52: Barstool Rockers

Two-time Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Gregg Rolie joins us on this episode of the podcast to talk about his new album Sonic Ranch. It’s his first album in quite some time, and he spent a few minutes with us chatting about it.

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Fifty years into an already astonishing career, one that counts millions of albums sold and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame not once, but twice, Gregg Rolie has just issued one of his finest recordings, Sonic Ranch, which sees the legendary singer-songwriter and keyboardist performing at the peak of his powers. It’s his first solo album in 18 years, and though he wrote many of the songs during that extended period, the record feels thoroughly seamless musically and thematically.

“People ask me why I still make new music after all these years,” Rolie says. “It’s kind of like when they ask mountain climbers why they do what they do – because it’s there. For me, music is like my mountain. I do it because it’s there.”

For Rolie, the goal of creating music has been a constant quest – and reward – since he first heard jazz organist Jimmy Smith’s 1962 instrumental “Walk on the Wild Side.” Starting out on a Vox organ, he played with the pop band William Penn and his Pals while attending Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California. Soon, Rolie’s tastes turned to blues and grittier rock ‘n’ roll, and after hearing the sound of the Hammond B3 organ on records by the Spencer Davis Group, he began playing the instrument on which he would be hailed a virtuoso. “The B3 sounded so versatile to me,” he says. “I found that I could make it sound emotional, which was perfect for the music I wanted to play.”

By the mid-‘60s, Rolie was introduced to a young Bay Area guitarist named Carlos Santana (“He was already a brilliant player, miles ahead of everybody else”) and joined him in the Santana Blues Band, which was later shortened simply to Santana.

As the original lead singer for Santana, Rolie’s distinctive vocals, along with his groundbreaking way with the B3, were key to the band’s first wave of success. Santana’s historic appearance at Woodstock in 1969 was followed by their eponymous debut album, and before long millions of music fans heard Rolie singing lead on “Evil Ways.” “It was shocking to turn on the radio and hear my voice,” he recalls. “You grow up listening to your heroes on the radio, and now you’re right alongside them. It was remarkable.”

During the next three years, Rolie’s voice drove other Santana classics such as “Black Magic Woman,” “Oye Como Va” and “No One to Depend On,” but after completing the band’s fourth album, Caravanserai, in 1972, he decided to leave. “It was that old story of ‘too much too soon,’” he says. “We had a success, but we were arguing all the time. Plus, Carlos and [drummer] Michael Shrieve wanted to do more jazz, and I didn’t want to go there. It wasn’t a hard decision – if you don’t feel the music, you aren’t going to add anything to it.”

After moving to Seattle, Rolie got a call from another ex-Santana member, guitarist Neal Schon, who invited him to join a new band called the Golden Gate Rhythm Section. Once Rolie was in, the lineup also included drummer Aynsley Dunbar, bassist Ross Valory and rhythm guitarist George Tickner. “It was a great group,” Rolie says. “Neal and I got on famously in Santana, and I was very excited to work with him again. He had learned so much from Carlos – his guitar playing was fiery and melodic.”

The new band changed its name to Journey, with Rolie serving as keyboardist and lead singer on their self-titled debut album and Look into the Future. Schon shared vocal duties on the following album, Next, after which the band added singer Steve Perry, with whom Rolie sang co-lead with on the multi-platinum albums Infinity, Evolution and Departure. By now, Journey had reached superstardom, and once again Rolie felt that it was time to follow his own muse.

“As I did with Santana, I had built this group and took it somewhere huge,” he says. “The decision to stay would have been much harder than the one to leave. I had just started a family, and I was tired of the gypsy life. Steve Perry was an incredible singer, and I knew that the band would be fine, which of course, they were.”

After leaving Journey, Rolie took a moment to plot his new direction as a solo artist. “I had learned a lot of invaluable lessons from the people I’d worked with,” he says, “but I had to do a lot of homework to record my own material. This was a real growth period for me.” His first effort, 1985’s Gregg Rolie, received strong notices and was well received by both Santana and Journey fans. Featuring contributions and cameos by notable friends like Carlos Santana, Peter Wolf, Neal Schon and Craig Chaquico, the album included the song “I Wanna Go Back,” which would become a hit single for Eddie Money. Two years later, Rolie released his second solo disc, Gringo.

