Gregg Rolie, a 1998 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, has learned a lot about himself since taking fame’s exit ramp to start a family almost 30 years ago.
He’s put into perspective the work done as a founding member of Santana, a stint that saw Rolie co-produce the group’s first four albums beginning in 1969. The bluesy B-3 stylist then added to an overstuffed resume that already included an appearance at Woodstock, leaving with Neal Schon to launch Journey. There, he helped craft a series of 1970s recordings that set the stage for that band’s arena-rock supernova moment in the 1980s.
These days, when not leading the rollicking seven-piece Gregg Rolie Band, you’re apt to find him performing in a series of small, deeply interactive gigs around Austin. The days of headlining football stadiums, it seems, are happily behind him. Instead, Rolie’s engaging with the audience.
“Back then, you wanted to be the gods descending from Olympus,” Rolie says, chuckling to himself. “Now, it’s more personal. It’s funny, I used to not want to talk to an audience, and I don’t think I could have talked to them. But I’m comfortable in my own skin now.”
In keeping, Rolie has just released Five Days, an intimate solo EP featuring updates of “Black Magic Woman” and “Anytime,” two of his most memorable vocals with Santana and Journey, along with three new songs. Five Days was recorded live with son Sean as producer, on a piano in the living room of Rolie’s Austin home.
“It was a little unnerving,” Rolie says. “I don’t think I’ve ever done that. We always recorded the music first, and got that right, and then sang on top of it – and got that right. Doing it like this, if you make a mistake, you can’t fix that. It was interesting to do.”
Something Else! Reviews spent some time this week with Rolie, discussing Santana, Journey, his decision to leave the music business for a time in the early 1980s and, yeah, Woodstock …
Nick DeRiso: Woodstock has long since moved into a mythical place, but didn’t anybody in Santana have the sense of history in the making on that day?
Gregg Rolie: Actually, no. At the time, it was just another festival. We flew in and we played, then stayed and saw Sly Stone – who was awesome. But as we drove out, we started passing all of these people – 500,000 people. That’s when it dawned on me. If I had known what it was going to be, I might have been scared. At the time, we thought of it as just another gig. It turned out to be the mother of all of them.
DeRiso: You would eventually work with two of the most distinctive guitar players in rock music, Carlos Santana and Neal Schon. Describe how they differed.
Rolie: With Carlos, the best way to describe his playing is expressed by feelings. Carlos plays Carlos; he doesn’t play anybody else. He doesn’t go anywhere else. Neal, on the other hand, is very distinctive when he plays his melodic stuff in Journey. But Neal can play anything and anybody. He’s just a very gifted player in that fashion, and has been since I first met him when he was 15- or 16-years old. Carlos has stuck to the roots of what he wants his guitar to sound like.
DeRiso: I think most people understand that you split with Santana in 1974 to start your own band with Schon. But what prompted you to leave Journey around the time of 1981′s Captured?
Rolie: In Santana, Carlos was trying to play jazz, and quite frankly I can listen to it, but I’m not a jazz player. Nobody in the band was, including Carlos. The stuff we were playing, it was like we were leaving back the audience we built. It’s not what I would have done, so I left and Neal left – everybody left. With Journey, I left because I wanted to start a family. I didn’t touch an instrument for two years. I’d been on the road for 14 years, and built two bands. I had just had my fill of it, and I wanted to change my life. So, I made an effort to do so. When I think about it now, the family that I have might be my best accomplishment.
DeRiso: Originally, Journey was more of a jam-band, fusing blues and rock. Were you surprised by the way the group’s sound evolved after you departed?
Rolie: When Steve Perry entered the band, I welcomed it. I was spread pretty thin, playing three or four keyboards, harmonica and singing lead. I thought this would be good, and we started writing songs in a different way. After I left, it became more pop rock. It was a little heavier when I was in it.
DeRiso: To me, your induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame underlined how important you were to Santana’s early, most lasting successes. I still hear it in your work today.
Rolie: Carlos actually wanted to be inducted by himself. But it was truly a band, not just him. It only became his after the third album. I almost didn’t go. I was working on a hot rod when I heard about it, and I thought: ‘Just send me whatever. I’m busy.’ But then the drummer from my band, Ron Wikso (Foreigner, David Lee Roth, Richie Sambora) said ‘You might want to rethink that. It means you changed the fabric of music.’ He was right; I went and it was a great event. A lot of very good people went in with us – the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac.
DeRiso: In the 1990s, you mounted successful reunions with members of Journey – first in the Storm featuring Steve Smith and Ross Valory and then in Abraxas Pool with Schon. Any thoughts of working with Journey again?
Rolie: You never say never, and Neal and I have talked about that here and there. But they are on a rampage right now. Journey is doing quite well since they found Arnel (Pineda, the Steve Perry sound alike who joined in 2007). They are as busy as can be.
DeRiso: What’s in the offing with the Gregg Rolie Band? Is there a tour planned behind Five Days?
Rolie: I love playing with those guys. Right now, though, I’m going to go out and do some of this new stuff in Austin with Alan Haynes (a blues guitarist who has performed with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Muddy Waters, Albert Collins and John Lee Hooker, among others). It’s just piano and guitar. We’re playing, then I talk about the music and how it came about. The audience asks questions, almost like a live Facebook. This is a cool little project that’s come together over time. I’m hoping to get a promoter and take this idea out on the road. Really, it’s kind of a payback for the fans. The world has changed, and I think the music world has changed with it.
Want more? The Greg Rolie Band has a stand-alone Web site with additional music and other cool merchandise.