind of fell in place for us, it was amazing. And Journey was a work of art; it was a lot of work. We had to build it. We ended up signing to Columbia because they wouldn’t let me off my contract through Santana.”
I loved those early progressive Journey albums.
“It was built on solos very much like Santana was. The hard part of it was the musicality.”
The Journey debut album (1975) and the band’s follow up album Look into the Future (1976) were great albums and ahead of its time.
“There was a lot of playing on there and a lot of interesting ideas. And then it kind of closed up and the industry kind of closed in… and you got to have a singer and you got to have this and you got to have that and it all changed.”
I guess they wanted Journey to be more commercial at that time?
“Yea, and after three albums we could sell more tickets than records. So we made that conscious effort and it was really Herbie who found Steve Perry. This is your lead singer get use to it.”
Man, that was a totally different direction for the band.
“Yea it was a big change and Herbie was right. We ended up going that way which I didn’t mind because I was strapped pretty thin with playing three or four keyboards, singing and playing harmonica. So I welcomed the fact of having someone come in and doing a lot of leads. I wanted to sing a few more leads than I ended up doing. I don’t think Perry liked me singing leads when I think back.”
And Journey became remarkably successful after Perry became the lead singer. And the band remains a draw despite all the personnel changes through the years and look at them today.
“Yea I met Arnel (Pineda- is the lead singer) nice guy, what a great guy he is and what a smart move, a resurgent of their whole career. It’s a great story about finding him on You Tube from the Philippines and what are the odds, it’s just a great story.”
You know it’s funny your story is very similar to Jim McCarty the drummer for The Yardbirds. He left The Yardbirds with Keith Relf and (because of the timing- FM radio, album rock etc.) the band turned into Led Zeppelin. Then McCarty and Relf started a brand new project called Renaissance, made several albums and left again. The band continued and got rather big.
“I did a lot of leaving, but I left Journey to start a family. I built two bands and been on the road for 14 years. Like all things its great when it’s great and when it’s not anymore it’s just… you know and it was showing on me and I just didn’t care quite as much and that’s not fair to everybody else.”
You recommended Jonathan Cain (The Baby’s) to replace you in the band?
“We toured with The Baby’s and I watched what he was doing, plus he could play guitar and when I was leaving I said, “This guy can play anything I’m playing plus he played guitar and I knew Neil wanted to have a rhythm guitar on some songs which made sense to me. And I can’t play guitar for the life of me, I’ve sat down with those things, these things hurt your fingers. Anyway, I recommended him for it and they ended up getting him. And he ended up being the guy who helped pen a lot of those big big hits. I didn’t know he could do that.”
So what happened next after you left Journey?
“I hadn’t played for a couple of years just noodled around in the house and stuff, I had no plans and then I did the solo album. And then I realized how hard that was. It was an interesting turn of events.”
Your first solo effort Gregg Rolie (1985) had some great artists performing on it- Carlos Santana, Peter Wolf (The J.Geils Band), ex bandmate Neil Schon and Craig Chaquico(The Jefferson Starship).
“In fact they did a trade of solos on a song called “Fire at Night” that’s still stunning. That song was about 7 or 8 minutes long and was getting airplay in the Midwest, St Louis I believe… and heavy airplay. But Columbia pulled the plug on it. The reason why and I understand this from the business aspect, why would they want to make me compete with Santana and Journey when they already had them. Why would they spend the money to further my career when they’ve got two bands that are doing that? And even though Neal and Carlos were on there… to my way of thinking it would have furthered their career as well and kept that whole thing going. But that’s not the way they see that and I understand that. They showed them and I was lucky to get the jackets printed. But that’s the record company you know?”
What was it like to work with Peter Wolf?
“Yea he’s a character I liked him a lot, very opinionated about music but a multitalented guy and funny. Yea Peter was very cool."
I’m guessing most of your music is now being recorded from your home now?
“The Roots CD was the first one that I really recorded myself and got an engineer to mix it and Roots came out sounding phenomenal. And we did that between my house and my drummer Ron Wikso’s house.”
Your latest project is called Five Days?
“The band that I have right now has been together for around 9 or 10 years. The CD we put together is called Rain Dance. And it was mixed here at my house which sounds phenomenal and was recorded live at Sturgis. And it’s the Santana stuff that I did way back when along with new material with the same genre. And the band is incredibly good. It’s the longest stint that I’ve ever done anything. And it’s because in the end product it ends up being the hang, if you can hang with guys and their decent players and these guys are great players then it’s going to be really good and fun and easy to do. And that’s what I’ve had for the last 10 years and I’m real happy with these guys.
Then on a side project I started to do Five Days. I recorded a CD here at my house with piano and vocals done all at the same time like they did in the 40’s and which was unnerving to me because I’d never done that. It was always music first; vocals, and then you got everything perfect. But this was… you didn’t do it right you do it again. But my son recorded it, he’s an engineer. He also mixed the live album. He’s got tremendous ears, which is what it takes. Anyway he recorded it and it was really his idea. We recorded 6 songs and went back and did-Black Magic Woman a different way –Anytime (Journey) a different way and it was inspired by the personal touch that Lyle Lovett did with vocals. It’s just like he’s speaking in your ear, an amazing delivery of vocals. And Eric Clapton has gone back and doing a song that he did before one way and is completely going another route. And it inspired me to do kind of the same idea why not? If anybody has the right to do it, it would be me. And now I play Look into the Future when I go play live. And it’s just piano and guitar.
Alan Haynes was the first guy I met here in Austin when I moved here. And the way I met him was we went and saw him play and I kind of got to know him a little bit, I was at Antones one night during this blues fest and he was playing and he walked up to me at the bar and says, “You know there’s a B3 up there.” And I said, “Yea?” And he said, “I’ve got this song” And I said, “Yea?” He said, “It’s got two notes.” And I said, “Really, and what keys would those be in?” He goes, “D minor to B-flat.” And I said, “That sounds great, let’s go do this.” And so I went up and played with him and got to know him a bit.
So when I decided to do this (Five Days) I thought, “I’m going to go grab this blues guitarist.” And he’s really good, been around a long time. He’s played with all the blues greats- Muddy Waters, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter and was almost in the Steve Ray Vaughan band. But anyway, I thought I’d go and see if he was interested and he is, so we’ve done four shows and they’ve gone over great and they’ve sold out and it’s about music and conversation. The show is very loose and personable. We’ve opened it up to the fans, because without them I’d probably be driving a cab. And it’s gone over very well and I don’t think there are many guys in a Rock field that would or could do it that I can think of.
As a matter of fact I just saw Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt doing that same sort of thing. And it was very interesting. Lyle Lovett is a very funny guy by the way he uses his acting skills quite well. I like them because they banter back and forth and it’s pretty funny and they just play song after song and it’s just acoustic guitar. So here I am doing the same thing and inspired by this guy. Which is also interesting, I found out that Abraxas was the first album that he (Lyle Lovett) had.”
Your vocals and keyboards were what established Santana as a cool and great rock band. Carlos had that trademark electric guitar sound and you had the trademark voice and dynamic touch on the B3 -which synthesized together as the true genuine sound of Santana. I want to thank you Gregg for spending time with me today.
“It was my pleasure Ray.”
GREGG ROLIE is also a proponent of music education for children. In 2005, he signed on as an official supporter of “Little Kids Rock” a nonprofit organization that provides free musical instruments and instruction to children in underserved public schools throughout the U.S.A.
You can contact Ray Shasho at firstname.lastname@example.org
Coming up next an interview with Mark Farner legendary guitarist and vocalist of Grand Funk Railroad.
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