Gregg Rolie is one of rock’s unfamiliar names, he’s a legend but few recognize him. He was the man whose voice was behind “Black Magic Woman,” “Evil Ways,” and the first three Journey albums — and recently shared his story during his five-decade saga.
His name might not ring a bell, but his music definitely does. He sang “Black Magic Woman,” “Evil Ways,” “Oye Como Va,” and all the other early Santana classics – he was Santana’s original lead vocalist, but after leaving, he went on to form Journey with Neal Schon – who was a former guitarist of Santana. Gregg Rolie was the first lead singer and played the keyboard on the first three albums before Steve Perry replaced him as the frontman of the legendary rock band in 1978. After Perry took over the vocals, he stuck around for the next two years, played the keyboards for Journey’s huge hits such as “Lights,” “Wheel in the Sky,” and “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’.”
Gregg Rolie is now a member of Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band and has been touring with them for the past six years. He also made it into the Rock & Roll Hall twice for having to play his roles for the two bands, Journey and Santana.
Now that we know his story, let’s read his story in his own words.
Greg Rolie meeting Santana for the first time:
Carlos and I met in a tomato patch. He played at the Fillmore on a Tuesday night, when Bill Graham just let locals on. And a friend of mine, Tom Frasier, saw him and said, “I’m going to go find this guy.” He came to my house and told me that, and I was like, “All right, cool.” He found him working at a hamburger stand called Tick Tock, on Columbia Street in San Francisco, and said, “Do you want to come jam with this guy?”
He came and we played, and of course we were smoking marijuana and stuff. When the cops came, I said, “We have to get out of here.” And all I saw was his ass and his elbows. He was way ahead of us. I was like, “Great idea.” I ran into a tomato patch and waited until the cops left. And that’s how it started with me. I think it was 1968.
Forming the band:
1968 and a half. It just happened. We had this high school buddy Danny Haro and Gus Rodriguez on drums and bass, and [Michael] Carabello was there. Then it grew. We just kept getting new people in. The music that everyone knows has Mike Shrieve on it and Chepito and David Brown and all the rest of us. That’s it.
Playing at Woodstock 69′:
[Laughs] I can talk about it. It’s the same old story. The fact of the matter is, it started my career. It started all of us. If you were there at that concert, you had a career. After that, it’s what you do with it. Musically, we connected with a generation of people that need to be connected to. That’s kind of it. And it’s gone on from there.
Carlos Santana on Mescaline during the Woodstock 69′:
No. I had no idea. As a matter of fact, all I could think was, “Man, he’s having a really hard time tuning up.” That was my thought. I didn’t find out about that for years later. Then I went, “Oh! OK! Now I get it!”
On Being straight:
Other than a beer or two, yeah.
Playing for the group was legendary and that will never die:
It won’t. It’s totally amazing. When you look back upon what everyone was going through, each individual, but especially Carlos. . . . He is sitting there holding onto his guitar because he was on mescaline. He was like, “God, let me get through this. I’ll never do this again.” Well, he lied. And I’m just playing as hard as I could. Carlos said, “We were floating like kites and Gregg was on the ground holding onto the strings.” All I could tell him was, “Yeah, but I caught up to you.” Pretty soon we were all floating everywhere.
Providing vocals for Santana’s radio hits, and Satana being credited for singing them:
Not “irritate,” but it confused me. “You’ve got to be kidding me? Have you watched any of the things we’ve done? Have you ever been to a concert?” It’s always the same thing. But look, we picked “Santana” because it was a cool name. It prints well. It emphasized, at the time, what was going on. It was like “The Paul Butterfield Blues Band” or “Allman Brothers.” All of the names were blues-based. And he was kind of the front and center. So we picked it and that’s it. Everyone said he was the leader of the band and he was the guy.
In retrospect, it’s not how that happened. The band was really a band. That’s why it worked so well. Let’s put it this way: Without the 10 percent this guy put in and the 20 percent this guy put in — Carlos and I did 40/40 or whatever — without the rest of it, it wouldn’t have been the music that it is.
Leaving the group after the third album:
I had a totally different opinion about it. If you’re the Beatles and you want to go to putting horns on your music or doing Rubber Soul or whatever, you can, because you’re the Beatles. . . . But we’re Santana, and to change the complete direction of the music and lose the people you already have, going from the music of Santana III to jazz, basically — I thought it was a mistake and I was right.