At the start of the next decade, Rolie changed course, forming a band called the Storm with fellow Journey alumni Ross Valory and drummer Steve Smith, along with guitarist Josh Ramos and co-vocalist Kevin Chalfant. Their 1991 eponymous debut album was a smash, spawning the hit single “I’ve Got a Lot to Learn About Love,” and the band hit the road with artists such as Bryan Adams and Peter Frampton. The Storm recorded a follow-up, Eye of the Storm, but due to shift toward rap and alternative music by their label (Interscope), it was shelved. “We were surprised at the lack of support from the label, especially after we’d had a hit,” says Rolie. “We eventually put the album out independently, but by that time we had moved on to other things.”

One of the first projects Rolie immersed himself in was Abraxas Pool, an all-star affair featuring fellow ex-Santana members Neal Schon, Alphonso Johnson and Michael Shireve. After releasing their self-titled debut album in 1997, Schon returned to a re-formed Journey, and Rolie, along with drummer Ron Wikso (who had replaced Steve Smith in the Storm), began work on Rolie’s next solo album, the Latin groove-oriented Roots, which was released in 2001. Rolie and Wikso eventually formed the Gregg Rolie Band with Alphonso Johnson, guitarist Kurt Griffey and second keyboardist Wally Minko, and in 2009 they issued the live album Rain Dance. “I had a blast with that group,” Rolie enthuses. “We played Santana stuff, Journey songs, my solo material – it was jam-packed with cool music.”

After releasing his next solo album, 2010’s Five Days, Rolie, now relocated to Austin, had met a local slide blues guitarist named Alan Haynes. The two briefly formed a duo, but soon Rolie pulled in Ron Wikso and bassist Evan “Sticky” Lopez for the Gregg Rolie Quartet. “It was one of those things where I said, ‘Let’s just see what happens,’” Rolie recalls. “We played all over, and people loved it. And it was a great experience for me because I was playing piano, not organ. I really enjoyed that.”

In 2012, Rolie received the kind of invitation most musicians only dream about – to join the most famous drummer in the world as part of Ringo Starr and His All Starr Band. “At first I joked, ‘All you sure you’ve got the right guy?’” Rolie says. “I was assured that Ringo wanted me in, so I joined up and it’s been great ever since.” The cast of world-class players has changed at times, but Rolie has been a constant. “I sing ‘Black Magic Woman,’ ‘Evil Ways,’ ‘Oye Como Va,’ and so many great Beatles and Ringo songs. It’s the most amazing thing, and let me tell you, Ringo sings and plays his ass off. I constantly marvel at how brilliant he is.”

Between tours with Starr, Rolie took part in a reunion that millions of music fans had long hoped for – Santana IV, which saw members of the “classic” early ‘70s Santana lineup (Carlos Santana, Rolie, Neal Schon, Michael Shrieve and Mike Carabello) working together for the first time in decades. Recording their 2016 self-titled album was, according to Rolie, “a wonderful experience. Everybody played together like we had never missed a beat. We brought a lot of maturity to the process, but that’s because we were all men now, not the crazy kids that we were back in the day.”

With Santana, Rolie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, and he would again be welcomed into the Hall of Fame with Journey in 2017. For many musicians, that would be enough, but as he puts it, “I’ve got other mountains to climb.” 2019’s Sonic Ranch is proof enough. With his guitar-playing son Sean serving as main producer, Rolie compiled a dynamic collection of thunderous rockers, gutsy blues groovers and stirring ballads that rank right alongside his best work. Among the guest artists are Neal Schon, Steve Lukather, Alphonso Johnson and Michael Shrieve.

But for Rolie, the stage is still the thing, and in 2020 he’ll be performing new songs and classic faves with a band that will see his son Sean teamed with guitarist Yayo Sanchez, along with drummer-vocalist Deen Castronovo and bassist Marco Mendoza. “I’m the luckiest man on the planet to be able to work with such great talents,” Rolie says. “And one of them is my son, so you can’t beat that. There’s no way I can truly convey the gratitude I feel knowing that people still want to hear me play, so all I can do is go out there and give them the best show possible, and that’s what they’ll get.”

He’s a long way from packing it in, but when the end does come – that is, the real end – Rolie has penned his own epitaph. And as one might expect, he gets right to the hook: “Great guy… Cool job!”