With the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame ceremony less than a week in the past, Glide was on the phone with its founding keyboard player Gregg Rolie, talking about his exciting yet unique situation of being inducted into the Hall not once but twice. In 1998, he went in with the original Santana, a band he helped form with Carlos back when acidy psychedelic Jefferson Airplane type music ruled San Francisco’s scene. For 2017, it was for his contributions to another Bay Area band, one that spun melodies into gold – Journey.
What you may not know is that Rolie was slated to be an architect. That was the path he was sort of following when music took over. Following his departure from Santana in late 1971, he opened a restaurant with his father. But then Neal Schon, his ex-bandmate in Santana, called about starting up a new group. So although other careers have tried to pull him in different directions, music always had the stronger grip on Rolie.
With a career spanning over fifty years, Rolie has added his touch to some of history’s exciting musical moments, from playing with Santana at Woodstock in 1969, rebirthing Fleetwood Mac’s “Black Magic Woman” into a hit for Santana just a few years after Mac had released it, playing on the much-loved 1978 Journey Infinity album, to adding his piano spin to Beatles classics as a member of Ringo’s current All-Starr Band. Rolie has also played with The Storm, which featured Journey’s Steve Smith and Ross Valory and hit #3 on the Billboard album chart with their first release in 1991; recorded an album with former members of Santana called Abraxas Pool in the late nineties; and has released several solo albums, his first in 1985, five years after leaving Journey.
With all that he has helped create, Rolie still has new music bubbling up and plans on releasing some of it in the future. It’s a good time to be a man named Rolie.
You’ve had a very, very exciting week, getting inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame for the second time. What can you tell us about the experience this time around?
Stunning, mainly because it puts me in this group of people, musicians, that I hold in very high esteem and that I learned a lot of my music from, from listening to them. And to join that group is like kind of stunning to me. I’ve been telling people, are you sure you got the right guy? (laughs) It’s like, you know, the Beatles and Crosby, Stills & Nash, it just goes on and on and on; Clapton and Page, Curtis Mayfield, Michael Jackson. I mean, wow. It’s pretty incredible.
And as an organ player and a keyboard player, going into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, that’s kind of the unsung instrument of rock & roll.
You know, I’ve never even thought of that but you are kind of right. It’s not a forefront instrument, although it is in Santana. Journey was not quite the same thing and in Journey I started playing more synthesizers and things of that nature and changed it up. But the Hammond B3 is actually making a comeback in a lot of ways. It’s still out there in a lot of different genres of music so maybe I can make that popular for people (laughs).
I had wondered how you lugged this big thing around when you were first starting out but I understand you actually played on whatever was there at the venues.
In the very early days I didn’t have anything. When I was sixteen years old playing with a high school group, I ended up singing stuff or playing a tambourine or if there was a piano you could barely hear it. But I didn’t get serious about all of this, truly, until I got in Santana. That’s when I got my first B3 and started looking at it differently. I was going to be an architect. When I had the opportunity to start up Santana with Carlos, I jumped on it. And the whole world changed right there. I was going to give it five years and if nothing happened then I’d go back to school.
What was the music scene like in the days when Santana was starting? Were you guys very different from everybody else there in town?
Yeah, we were. You know San Francisco’s scene was totally different – Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Grateful Dead. It was that kind of thing and we were playing stuff that nobody had ever done. And getting that across to a label to get signed, we went through almost all the labels and finally got signed up with Columbia Records in a group signing with It’s A Beautiful Day and I think a band that was kind of like a Santana band out of San Francisco. Then it took off and we played Woodstock and that was it. It went and connected with the crowd.
“Black Magic Woman” was a Peter Green/Fleetwood Mac blues band song. Why did you choose to do it in Santana because that song was not very old when you recorded it? [Fleetwood Mac released it in 1968, Santana in 1970]
Yeah, that’s a good point. Michael Shrieve gave me that Fleetwood Mac album that had “Black Magic Woman” on it because he knew I loved Peter Green from his John Mayall time and all that, the Bluesbreakers. So I said, “This song is great.” So I brought it into the band, not the recording but the chord changes, and during rehearsals we would play it and it took a year of talking people into doing this and Carlos finally really connected with it. He goes, “What is this?” I said, “It’s a song by Fleetwood Mac.” Then we arranged it and it took off. It was one of my favorite songs and I said, “Man, I know I can sing this so this would be a good tune to do.” That’s kind of how that happened.
Speaking of John Mayall, when you were in Journey you got to play with the incredible drummer Aynsley Dunbar, who was coming from Mayall and Zappa. I wanted to know what you thought was his greatest asset to Journey?
