By WALLACE BAINE
Talk about a quintessential Bay Area cultural experience. With images spanning his entire half-century career projected behind him, rock god Carlos Santana led his band in the final show of its 2019 world tour on stage at the gleaming new Chase Center, home of the Golden State Warriors, last month in San Francisco. Marking the 50th anniversary of his breakout performance at Woodstock, Santana, energetic and magnetic as ever at 72, enraptured the capacity crowd not only with his instantly recognizable guitar playing, but also with stirring words in defense of a kinder, more harmonious world.
At the center of it all, right next to the man himself, was Watsonville native Andy Vargas.
Sharing the stage with Santana and his namesake band is certainly nothing new for Vargas. For two decades, he’s occupied a coveted spot in the rock firmament as lead vocalist in Santana. The most recent world tour was the 20th in which Vargas has participated.
Vargas knew when he first joined the band “that I was going to be a sponge, just learning from Carlos, for the rest of my life. I still learn something every day with him,” he says. “And it’s hard to catch up with him. He’s already done his two hours of meditation and prayer and has e-mailed me a setlist for the day when I’m just waking up.”
On Dec. 14, Vargas comes to the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz (sans Santana) for a show he calls El Sueño. He’ll lead his own band Souleros in a benefit performance that also includes the South Bay band Tortilla Soup and comedian Frankie Quiñones. Souleros is Vargas’s attempt—even in the band’s very name—to combine the style and spirit of R&B/soul with the Cuban genre of bolero.
The show is a fundraiser for the Andy Vargas Foundation, which provides musical instruments, musical mentors and college scholarships for kids in underserved communities, including his home town of Watsonville.
“The basic idea is to turn on the light bulb,” he says, “to let kids see that their dreams and aspirations, what they want to do with their lives, is limitless.”
Vargas can point to no better example than himself. His own musical upbringing can be traced back to his grandparents’ Watsonville record store, where as a kid he was surrounded by the latest recordings of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and the Ohio Players. His father Javier Vargas was (and still is) a widely respected mariachi singer and bandleader, known up and down the West Coast for his performances, but in Watsonville largely for his enthusiasm and willingness to teach local kids the joys of music.
Young Andy was playing in bands from his teenage years, and was a musical prodigy at Watsonville High in the mid 1990s—there’s a video on YouTube featuring Vargas at 14 performing at a WHS talent show to an audience of Beatlemania-style screaming girls.
He was still in high school when he first met Terry Melcher, the well-known record producer who was central in shaping the California sound of the 1960s. Melcher brought Vargas to L.A. and got him a record deal—though, thanks to fall out from music-industry consolidations and changes in ownership, the young singer’s debut record was never released.
But Vargas was brought to the attention of Carlos Santana by Melcher and Lou Adler, another record industry legend. At the time, Santana was experiencing a career resurgence with the 1999 release of his album Supernatural, which spawned his first hit single in years, “Smooth,” featuring Matchbox 20 vocalist Rob Thomas.
Despite its commercial success, Supernatural, loaded with guest vocal performances, exposed the band’s lack of a consistent lead voice. Santana put out the word that he was looking for singers.
Vargas was 20 years old when he was brought into Santana’s studio in San Rafael. “I saw him in the backroom through the window,” he remembers. “Yep, that’s the guy right there. Someone you see in books and magazines, someone you listen to your whole life, then you see him in person. Yeah, I was nervous.”
The entire band was on hand. Without a word, Santana struck up the band with monster hit “Smooth.” “I just jumped right in,” says Vargas. “By the way, he still does that. Nothing’s changed. He’ll get up and begin playing a song without even telling you what it is. You have to recognize the intro and jump right in.”
Vargas was quickly hired for a three-week tour, as a test run. A few days in, Santana and longtime conga player Raul Rekow sat Vargas down and told him they wanted him in the band as a permanent member. He made his recording debut on the 2002 album Shaman. He’s been an integral part of Santana ever since.
“It’s been quite a blessing,” he says. “I remember when I first joined, people would come up to me and say, weeks after the show, ‘Oh my God! I need another Santana concert.’ It’s like their soul needs it. And I’ve seen it consistently for years.”