Never hesitated on leaving:
No. The other point is that personally we were all upside down. Carlos puts it well these days when he says, “We didn’t treat each other too good.” That’s exactly it. It was too much too soon. We had the world by the balls and didn’t realize it. That’s what happened. But talk about having a moment in time? I was so proud of what was created with this. So proud.
The day he left:
I don’t like talking about it much, but Carlos made a demand that so-and-so leave the band. But we all did this together. He made demands and, not to say that he was totally wrong, but it was the way he did it. I couldn’t live with it. That’s not what I signed up for. We ended up pretty bad. But the music we created was done by all that fervor. Without it, it probably wouldn’t have happened. I’ve always said, “Hey, you want a good Latin rock band? You better have a Norwegian in it!” [Laughs]
After leaving the band:
I left music completely. I was just like, “I’m done. I want to do something else completely.” So I started a restaurant with my father up in Seattle. Not that it was a bad idea to be in business with my father, but jumping into the restaurant business from the music business is like going from the pan to the fryer. Forget it. It’s horrible. In a nutshell, you need a thousand percent of capacity to make it work because nobody is going to come every night. It was kind of a disaster. At the same time, I learned a ton of stuff. I was really proud to do it with my dad, but it was a bad endeavor. Hey, you win, you lose. That’s how it goes.
The stary of Journey’s journey:
That started right after that. I got a call from Neal [Schon] and Herbie [Herbert]. And Herbie was the mainstay of why that thing worked. They called me up and said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Nothing.” They said they were going to start something called the Golden Gate Rhythm Section. It was basically a band that would play for artists that came to town. That’s what they told me, but within two weeks we were writing songs. It was nonsense. They lied [laughs].
The early years of Journey:
Very much so. At the time, when you’re young and you get that gypsy blood and you travel, everything is forgotten. We had a goal. There was a real goal to this of success. We didn’t feel it so much. We did go out for four months at a time, two weeks off, four months at a time, two weeks off. It was just constant and pretty grueling.
Steve Perry joining the band:
I thought that was tremendous because I would no longer have to play four instruments at the same time, harmonica, and sing leads and sing backgrounds. I liked the whole image of what it could become. When [Steve] Perry first came into the fold, Neal and I were like, “I don’t know. This guy is sort of crooning it.” We wanted to rock. But when you look at the end product, we were wrong. At least as far as being successful, he was the guy.
We started writing songs for a singer instead of writing songs for all the solo work and the expertise of playing. By the way, if Journey had come out 10 years ago, we’d be playing the jam circuit. It would be a total different thing because it was energized and cool and different with all the rhythms and soloing and stuff. Then we got into playing it for vocals and it was cool.
Creating softer ballads such as Lights:
No. You know what? Let me put it this way. Music is music, and for me, it doesn’t matter. I could go back to Frank Sinatra and go, “Man, that is awesome.” What we did with Journey was the same thing. There was a jam thing with it, but then it got more congruent and more about the vocals and harmonies. I’d never done that. I found it very appealing.
As a matter of fact, to the day, I use those ideas with my own music. It’s maybe not as strong or as many harmonies and triples and all that stuff, but it’s the same attitude. I learned a lot about writing music from Journey and its . . . journey [laughs].
Huge hits of Journey “Wheel in the Sky” and “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’,” prior to leaving the band:
I left because I didn’t like my life anymore. I’ve said this a million times and I know there’s people that say, “That’s not the reason.” But I left because I was unhappy with what I was doing in my own life. I loved the management. I loved the music. I loved what we built. I just wasn’t happy, so I had to blow the horn on it and just stop it.
Everyone thinks it was because Perry came in and started singing all the leads. My God! Again, I was spread so thin with all these keyboards parts and singing leads, he was a welcome sight to me. And he could sing like a bird! It wasn’t too hard to figure out. I was never against it. I still wanted to sing, but that kind of fell by the wayside [laughs]. That’s another story. That’s kind of it, man. I loved the fact we were going to write something different.
The story behind Departure that came out in 1980:
It’s totally wrong! The whole thing is wrong! It doesn’t matter how many times I say this. Maybe you’ll get it right. That’ll be really phenomenal. No matter how many times I tell people very simply: “Here is the deal. I was unhappy. I drank too much. Blah, blah, blah. I didn’t feel like it was for me anymore. And most of all, I wanted to start a family.” And by the way, my family was my best work. It truly is. My son and daughter, my wife, it’s extraordinary. I did the right thing, but it just doesn’t play well with the guys on Facebook [laughs].
