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Gregg Rolie Shares Memories Of His Woodstock Experience + Santana Reunion News

Ethan Miller, Getty Images

Music fans can go back to 1969’s legendary Woodstock festival thanks to a new Blu-ray, ‘40th Anniversary Limited Edition Revisited,’ which presents the four-hour director’s cut of the 1970 Oscar-winning documentary ‘Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music.”

Available in stores now, the updated edition contains new concert footage from Jefferson Airplane, Joan Baez, Santana, the Who and more. The set also features reproductions of tickets for the original festival, an iron-on patch of the Woodstock logo and archival news coverage from Life Magazine and the New York Times.

Featuring 32 musical acts, Woodstock would forever redefine the festival experience and launch the careers of many now-legendary performers. Santana was one of those groups that saw their profile elevated thanks to their performance at Woodstock. We recently spoke with Gregg Rolie, a founding member of Santana to get his memories on the Woodstock experience.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee had plenty of tales to tell about Woodstock and also shared his thoughts regarding his current gig touring with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band and past memories of his time with Journey, plus news on the upcoming Santana reunion.

You’re having another great year, in the midst of another run with Ringo Starr and the All-Starr Band. That’s got to be a lot of fun for you, playing with Ringo.

As a matter of fact, it’s been over two years now. We’re going to continue on through October and there’s talk about early next year. So yeah, it’s been going great.

It seems like with this current lineup, he’s been touring more and more with this band. It seems like things are going really well.

Well, he loves the band, but you know, vice versa. The whole band just gets along amazingly. You know, it doesn’t happen every day — we’ll put it that way. There’s always one guy, you know? [Laughs] There’s always one. In this band, everybody just gets along fantastically and the music is eclectic and good and everybody plays everyone’s songs as hard as they play their own. So it just couldn’t be any better.

Working with the All-Starr Band has to be quite interesting because each person brings such an incredible amount of history to the table.

Yeah, yeah. I mean, playing a B3 on Beatles music is unique. Nobody’s done that — there isn’t really a ton of….Billy Preston played on a few things, but for the most part, it was guitar and piano and orchestrated things. So B3 is a little bit different, but it works well. You know, playing that and playing Todd Rundgren’s stuff and Mr. Mister, [Steve] Lukather’s stuff from Toto and all of that — it’s amazing.

What’s it like to walk into an experience like that where first of all, you know that you’re going to be playing with Ringo? What sort of preparation goes into something like that?

Well, for me being that I’m not a studio musician — I learned long ago that I don’t play other people’s music really well unless I make it my own. I’m just not a Top 40 kind of guy — I learned that in the band William Penn and His Pals. Yeah, we played these things, but I have to make it my own stuff. So getting into it, I didn’t know what to expect. I just got the material as early as I could and went over it so at least I would know what the changes were, but I didn’t know what to expect.

Meeting Ringo, you know, without the Beatles, I may never have gotten into music. I would have probably been an architect. So meeting one of the guys that when I was a teenager, I was going, “Man, this is awesome” and I was listening to all of their music, bought all of those albums like everybody else. So to be sitting on the same stage with him was mind boggling for me.

Talk to me about Woodstock. That gig seems like one that had to be one of the more interesting gigs of your career.

Well yeah, it started the whole thing off for Santana. I’ve always said that if you played at Woodstock, you had a career. It was just wide open. It was more like ‘Close Encounters’ or ‘Field of Dreams,’ where if you build it, they will come. All of the sudden, a half a million people showed up to something that they expected maybe 200 thousand. They parked on the highways. I mean, they closed off New York. [Laughs]

When did you first start to realize that gig was starting to have a lot of impact on Santana and things that happened after that?

Especially when the movie came out.

Really?

Yeah, we played many festivals from 10 to 20 to 30 thousand people. So playing for a lot of people was not the thing. We had nothing to judge a half a million people by — we flew in there and it just looked like ants on a hill. So it didn’t register at all until we drove out. I stayed there and watched Sly Stone, who was phenomenal, by the way, and then we drove out of there.

