Gregg Rolie is the rare two-time Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, an architect who built foundations for Santana and then Journey.
Neal Schon was part of both construction projects, as a teen prodigy for two Santana albums in 1971 and 1972 and then as a fellow co-founder of Journey in 1973. Rolie and Schon appeared together on six Journey albums, beginning with a trio of often-overlooked more improvisational LPs that showcased their close musical relationship.
“Back then, the way we were approaching it, if we had done that now, we’d be a jam band,” Rolie tells UCR. “We’d be playing in a different circuit, we’d be playing different music. It was based on jams, real eclectic – very different. That’s still really valid today. It’s almost like, ‘What, are we ahead of our time’? You know, in a way – yeah. And that’s kind of what was going on – it just didn’t catch at that time.”
Steve Perry arrived before 1978’s Infinity, and Journey began its transformation into platinum-selling hitmakers. Rolie made key contributions over the next three albums, notably on the radio favorites “Anytime” and “Just the Same Way,” but then departed to focus on family. He later worked with Carlos Santana and Schon again on Santana IV and served a lengthy stint as a member of Ringo Starr‘s All-Star Band.
Rolie relocated to Texas along the way, making a recent 50th-anniversary reunion encore with Journey in Austin into the equivalent of a hometown gig. They touched on songs from every era of his musical life, playing “Of a Lifetime” from 1975’s Journey, “Feeling That Way” and “Anytime” from Infinity, “Just the Same Way” from 1979’s Evolution and “Anyway You Want It” from 1980’s Departure, as well as Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” with help from Steve Lukather, Journey’s touring partner in Toto.
The set ended up bringing lots of memories rushing back, as Rolie returned to his earliest collaborations with Schon and the creation of Journey.
Listen to Journey’s ‘Of a Lifetime’
What was it like being back onstage together again in Austin?
I think the main thing is it just brings the smiles out of Neal and myself. You know, if you write and record things like that, and then do them for years, it becomes inbred. You don’t have to rehearse much, you just don’t. You go back and say, ‘What have I done?’ – and then change it a bit, so that it’s new but not too far off from the song. That’s kind of what happened. Quite frankly, the sound check was it for me, because I’m a one-take kind of guy. And then we went to play and it was stunning; the whole thing was just stunning.
Surely, you didn’t imagine that Journey would still be going five decades later.
I said this in the short bit I did before our set: Journey has become this runaway freight train with no brakes. People come in and out, there have been all these changes, but Journey keeps going. It just keeps going and going. I’m proud to have been a part of building something like this that has reached millions of people and continues to do so. That’s amazing to me. I mean, when I started playing in Santana, I knew a couple of chords and that’s about it. It was a matter of the attitude behind it and just growing with it. So to have done this twice, and then play with Ringo for seven years, which is almost longer than I did with Journey? I’ve had a great time.
The Austin set also touched on those often-overlooked years together in Santana.
Neal and I talked about it and I said, ‘What if we could go back 50 years and do ‘Of a Lifetime’? It stunned people when we did it back then; it could do it again. And then, ‘What about ‘Black Magic Woman’? Boom. ‘Because you were in Santana with me for a couple of years, and we’ll go back and do that song.’ I sang it then, which also was shocking to some Journey fans. ‘I didn’t know he was in Santana.’ They didn’t even know Neal was in Santana. History is a funny thing.
‘Black Magic Woman’ turned into a reunion with your old All-Starr bandmate Steve Lukather, as well.
Luke and I did that with with with Ringo for seven years. So it came up, and now two guitar players are getting to play off each other. It was a good evening. It was really good.
Watch Santana Perform ‘Black Magic Woman’ With Neal Schon
Your relationship with Neal Schon predates both Journey and Santana.
It’s an interesting story. I used to pick up Neal from high school, and we were recording Abraxas at the same time. He wasn’t going to high school, he was sitting in the quad playing guitar. [Laughs.] He said he was going to do this for the rest of his life – and here he is, right? Fifty-four years without missing a gig with Santana or Journey. It’s amazing. So I brought him out while we were recording Abraxas and we jammed a lot at the studio. We did a lot of that, and I loved what he did at 15, 16 years old. He had a choice of either going with Eric Clapton and Derek and the Dominos or Santana at that point – because Eric had heard about him and seen him. At the same time, I went to Carlos and asked, ‘What do you think about having a second guitarist, having Neal join us’? And I was thinking it the whole time, it’s pretty hard to tell your guitar player that we need another guy. That’s not going to float too good. ‘What a great idea!’ But that’s exactly what happened, and those guys began learning off of each other. Neal picked up on blues with a nine in it from Carlos. They picked up on each other. Suddenly Neal was more on fire. Then they became what they became. It was great. I thought it would work like that – and it did.
What convinced you that you could start another band with Neal Schon?
Neal and [founding Journey manager] Herbie Herbert called me. I was in the restaurant business, and they saved my life. Don’t get in the restaurant business. You need at least 1,000% of capacity to make it work. Nobody eats in the same place every night. So anyway, that was difficult, but they called me up and said, ‘We’re starting a band.’ I left Seattle and joined in on what they were doing. It was called the Golden Gate Rhythm Section, and it was supposed to be designed for singers or players that came into San Francisco. We’d have a ready-made band that could play what they wanted. But I think they lied. I think it was a band all the way. [Laughs.] And that’s OK.
Watch Journey’s ‘Just the Same Way’ Video
Journey shifted to a more song-focused approach when Steve Perry arrived. How was that received?
Everybody has to have this focus when they write about a band. They have to have a focal point, always a focal point – so they can make the headline. They design what the band is by their headline. And then you go, ‘Well, that’s not quite true but OK, we’re getting somewhere.’ It happens all the time, and that’s what happened with us. We were a jam band early on, and Perry came in, and we started designing songs. I’d never really done that before, where the song came first. It was a song and then we’d elaborate. It was an eye-opener. It actually made me a better writer, because it opened my eyes to the fact that we could do this and continue that way.
Has your musical relationship with Neal Schon changed over the years?
It’s the same. We know a little bit more – well, he knows a lot more. He can play just about anything. I know a little bit more about where I fit in and what I’m comfortable with and what I like hearing. I have been backing up guitar players all my life, where I lay a bed, as Carlos put it, while they play. That was my position, to fill up the room. So for me, it never changed. We play off each other because that’s how we grew up. Same thing with Carlos: We grew up doing that. So when you start playing, you play off each other, and you’re not quite sure what’s gonna happen – and then it does. Getting back onstage with Neal was like riding a bicycle. ‘You’re gonna do that? Oh, that’s a new one. OK, well, let’s do this.’
The reaction in Austin was immediate. Do you think those early Journey records are due for a reevaluation?
We blew up the internet afterwards. There was one person who wrote, ‘Should I know this song, ‘Of a Lifetime’? It was awesome,’ If you thought Journey started in 1977 when Steve Perry arrived? Well, no, then you wouldn’t know.
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