What he felt after leaving the band, no regrets?:
No. I felt very proud that I helped to build something that went to that extreme. I’ve always felt that way. Yeah, without me doing this, that might never have happened. But it’s not about me. It’s about all of it. It’s a misconception in this business of, “Who does what?” We all did something. I gotta tell you, without manager Herbie Herbert, that shit would not have happened.
Being on Santana albums in the 1980s:
We’ve been on-and-off friends. That’s the best I can say. I love playing music with him, but then some things he does, I go, “No, I disagree.” Then we grow apart.
The band he formed in 1997, Abraxas Pool, a new group without Santana:
We did that at my house in a little tiny cabin with the smallest amount of equipment. We were all crowded in one room like you did when you were a kid. And in two weeks we had written that music.
Not being recognized without Carlos Santana:
Yeah. That’s always the case because the name is Santana. And so it’s hard to realize there were other players in the band that made that music happen. Carlos did not do that by himself. And I’d equally say that I didn’t either. It was everybody.
The Hall of Fame experience with Santana:
I got the call that I was going to get added to that and went, “That’s very cool, but I’m building a hot rod. Just send me whatever.” I was building a ’32 Ford and got a call from my drummer, Ron Wikso, and he said, “You might want to think this over. A lot of people get Grammy Awards and this and that, but the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? It’s here to stay.” So I went and I loved it. I had a ball doing it.
Playing with Peter Green:
Yes! Michael Shrieve turned me onto Peter Green way before that. He turned me onto “Black Magic Woman.” I was like, “That is so cool. I can really sing this.” It became a Number Five hit or something. To this day, I sing it the same way, expect with more balls. I’m just older now.
Being a member of Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band:
Without the Beatles, I probably would have been an architect. In high school and college at the time, playing in a band became really cool. It was always in my background to do it. So I connected with these guys to play this. Most of all, I always wanted to play the music I wanted to play, not to copy from someone else. That’s because I can’t. I’m horrible at it. “Where does your finger go? Forget this! I don’t know what chord that is, but it sounds better.”
Getting with Ringo, that’s the first time someone said to me, “We’re doing these songs.” I’m going, “Holy crap. You sure you called the right guy? I don’t do this. I don’t do this!” Seven years later, apparently I do!
Playing with a former Beatle:
I practiced so hard. I told Mark Rivera, the music director, “Send me the stuff right away. If you don’t send it right away, I’m going to be embarrassed. I don’t know what to do with this. You want me to play organ or piano? There’s no piano on this or organ on that. I don’t know what I’m doing!” So they did and I went into the first rehearsal and my first audition and Ringo showed up and I’m like, “Holy fuck! I’m playing with Ringo Starr! Are you kidding me?”
And for two years I’m going, “Holy fuck! I’m playing with Ringo Starr!” Then one day on a plane we’re all sitting there all relaxed. He’s such a cool man, a beautiful man. I was sitting next to him and we were talking about stuff. I said a couple of things and he said, “You’re finally loosening up!”
Ringo keeping Gregg year after year while other members are replaced:
Me and Luke [Steve Lukather]. I can’t say enough about Luke by the way. Beyond his talent, he’s a real good human being. The reason he plays so well is because he’s got that in him. He’s a great human being. And Ringo was just like, “This is really jelling. Why would I change this? This is really working.” Between me and Luke, we can pretty much play anything. I didn’t know that at the time.
The making of Santana reunion record, Santana IV, in 2013:
Incredible. The thing I was most reminded of by Michael Shrieve was, “Gregg, it doesn’t matter what you do. It’s all correct.” Being with those guys and playing with them was like old times. We really wanted to make it work for all of us and it did. I think the recordings are incredible. It’s what I would have done if I was directing things, I would have done Santana IV after [1971’s] Santana III. And the point is, Carlos was the one to call it that. He said, “I want to call it Santana IV because that is when the band ended.” I said, “I’m in.”
Playing in Las Vegas with Santana but no touring:
I don’t know. Management or Carlos pulled the plug on the whole thing. We did three great shows with Journey. Neal played with us. It was something to see. It went over great. We did three dates: New York, Allentown [Pennsylvania], and Mohegan Sun [in Connecticut]. Big coliseums. And then the whole thing, the plug got pulled. I would have wanted to do 30 dates and paid back the people that wanted to see this.
Source via Rolling Stone