When I saw what these people were doing, it was amazing. It took forever to get through a half million people in a car. I think if we drove in, it would have had more of an impact — I might have been nervous. But it wasn’t and we didn’t, so it was that simple. [Laughs] I just had nothing to judge it by. We were supposed to go on later in the afternoon and we went on at, I don’t know, 12 or 1AM or something like that. It was an amazing experience, but I didn’t really recognize what it did for the career until the movie hit and everybody saw it.

You guys really got down at that gig. It’s really incredible watching the energy and musical interaction that you and Carlos Santana and Michael Shrieve and everybody else had going on. That’s something that’s really captured well in that footage.

It’s what Santana did though. That’s the way we played. Carlos, a lot of time, would play with his back to the audience — we played to each other like a jazz band off of each other and that’s how the music was created. So it was pretty natural for us to play the way we did.

There was a lot of talk about drugs and Woodstock. Carlos famously told Rolling Stone in 1989 that he wanted to make sure that he was stoned for his set, so he brought his own supplies. In those days, was there a general feeling that you had to be in an altered state to make music the way you wanted to?

Oh, everybody thought that! [Laughs] If you’re going to focus on Santana, forget about it! I don’t know anybody back then that didn’t think, “Oh, this will make it much better.” Even Johnny Carson said he’d take a couple of pops and he thought he was funnier and he found out later that well, he really wasn’t. [Laughs] So yeah, everybody thought that way, that it eased your mind or whatever and you would play from a different space and all of that stuff. That’s true. Whether it was better or not, we’ll never know, will we? [Laughs]

The actual festival experience, that has to be night and day these days. Obviously these days, if you play a massive festival, as long as they have a good organizer, everything’s usually pretty dialed in. Back then around the time of Woodstock, it seems like they were probably still figuring everything out.

Yeah, they were. As a matter of fact, Bill Graham was signing deals for the movie and being onstage and all of that for Santana and he actually wasn’t the manager. We just went, “Okay!” [Laughs] You know, without Bill, many things wouldn’t have happened for Santana. It’s just really a fact. He got us on Ed Sullivan as well, Johnny Carson and at the time, I didn’t really know that — it was afterwards that I really realized how much he had done for the band and for Carlos’ career.

He became the manager eventually of Carlos. But anyway, yeah, it was helter skelter. They broke down the fences. It was six bucks to go see this! Six dollars and people complained! [Laughs] So they came all of this way and they finally just broke in and it turned into that. I think Michael Lang and Artie [Kornfield] and the investors had a real problem and didn’t get paid back for many, many years, but it was such a phenomenon.

Did you guys know that your footage was going to wind up in the movie?

Well yeah, I really didn’t know other than the fact that if Bill was involved with it, probably. He loved the band and Michael Lang told me this — Michael called up Bill Graham to help him with this [the Woodstock festival], because it was getting out of control. Bill said, “I will, but you must have Santana” and he goes, “Who’s Santana?” Because we didn’t have an album out — we were just known on the West Coast, basically.

There was rumors about the band all over, but nobody really had seen the band on the East Coast. So he said, “You must have Santana” and Bill sent them a tape and Michael Lang said, “Great, okay” and that’s part and parcel how we got in. So for us to get in the movie and all of the other things, Bill was the impresario at the time, so it was pretty much guaranteed that probably would happen. But I didn’t know for certain. We didn’t pay attention to that. We went on to another gig in Atlanta afterwards as I recall.

Well, I think you’ve done a lot of stuff that, like with this, you don’t realize you’re going to be talking about something like this 45 years later.

Of course not. To all of us, it was another outdoor gig. There were a lot of festivals going on in those times and it turned out to be the grandmother of all of them, never to be repeated. So if you were there, you had a career, but it’s all hindsight.

I think anybody that played Woodstock, you guys aren’t supposed to remember this much about Woodstock.

[Laughs] I remember a few things. But yeah, those days were pretty fuzzy.

I had a chance to talk with Neal Schon and also Michael Shrieve about the Santana reunion sessions earlier this year. It sounds like things have been really good. What’s the latest going on with your perspective?

Well, I texted with Carlos, you know, we’re all busy. I’m out here doing this. He just put out his latest CD and recordings and did an HBO special. Neal’s out with Journey and we’re trying to put this all together. We’ve already recorded some music. We got together and laid down some stuff for a few days and ended up with some great material.

