His sound is instantly identifiable. The groove, both subtle and soulful, represents the touch of a unique musical force. For the past five decades, the words and music of Gregg Rolie have been interwoven into our collective subconscious. A founding member of Santana, The Storm, Abraxas Pool, and Journey (for which he was the original lead singer), Rolie has been on the road with Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band in recent years and will join his former bandmates in Journey for their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on April 7th. This is the veteran musician’s second time receiving this honor. Nineteen years after joining the prestigious RRHOF ranks as a member of Santana, Gregg Rolie took some time out of a recent Saturday afternoon to talk about the upcoming award ceremony, and his work past, present, and future.
Roy Abrams: It’s been sixteen years since you and I last spoke—
Gregg Rolie: I told Michael (Jensen, President of Jensen Communications), damn, I remember this guy’s name but I can’t remember from what!
RA: It was just prior to the release of Roots. The two us kind of commandeered a table in this nice Italian restaurant in Manhattan that Michael took us to, and we sat there so long talking that eventually Michael came in and said, “Listen, we need to wrap this up!”
GR: [Laughs] That’s awesome. Well, listen, man, it’s good to talk to you again! I feel like Ringo right now … where’s the (time) gone? Forget it! [Laughs]
GR: Thank you!
RA: Are there any plans for Journey to perform as part of the ceremony?
GR: Oh, yeah! I will play on one song. It’s a celebration of Journey—past, present, and future. It’s kind of like the Eagles; they went through a couple of changes, too, and you can’t negate some of the things that happened earlier on, even though the success has continued—God bless Neal (Schon) for carrying this on as long as he has; finding Arnel (Pineda) … going through the singers, he’s done a good job of this! I’m going to be playing on one song. I’m not going to divulge which song because it’s kind of up to those guys what they want to do.
image courtesy of Sony Legacy
RA: So, it’s been 19 years between the first induction (with Santana) and now. I remember speaking with you about Journey 16 years ago, and how you emphasized remaining true to one’s musical identity and musical integrity, which prompted your decision to part ways. What specific issues arose that made you decide that you could no longer travel that road?
GR: With Santana, it was a musical difference, for sure, (as well as) personal differences. (It was) too much, too soon. We were all full of ourselves; we didn’t treat each other very nicely. That was a shame, which got rectified on Santana IV. That was a ball, doing that; going back and recording with Carlos and the guys, and with Neal as well. That was last year that we finished that off. With Journey, it was more about being tired of the road. I had built two bands, lived out of a suitcase for 14 years or whatever it was, and I wanted to change my life. I was unhappy; therefore I was making other people unhappy. I just didn’t want to be there anymore! You know, the best way I can put this, which I’ve said before, is that the gypsy life that traveling in a band is, when it’s fun, it’s great! You travel all over the world, you’re playing music for people, and it’s tremendous! And then, when the smell is off the rose, for whatever reason, and you say I don’t want to do this anymore, then you don’t. I think that’s true for any walk of life; anybody that’s had enough, like a stockbroker, sooner or later, (you say) “I’ve had enough of this! All the yelling and the screaming—I just want to get out of here!” [Laughs] That was it, more than anything. I wanted to start a family, and just change my life. I didn’t play seriously for two years! I fooled around on the piano, but I started a family, which is probably my best work to date. I have a great family.
RA: That’s beautiful thing and it doesn’t get better than that! Referring back to the Roots album, I remember how stoked you were to be working with the Santana percussion section … and you just had the opportunity to reunite with the entire band for Santana IV. The reunion was announced in February 2013, and the recording took place during 2014-2015. What were those sessions like? How quickly did everything gel?
GR: People say, wow, it took them two years to do that! Well, that’s not true; everybody was working. I was out with Ringo Starr, Neal Schon was out with Journey, and Santana was being Santana. We got together when we could; in all reality, I don’t think it took more than a few months to really do it. It was all sporadic; we sent things to each other. I wrote lyrics here in Austin and sang a couple of songs in Austin and sent them in. Carlos goes, “These are awesome!” We did it from afar, but the tracking was all done in Las Vegas in a studio that Carlos wanted to use, which was fine. It went fast; every solo of mine on that record is the first take. (Santana drummer) Mike Shrieve goes, “I don’t know what’s going on with you, man, but I love what you’re doing!” I said, “I don’t know, but I accept!” It was rocket fast and enjoyable. Carlos is the one who says that we just didn’t treat each other very well when we were young, which is really well put. You know, when you’re young and not treating people well and you really take it seriously, and you grow older and find out much of it was nonsense in the first place.
|Carlos, Neal, and Gregg|
image by Robert M. Knight
RA: You and the Hammond B3 organ are inexorably linked. It’s a deeply traditional sound in popular music. What are your thoughts on some of the newer keyboard technology? The British musician Jacob Collier is utilizing a prototype called the Harmoniser.
