The voice behind “Black Magic Woman,” “Evil Ways,” and the first three Journey albums breaks down his five-decade saga in rock
You might not know the name Gregg Rolie, but you definitely know his music. Not only did he sing “Black Magic Woman,” “Evil Ways,” “Oye Como Va,” and all the other early Santana classics as the group’s original lead vocalist, but he went on to form Journey with Santana guitarist Neal Schon. He was their keyboardist and lead singer on the first three albums before Steve Perry took over as frontman in 1978. He then stuck around for the next two years, playing keyboards on massive hits like “Lights,” “Wheel in the Sky” and “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’.”
Rolie has made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice for his pivotal roles in the history of Journey and Santana, and for the past six years he’s toured with Ringo Starr in his All Starr Band. He’s also just released the new solo disc Sonic Ranch, and he called into Rolling Stone to talk about his long career, the real reason he parted ways with Santana and Journey, and what’s coming next.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you first meet Carlos Santana?
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, “Alright, 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.
How long after that did the band form?
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.
How many times in your life do you think you’ve been asked about playing Woodstock? Do you think it’s in the thousands by now?
[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.
Did you know when you were playing just how hard Carlos was tripping on mescaline?
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!”
You were totally straight?
Other than a beer or two, yeah.
I think it was really the movie that created the legend of the group 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.
After Woodstock, Santana had a bunch of big radio hits and you sang lead on all of them. Does it irritate you that a lot of people think that Carlos sang them or, at the very least, they don’t even know your name?
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 “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.
After the third album, he wanted to go in a different direction musically. Did you have a different opinion about that?
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.
But you couldn’t stop it.
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.
Tell me about the day you left. What was your breaking point where you knew you were done?
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.]
What did you do right 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.
How did Journey start?
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].
Journey toured a lot in those early years and didn’t sell a ton of records. It must have been difficult.
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.
How did you hear about them hiring a second singer?
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.
A song like “Lights” was a very different kind of thing for you at that point. Did you mind doing softer ballads like that?
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].
So the band takes off. You have huge hits with “Wheel in the Sky” and “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin”” and then you leave. What happened?
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.
I think those misconceptions come because Departure came out in 1980 and you didn’t sing much.
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].
How did you feel when you left and they just got bigger and bigger and had all those hits? Did you ever have a tiny moment of regret?
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.
You were on a few Santana albums in the 1980s. It seems like you guys became friends again.
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.
Tell me about the band you formed in 1997, Abraxas Pool, which was basically Santana minus 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.
I’m sure without Carlos it was hard to get much attention.
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.
How was the Hall of Fame experience when you got in 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 and Roll Hall of Fame? It’s here to stay.” So I went and I loved it. I had a ball doing it.
You played with Peter Green that night.
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.
How has the experience of being in Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band been?
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!
What were the first few rehearsals like when you found yourself playing all these Beatles classics with a 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!”
What’s funny is that All Starr Bands used to last one summer and then it would be different people the next time out. But he’s kept you around year after year after year.
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.
You can play Toto songs or Men at Work or Todd Rundgren, or whatever.
Yeah. It’s not exactly what was played on the records. It’s like, “OK, here’s the changes. But where does this fit?” Same thing with Ringo’s stuff. His attorney, who has been with him for 40 or 50 year, said, “You just filled up the room with that thing. It sounds fantastic.” I’m like, “I know. If you sit in the background, it’ll fill the whole room up. If you sit in front, it’s an organ band and it’s not so good.”
It’s got to be a nice experience since you’re on private planes, staying in nice hotels, and the whole thing isn’t just resting on your shoulders.
That’s the whole point. He ran the band the way I run my own, expect it’s on steroids. It’s the best travel, the best food, the best everything. Everybody is treated well. There’s no rules beyond take care of your gig. And you get paid. It’s like a boys’ club that travels all over the world to play for people. And they come. It’s the best damn thing I’ve ever done because there’s no in-betweens. The way he runs it, there’s nothing to argue about.
How was the experience of making the Santana reunion record Santana IV in 2013?
Incredible. The thing I was most reminded of by Michael Shrieve was, “Greg, 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.”
You guys played Las Vegas and just a few other shows. Why wasn’t there a tour?
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, and Mohegan Sun. 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.
You have no idea why it ended?
Nope. Not to this day.
Did you ask Carlos?
Nope. [Laughs] I may know, but I’m not going to be the guy to say so. Know what I mean?
Not really, but that’s OK. Earlier this year, you played a few shows with Neal Schon and former Journey drummer Deen Castronovo under the name Journey Through Time. How was that experience?
Also amazing. I had a great time. First of all, I got to play with Deen and Marco [Mendoza] along with Neal. I really connected to them. They are incredible players. We had so much material. I had to cut it back. What Neal wanted to do I was like, “This is impossible. Nobody is going to be able to do this. It’s too much info.” I had to go back and learn the stuff. But I loved playing it and the reaction from the crowd was like, “Wow, this is the Journey I remember.”
Some of those Journey songs, I imagine you hadn’t played in about 40 years.
Yeah. I had to go back. There’s a song called “Daydream,” and I asked the keyboard player, “What’s the song ‘Daydream’? Where did it come from?” He goes, “It’s from Evolution.” I went back and listened to it and went, “Oh, I co-wrote it.” [Laughs] I didn’t remember I wrote it.