I just talked to Carlos this last week and between Mike Shrieve, I saw him up in Seattle when I was up there with Ringo. I’m going to go in when I get home to Austin and start doing some of the vocals and send them in. We’re going to phone this stuff in until we can all sit down together again. We wanted to try and get this done by the end of the year. It looks like next year is the year we’re going to get on this.

I know Neal had said he was hoping to get back to things this fall after he’s done with the Journey tour. Knowing that the Ringo dates popped up in October, I didn’t know if that would complicate things.

Well you know, it can. It might and it might not. If I get these vocals done, a lot of that will be out of the way and then we just have to get onto…we want to do about six or seven more songs and take the best of it. It was going rapid fire. I gotta tell you, it was like riding a bicycle, getting back and playing with these guys. Everybody’s a better player and just more cognizant of what’s going on and joyful to be doing it. It really was a lot of fun and it should be. Music’s supposed to be really joyful — there’s nothing to be that angry about.

You had done the Abraxas Pool album in the ‘90s, so you’ve had the chance to record with some of these guys. Did you ever think that you’d have the possibility to put things back together and do it with Carlos again?

Well you know, Carlos and I, I’ve always said, threatened each other to do this one way or another and get back. I mean that humorously. We talked about it all of the time and it just never came to fruition. You know, everybody’s been awfully busy doing other things. So when Neal pursued Carlos, it’s funny, I was out with Ringo at the Pacific Rim and Carlos is right behind me with Steve Miller and Journey was right behind that.

So Neal started pursuing all of this and Carlos said he was almost pestering him, like, “This is a great idea, we should do this” and Carlos finally said, “Okay.” I talked to him when he got back from the Pacific Rim and we started talking about all of this. Getting back with these original guys and then having Benny [Rietfeld], the bass player for Carlos and Karl Perazzo, the timbali player, it’s a great band. Everybody gets along and it’s just amazing. It’s a lot of fun and it should be and it is.

Is Marcus Malone a part of the reunion as well?

No, but I did write a song about Marcus and we’ve done it and it’s very good. You know, of course I wrote it, so of course I’m going to think it’s good. [Laughs] But it’s funky and it’s kind of a story about him. Marcus got together on doing this stuff and we pursued it this way and wrote a song about him and he has a partial writing credit on it.

I know that you’ve been working on new music yourself in recent years and I know that some of it wound up on the Iridium live CD that you did with Alan Haynes. I wondered if you had plans to put out some of the rest of it elsewhere or if that material had worked its way towards this Santana reunion.

I have recorded 11 or 12 pieces that have nothing to do with the Santana project. It’s all my own stuff. I’m waiting to finish that as well as doing the Santana stuff, along with going out with a quartet and going out with my band and Ringo. I’ve never been this busy in my life.

What’s the difference between the quartet and your regular band?

Well, the quartet is a little more personal. It’s in smaller venues and I do a section of it where people can ask questions and it’s just a lot more personal. You can ask me anything you want — I may not answer it, but you can ask me anything. I don’t care. [Laughs] The quartet is Alan Haynes on guitar, Ron Wikso on drums and Sticky Lopez on bass. It’s all based out of Austin and I’m on piano and not a B3. So it’s a little bit different, but it’s a lot of fun. I’ve done well with it in the places that I’ve gone. People seem to like it.

Are you all four based out of Austin at this point?

Yeah we are. The point being is that everybody that ever saw me, it usually was like this ant on a stage from far away, because the venues were so big. This is like going back and it’s a little payback to the people who made my life great, so it’s more personal to me.

I think that’s what I enjoyed about the Iridium live disc with Alan. It seems like you really had a lot of fun, reworking some of those songs, like the version of ‘Evil Ways’ that’s on there.

Yeah, I know! We did that like it was old blues. Alan came to me and said “What if Jimmy Reed wrote ‘Evil Ways’ and he was kind of laughing about it and I said “What a great idea” and we played it immediately — I arranged it right then in five seconds. It just popped out.

‘If I Went Home’ is reportedly about your departure from Journey. It sounds like that’s a song and a subject that you’ve been carrying around with you for quite a while. Have you properly recorded that one?