GR: It depends on the song. I’m almost going to have to change my mind immediately, because I’m playing with Ringo and we’re playing Beatles songs with a B3 and there was never one there, but it works because of the way I play it, it’s very subtle, and it fills up the room. Sometimes a B3 is just too big to in a song. On Abraxas Pool, I used a Roland organ substitute because it had a lighter feel to it, and it made it sound lighter. Sometimes an organ is just so heavy that it doesn’t belong. It’s how you approach it. I’ve always been – except for in Santana, where it was really predominant—I’ve always been pretty subtle about the keyboards. And as far as the synthesizer stuff, I love some of the string sounds … there’s some very cool things that go on with it.
RA: When you got the phone call to work with Ringo, what was going through your mind at that point?
GR: “Are you sure you’ve got the right guy?” [Laughs] I mean, Mark Rivera is the music director (of the All-Starr Band). He plays with Billy Joel now, the sax player. He’s a multi-faceted player. At any rate, he gave me a call and I said, well, this is great, but you better give me this material fast because I don’t do this! I haven’t played other people’s music and had to learn somebody else’s music other than to listen to something and make it my own. So, here I am playing “Broken Wings” (from Mr. Mister) and Todd Rundgren’s stuff, and (Steve) Lukather’s, and of course, Ringo! (I thought) What am I going to do with this? I’m not this guy!” I was a little taken aback by it, but (I thought) I gotta do it! Ringo Starr and The Beatles—if it wasn’t for them, I would never be in music! I would have been an architect! That’s what I was going to do, I was going to college, and then Santana happened, and that was the end of that. I just opened the doors and went. It’s the whole key to anything: If the door is there and you see it, and it’s open, you really ought to take a shot at it. [Laughs]
RA: With the hindsight of years, how would you assess the musical contributions of both Journey and Santana to popular music culture?
GR: Santana, number one, is an endless market; it’s like (the) blues. It just doesn’t go away. Santana music is rhythmic … if you listen to Pandora and listen to Gypsy King network it’s got a thing … just like blues! You listen to Muddy Waters now, it could have been 70 years ago, and it doesn’t matter. Santana’s like that, and it will continue, because it is so rhythmic and infectious. Journey is a well-built band that, after I left, penned some very good songs. Neal’s playing, of course, goes without saying, and (Steve) Perry’s voice. It caught a generation. But Santana catches so many generations, it’s crazy. And at the same time, I can say, well, I could be wrong here, because Journey is continuing on, and they’re catching more people. Being a part of building a couple of bands of this caliber, I’m so proud of it, but I never thought about it as we did it; we just (thought), well, here’s the work we have to do! Where you end up is probably from the work. If you’re afraid of work, you shouldn’t be in this business.
RA: What advice would you give to musicians regarding holding a band together?
GR: [Laughs] I don’t know, I haven’t done too well! I guess my best example to date is playing with the All-Starrs, because it is so well-run because it’s so relaxed, but it’s serious, and everybody takes it seriously. The professionalism of the players, of taking other people’s music and playing it as hard as it if was yours, is what’s going on. And the respect that everybody has for Ringo, for much the same reason I stated before: I mean, I don’t have any stats on it, but they probably started more music in the world than anybody! Music just popped up out of everywhere! I know that’s what happened with me, and I know that’s true of Lukather, too. As far as running a band, though, he runs a band the way I run my own, except it’s on steroids. We travel well; he treats us so great. It is a phenomenal thing that’s happened in my life. The way (Ringo) runs the band is the way I always thought it should be done, and here I am, doing it!
RA: Given your frenetic schedule, do you find the time to check out any new artists? If so, who’s doing it for you these days?
