On the day of Prince’s death last year, television was awash in old interviews, concert clips, and videos. During a 1999 chat with Larry King on CNN, the Purple One talked specifically about three of his biggest musical influences: Stevie Wonder, Graham Central Station, and Santana.
The next day, founding member, singer/keyboardist Gregg Rolie (whose pipes feature on signature hits “Black Magic Woman,” “Evil Ways,” and “Oye Como Va”) reflected on that connection.
“Prince has told Carlos that Santana was the band for him, and had a lot of influence on his sound. And you can hear it,” Rolie offers. “What’s kind of bizarre is that I heard he went out shopping for music just before his death [at Minneapolis’ Electric Fetus record store], and one of the new albums he bought was Santana IV.”
Wait, hasn’t Santana put out a billion records since their self-titled 1969 debut with the black and white psychedelic lion on the cover? Well, yes. But for this project, guitarist/leader Carlos Santana has reassembled most of the Woodstock-era lineup featured on those first three seminal records Santana, Abraxas, and Santana III.
That includes Santana, Rolie, guitarist Neal Schon, drummer Michael Shrieve, and congist/percussionist/singer Michael Carabello. Bassist Benny Rietveld and timbalist/percussionist Karl Perazzo from the group’s regular current incarnation fill out the lineup.
So titling the new effort Santana IV is simply a continuation, as if this band of brothers was just picking up 45 years later (though Rolie and Schon would go on to co-found another little group that did OK for itself, Journey). And it seems that Schon was the real kickstarter for this campaign.
“He really pushed for it and Carlos wanted to do it. And when just the five us got together for the first time, we jammed for six or seven hours,” Rolie says. “And we had the same magic between the players, and we knew it was going to be great. And we really played with each other. It was perfectly imperfect”
Rolie says the band worked on more than 40 pieces of music – some fragments, some completed songs, some jams – before settling on the 14 tracks which make up Santana IV. And all were recorded in two or three takes.
It’s a powerful, incredible record that is far better than most people might suspect, combining all of the band’s classic sonic elements and Latin influences (“Yambu,” “Caminado,” “Suenos”) on instrumentals (“Fillmore East”), rock epics (“Blues Magic/Echizo,” “Come As You Are”), and more commercial sounding tunes (first single “Anywhere You Want to Go,” “Shake It”).
Two tracks – “Love Makes the World Go Round” and “Freedom in Your Mind” feature Ronald Isley of the Isley Brothers on lead vocals in the social/political-themed tunes. Someone that Rolie was happy to cede the mike to.
“He’s a musical icon and I listened to him as a kid. He’s such a gentle man. And he still has the pipes!” Rolie says, adding that Isley joined the Santana IV lineup for a live show that was filmed for DVD release.
“Among the band, we have the same sensibility about playing music,” he adds. “The time seems like it never passed.”
Not part of the reunion for various reasons were members of the same era Jose “Chepito” Areas (timbales/congas/percussion), and Marcus Malone (drums). The latter made national news when he was discovered in late 2013 by a TV reporter living homeless on the streets of San Francisco. He later had an emotional reunion with Santana caught on video.
“Marcus…it just didn’t happen. And Carlos has been playing with Karl for 20 years on timbales,” Rolie offers. And bassist David Brown died in 2000.
So with a great classic band reunited and able to play a rich back catalogue with strong new songs, it would seem like a tour would be imminent. However, a full tour isn’t up for discussion. Carlos Santana has been active his current band, Schon is embarking on massive Journey tour, and Rolie s handling double duty on stage with both his own group and as part of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, who are touring this fall. Both Rolie and Schon, are of last month, are both two-time indcutees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“It’s a chess game with all the schedules and making them work. But this lineup will have and will do some more [one-off] shows,” Rolie says. “I think the way we make this work in the future is to do a Santana/Journey tour.”
Concerning his continued employment as an All-Starr, sometimes he still has to pinch himself that he’s onstage with a friggin’ Beatle.
“It took me two years to not go “wow, holy crap I’m on the same stage as Ringo Starr!’ I mean, the Beatles, everybody wanted to be in that band. And to be on the same stage as the same guy who helped me get started on all this…it’s incredible, Rolie says. “He’s such a good man and good bandleader and we all get along famously.”
Today, Rolie is a resident of Austin, and enthuses about life in the Lone Star State at his home overlooking Lake Travis. But with touring commitments to three bands (and work on a solo record that was temporarily shelved for Santana IV), he only has one question.
“I wonder…what the hell happened to my retirement!”
Portions of this article originally appeared in The Houston Press.