Yeah, that’s part of that new material I told you about. Ron’s on drums and Alphonso Johnson played on that. I’ve got some singers and it’s a full-on recording. I’ve got some great stuff coming out. Steve Lukather graced me with playing a couple of solos on a couple of these songs. I’ve just got great players and all of that stuff, so it’s just another part of the puzzle for me. Neal played on one — I’ve got a lot of the people that I love that play guitar — Kurt Griffey, who played with my band and is now with CCR, he played on a couple of things. It’s a mish-mosh of people, but I really love it. I did a version of ‘Don’t Cruel’ that I really dig doing.

I was interested to see you pull out the title track to Journey’s ‘Look Into The Future.’ That’s a deep cut.

Yeah, I did that too. I redid it.

It seems like you’ve maintained a connection to the catalog of songs that you did with Journey, looking at some of the things you’ve pulled out.

I’ve pulled out the stuff that I sang on. I’m not a Top 40 kind of guy, digging up stuff I never did. I would never do that. But I love the music that we did and the things that I sang on. Some of it I’ve pulled out and some of this music lends itself to that, but not at the same time. It’s hard to explain. It’s what comes out.

Listening to ‘If I Went Home’ and then looking at the schedule of what Journey did. It was a schedule of recording and touring that was pretty grueling when you look year-by-year at how many albums came out during your years with the group. It was pretty incredible.

It was. I sent that song to [former Journey manager] Herbie Herbert and told him that I wrote it about Journey and he called me up and [the lyric] is, “Would you mind if I went home?” and he called me up and he goes, “I minded!” [Laughs] It was just time for me to get out of there. I actually didn’t finish writing that song until just a few years ago. I didn’t know what I was going to call it — I didn’t know if it was just a musical piece and then it came to me pretty rapidly and I wrote it in about five seconds. It’s one of those things that happened. So now we’ve recorded it and it’s ready to go. It came out great.

When you look back at the years that you were in Journey, it’s interesting because I think that some people now, with the whole picture of the band, you don’t realize unless you look back at those early years, what a guiding role you had in the group and presence vocally. It’s interesting to hear the band in your era vs. the Journey that continued on after you left. Because there’s a distinct difference. When you made the ‘Infinity’ album, you can hear the impact that Steve Perry made when he started to do lead vocals here and there. I was curious how that whole experience felt to you as you were in the midst of it as that transition was occurring.

Well, I didn’t mind the transition. I still wanted to sing some. The way I’ve always looked at this, you know, the Beatles did okay with four singers. You don’t have to have just one guy. You know, it just evolved to doing less and less. I really didn’t mind having a lead singer, because I was spread pretty thin. I was doing lead singing, playing about three keyboards, harmonica — I was all over the place. I thought it was a great idea — it didn’t bother me at all. But I did still sing a couple of songs and it just got to be less and less. But that’s okay too — that’s just the way it evolved. Bands are bands and that’s the way that goes. It’s not a big deal.

It seems like it came to a point where you eventually wanted to get out and you got out. Did the situation make it easier for you to do that?

No, for me honestly, after building two bands and living out of a suitcase, you know, the gypsy life is fun when you’re doing it. When it’s not fun anymore, that’s not what I wanted. That’s all I had and that’s all I did. For me, I wanted to have a family and have a different life. So I just reached that pinnacle and decided to do it. I felt worse about leaving Herbie than anything else. I mean, it’s just not what I wanted to do anymore. I was miserable. I’m not giving my best to them and that’s not right, so it was just time to go.

It was really based upon personal decisions about changing my life. I know a lot of people, God, I’ve heard it so many times, “Oh, it’s because you weren’t singing as much” and it’s just nonsense. You know, if you ever look on Facebook at some of the crap that’s on there that people make up and talk about, you can tell them until you’re blue in the face, “Here’s the truth” and they still hang on to this. It drives me nuts. But what are you going to do? Were you there? No! So, shut up! God, it drives me crazy!

You made that decision to be home and put family first it seems like that would still be a tough decision to make when you’re part of a band that is Journey.

Well you know, at the time, it really wasn’t. Like I said, I’d really had enough of traveling and being out there. I did not play for a couple of years afterwards. I mean, I noodled around on a piano at home, but for a couple of years, I didn’t do anything and I was done, living at home. That’s what I wanted to do and that’s the way it went.

Next: Top 10 Santana Songs

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