How did you get started in music?
As a child I had a stepfather who was a [double] bass player, and I used to, like, ride on his bass when he played. I wanted to play bass but my school in South Central Los Angeles didn’t have one, so I learned trumpet. Later I got exposed to a guy named Smokey Robinson, and the song Shop Around. In the house I lived in we had a non-functional fireplace, so my mom put a mirror in there. I remember singing Shop Around in that mirror, pretending like I had a microphone, the whole nine yards. Before I knew it I was involved in block shows in my backyard.
What was your first job in music?
I was in a group in high school, called Moods of Life, kind of like the Temptations – you notice how Motown keeps coming up? – and we started singing in clubs (illegally, because we were like 13 or 14). People started liking us, so there was a demand. Later I was in college and sang some Stevie Wonder-type songs with the choir, and we did some shows around college. Everybody wanted me to sing all the time, so I started singing more and more, and that’s how the solo stuff got started.
Which groups did you sing with?
Nubian Pop Cycle was one, Subject to Change was another. After that I joined a group called Taste of Honey, who did the song Boogie Oogie Oogie. I left that group to join Santana.
Quite a variety then.
I was just always trying to sing wherever I could, I didn’t care about the group or what kind of music it was, I was always just gonna learn something and increase my repertoire. The radio stations I was listening to weren’t locked into playing black music or white music or rhythm music or whatever, it was all just music.
So was that a good grounding for the Santana band?
I think so. When I joined I didn’t really know the music, like I knew, say, Motown music, but you couldn’t help but hear the music on the radio. Santana opened me up even more to listening to other types of music, especially Latin rock, which was his forte. I don’t know that I would’ve been able to remain in a band whose music I didn’t like. The man plays any kind of music, but it’s all good music.
When did you join Santana?
In 1975. I had no idea that it was going to be as good for me as it was. We went on the road with the Rolling Stones, with Steppenwolf, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joan Baez. Even my wife didn’t know what a big deal it was because I’m not the kind of guy to boast about that.
You helped Santana achieve their greatest success on albums like Inner Secrets and Moonflower.
I get a lot of emails and letters from people saying they loved my time with Santana, and I’m just glad that we connected with so many people.
What’s your favourite hit with that band?
I would say Stormy. She’s Not There is a close second; that was always a song I liked, even before Carlos brought it to the band – it was by an English group called the Zombies. But the way Santana did it, it was even better. I also recorded Black Magic Woman, Evil Ways and Oye Como Va on a live album. Evil Ways became a favourite. I liked the groove of it – the Latin feel made my feet move and do things that I never thought they could do.
A lot of your hits have had a Latin inflection.
I think it was partly the influence of Carlos [Santana], who really did a great thing for the world, taking Latin music everywhere. But I also think Latin music and African rhythms – naturally, innately, rhythmically – are in me, so I found the Latin side of it easy to ingest. But whatever I play, I think it’s really soul music, because I am expressing what’s inside.
What do you see as the future of soul music – is hip-hop where it's at?
I’m not a real hip-hop guy myself, but I’m just glad if the hip-hop guys are finding inspiration in soul music. But I want to do what I can to keep old-school R&B and soul alive.
Who are your influences?
I love Sam Cooke, Al Green [breaks into Let’s Stay Together], Nat King Cole, Johnny Hartman, even Elvis Presley.
Tell us about World Classic Rockers, the super group you recently joined that’s playing Hong Kong on Saturday 13.
For me it really is a great opportunity because I genuinely like all the music we’re doing, from Rosanna to Sweet Home Alabama to Free Bird, and I like the fact all these different people from different groups are in it. Again, I’d just call it good music. These are great players. It’s the most versatile band I’ve ever known.
Aside from WCR, what kind of music have you been playing?
I sing jazz standards in various groups around Los Angeles, and I’m currently recording a gospel album. I’ve been going to the same church since I was a little kid. I love church music. I took Nick St Nicholas from Steppenwolf to my church and he was blown away, because it’s one of those rockin’ churches!
How would you like people to understand the message in your music?
Just that I'm very serious about what I do and that it comes from a very deep place. I want to express the joy and the happiness of life through music. I believe I’ve got a gift and if I don't use it, God might take it away. I truly believe that.
Greg Walker and the World Classic Rockers, featuring former members of Steppenwolf, Journey, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Toto, and Boston play the Foreign Correspondents’ Club Charity Ball on Saturday 13 at the HKCEC.