GR: You know, I really haven’t. My education of music nowadays stems from my son, who is a producer and engineer, who did a lot of my vocals on Santana IV. His name is Sean.
RA: Fantastic! That’s so cool! Congratulations, Dad!
GR: When he was eight years old, he was in the studio, so he was just born in this stuff. He just has tremendous ears, and I know it’s my son, and everybody says, “Oh, you’re just blowing a horn for him,” but I wouldn’t use him if he was bad! He is truly awesome. His musical knowledge of stuff—he’s 31 now—he explores it all. He passes on all this stuff to me, and some of it is really cool and some of it is, “Really? I must be old!” [Laughs]
RA: Have you heard of a band called The Lemon Twigs? I recommend them.
GR: Cool! I’ll look them up after I get off the phone with you.
RA: What were some of the most memorable experiences with Santana?
GR: Some of them are hindsight, but they’re true and real. I’ll start with this; it’s an old story, but it’s really honest and true. We were supposed to go on later in the afternoon (at Woodstock). We flew in there on a helicopter, like the kind they used in North Korea, and I remember Barry Imhoff, who worked with Bill Graham at the time, saying, “Look at that (the crowd)!” And I was going, “Yeah!” I had no concept; ants on a hill! It didn’t strike me, it really didn’t. We had played to 30,000 people before, festivals were everywhere and we played few of them. (Anyway), we were supposed to play later on and it was all helter skelter. Bill Graham was signing contracts for the movie for Santana, and he actually wasn’t even our manager. We went, okey doke! Everything was helter skelter and we had to go on early. The story—Carlos has told this—Carlos had taken some mescaline, thinking he was going on later … well, he peaked right at the time where we had to go on, because they changed it on us. I had no idea he’d done that. (I thought), he’s not playing quite the same. He said, “Oh, God, help me through this! My guitar is like a snake—if I could just hold on to it, I’ll never do this again!” [Laughs]
RA: I would imagine!
GR: I didn’t know about that for I don’t know how many years, honest to God. On top of that, we drove out. I stayed to see Sly Stone, who was awesome; then we drove out of there. It took forever to get through half a million people! We flew in, it took five seconds. If I had driven in, I think I would have been scared to play for that many people. Otherwise, I wasn’t. That’s my hindsight on the whole thing. Of course, getting in that movie, and getting in the center of it, it set the whole career for Santana and really made it take off.
RA: What about standout memories with Journey?
GR: I’ll tell you one of the major things that ever happened was, Herbie Herbert looked at me one day (he was our manager) and said, “Is there anything that impresses you? You just don’t seem to get impressed by anything!” I said, “Oh, yeah, I do. I’m really impressed that we built this band. This was not a phenomenon. This was built.” He just looked at me and went, “Oh, well. I guess I won’t say anything to that!” … We went from the rental cars to the one Winnebago tour, which was a disaster … Neal and I took our earnings and just flew home. That was the first and last Winnebago tour! To the busses, to the planes, to the stadiums … I mean, all of it, over a period of seven years … My whole point about Journey, for me, is that it is past, present, and future, and without the past, the present wouldn’t have been there, and neither would the future. So, we all built this, and I’m very proud of everybody that’s been in it; it’s been an incredible trip.
image courtesy of Gregg Rolie
RA: What does the present and future hold for Gregg Rolie? Are you currently working on anything?
GR: Yeah, I am! As a matter of fact, I am finally going to finish—with my son Sean, who is helping me to produce this, along with Frenchie Smith—this album that I started before Santana IV. I put it on the back burner (and have) all this music sitting there. I have Steve Lukather playing guitar; Neal played on one track—some phenomenal players, but it’s all my own stuff. I’m trying to get this out this year, and hopefully, because I’ve got a ton (of songs) … the last five years, I’ve never been so busy! I don’t know what happens at retirement—I just kept getting calls that I couldn’t turn down! I have my own band; we’re still trying to get that going and keep it alive. We’ve got a few dates, but nothing to speak of at this point; there’s only about four or five of them. Then I’m going to go out with Ringo again in October.
RA: It’s been great speaking with you again, Gregg! Thank you very much for your time!
GR: My pleasure, man. Take care, Roy.
© Roy Abrams 2017