How was it to play songs like “Don’t Stop Believin’” that you were never on?
I had no problem because Deen was singing the stuff and it sounded the way it’s supposed to sound. We made it a little more earthy because there was no … It was just real. Everyone played real. I had no problem with that stuff. As a matter of fact, when Jonathan Cain joined the band, he came with some songs I couldn’t write in a million days — and he did. And the band became successful because of it. My point is that I helped build that and I know I did. If I had been there, he wouldn’t have had a gig.
You did just a few Journey Through Time shows and Neal tweeted that more were coming later in the year, but you haven’t played since. What happened?
Basically, he got back with Journey and they’ve been out this year, so the whole thing kind of fell apart. We had a few dates that we played together, but he went on to his next thing. And that’s what happened. And that’s OK.
Do you think in the future it right resume?
I don’t know. Right now, I owe Neal a debt of gratitude because I have Deen and Marco in my own band called New Blood. We’ve already recorded three songs that are totally different from all this stuff. If you heard it you’d go, “Holy crap, this is different.” It’s based upon what Neal started. As I said, I owe him a debt of gratitude. These guys are phenomenal musicians. The kicker here is that my son plays slide guitar on [my new solo album] Sonic Ranch. And he’s all over the DVD and the videos. It’s not all about this nostalgic stuff. I feel like Jack Nicholson. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” That’s really how I feel.
Tell me about Sonic Ranch. I know it was years in the works.
I started it about 18 years ago. I started it and then I got busy. I got with Ringo, Santana IV … all this stuff took all my time and I couldn’t finish what I started. And all those things took precedent. I’m sure everyone would understand that.
Tell me about “What About Love.” It was inspired by Ringo?
The message is inspired by Ringo. I started playing it with Ringo’s band during our soundchecks. It wasn’t completely done and I found the bass line I wanted to have and it became thing. Mainly, it’s about his message of peace and love. I hiked it up a bit. I was like, “Are you people listening? Is anyone hearing this?”
What drew you back to re-record the old Journey song “Look Into the Future?”
It’s very simple. I’ve always loved the song and back then I didn’t really have that much of a vision about what it said. Actually, it says tons. But I loved it lyrically and the whole thing. I decided, “Let’s go do this. I love this tune.”
It was great that you brought on Michael Shrieve to play drums.
He plays on the song “Only You.” It’s a song I wrote about my wife. She said, “You have never written a song about me” and I said, “Baby, all the songs are about you.” In her own way she went, “Bullshit.” And I said, “I’m going to write a song about you.” And that’s the one. Shrieve was the perfect guy to play drums on it because he’s a very lyrical drummer. He plays for the song. By the way, so does Deen Castronovo. I’m blown away by it. He plays simple and always in the right places. It’s very hard to find. Shrieve is the same way. It’s about the song. That’s why he was chosen. Plus he’s a great friend. I’ve known him forever.
Tell me about your new band.
It’s called New Blood. We’ve already done three songs. I’ve got four that I’ve written. I hope to write some more with these guys. It really does come down to the guys in the band. It’s not about me. If I get some accolades, that’s terrific, but I can’t do it without them. I’ve got players that really play that are really extraordinary. That’s what we are doing. My son is involved and also Yayo Sanchez, a 26-year-old guy. He’s the Kiss guy that got 200,000 likes from playing with Dave Grohl. And he’s a friend of my son.
Is the band going to tour next year?
Once we get everything together. I’ve been asked if I’m going to tour Sonic Ranch. No. I’m going to tour all of it. I’m going to break all the rules. I’m going to break every rule there is and make a couple of new ones. I’m going to go out there and do the new stuff with Sonic Ranch, Santana, Santana IV, and Journey because I have all the people that can do it.
How was the Journey Hall of Fame experience for you?
It was cool. It was the same old thing with those guys. You get up there and do this, take the award. It was cool to get the award. It was really cool to sit next to Neal and go up there and just hang out and do this. We hadn’t been together in years other than Neal and I. It was a cool experience. It was good.
You finally played with Arnel.
What I’m going after now is a way cooler experience, I can tell you.
Did you talk to Steve Perry that night?
No. Nobody talked to him! He does everything behind closed doors and I don’t get it. I don’t understand it and I don’t care. I wouldn’t do it that way. Here I am talking to you. And aren’t I pretty simple to talk to? It’s me. All that nonsense that he goes through, sneaking in the back door … Come on, man! Are you going to do this your whole life? Are you kidding? [Laughs.]
I spent time with him about a year ago when he put his album out. He seemed pretty normal and open to me.
I’ll tell you what: He always appears to be that. My point is that after knowing this guy for years, he only appears to be that. What I’m telling you, you can print any day you want, any time you want. Everything is absolute gospel. Sure I fucked up here, they fucked up here and blah, blah, blah. Steve is very protective of who he is and his vocal prowess. It’s fucking nonsense. Sooner or later, everyone is going to go, “He’s kind of a dick, huh?” I know I’m right. That is what is going to happen. The real people will show up, and the ones that aren’t, they will show up too. I’ve been living my life like that.