He could play just about anything. When we first started, Journey was more of a fusion/progressive rock band based upon a lot of soloing and taking the music to heights, kind of like Santana but no percussion. So where it became powerful was usually through soloing, through Neal and myself. And Aynsley could do any of that. So his biggest attribute was exactly that, that he could really help drive it to get it high.
Have you seen him regularly over the years or was reconnecting at the Hall Of Fame ceremony the first time you’ve talked to him in a while?
Yeah, it was the first time I’d talked to him in a while, first time I’d talked to Steve Perry in probably thirty-five years. But Neal I’ve seen. Since we did Santana IV, we’ve kind of really reconnected our friendship and all that kind of stuff and playing. I sat in with Journey once here in Austin in 2011 but we just have been busy going in different directions. It kind of goes the way it goes.
How did Neal get you into Journey in the first place?
Well, Herbie Herbert [manager] and Neal gave me a call. I was up in Seattle with a restaurant with my dad and they saved me from the restaurant business (laughs). It’s got to be one of the most difficult businesses I’ve ever seen in my life, because if you think about it, nobody is going to eat at the same place every night. It’s constant, a twenty-four hour job. So when they called up and said they were going to start this thing up I said, “Great!” (laughs) “Let me come and do that.” I moved back to San Francisco and the Bay Area and then that started. First it was going to be called Golden Gate Rhythm Section and we were going to play for solo artists that came in, at least that is what I was told (laughs). But we were writing music in five seconds and they’d already written a couple of songs and we were looking for a drummer and when Aynsley came in that was it and that was the original Journey.
Did you close down the restaurant when you left or did your dad keep it running?
Oh yeah, I sold it, which is a long story, but I sold it with my dad and we got out of the whole thing. I got out of that and went into Journey.
When you made your first solo album, you were obviously very comfortable songwriting and creating music and recording by then, so what was the toughest part about making that first solo record?
Actually, that was the toughest thing for me, doing it solo, because I’d always been in a band and everybody took care of their own parts and you’d write a song and everybody’s playing on it and it’s right there. But when you’re all by yourself, you have to imagine what the bass is going to do, what the drums are going to be, and you have to steer right into it. And I didn’t know how to do that really. So it was an exploration and I got better and better. Now I can do it easily but back then it was always about bands, from Santana to Journey, we were all there and making music. Somebody would come in with a song, we’d play on it, you’d come up with your parts and it’s designed right there. It’s readily accessible and you can hear immediately whether you like it or not. When you do it by yourself, it’s a little different.
Did you have those songs already ready or you were like, okay, I’m going to make a record now I need to write some songs?
Yeah, I wrote some songs but I didn’t know exactly how they were going to sound till I got with the musicians I chose to play on it. I didn’t know what I was going to do (laughs). It was just a little more difficult to wrap my head around it, how to make it work.
Out of all the songs that you’ve recorded with Santana and Journey, which song do you remember as being the hardest to get right in the studio?
I don’t know. Really none of them were that difficult. When we started on Infinity with Journey and we’re doing a multi-track layers of guitars or something, it was time consuming but as far as the songs being ready, none of them were all that difficult. In Santana, everything just rolled out. We just played. It was a jam band and we would jam things and jam them and play on them and play on them until it kind of came together based around a song. But the idea was, like the early Journey, was to get the music very high and get people excited. That’s how it went but none of them were really that difficult other than some took longer than others just to get them done.
I don’t usually do that. I don’t like to but I did do one with Alan Haynes, a blues guitarist out of here. He’s well-known here in Austin and he played with the Antone’s house band for years and he’s a very good player. I sat in with him and we’ve become friends and he joined my little quartet that I put together. We played a few dates in Texas and a few places in the United States. But that’s about it. Otherwise, no I don’t do that. I like going to watch people instead of always being part of it. I like being entertained (laughs).
You like being the normal guy
Yeah, once in a while (laughs)
How long have you been living in Austin?
I’ve been here about nine years, I think; maybe close to ten.
Why would a California guy love Austin so much?
Because I was misplaced at birth (laughs). I do, I love it here, and Texas period. I have a six generation Texas friend who said, “If you hadn’t told me you were not born here, I would have never guessed it. You were just misplaced at birth.” (laughs)
Do you have anything new coming up you can tell us about?
Yeah, I have a CD called Sonic Ranch and I did it at a studio called Sonic Ranch in El Paso, along with other places. I put it off to do Santana IV so it’s been sitting around and I’m going to finish that because now I’ve got a little time before I go out with Ringo in October.
Photographs by Maryanne Bilham & Scott Robert Ritchie