SAN FRANCISCO — Listening to him talk, you get the feeling that Alexander J. Ligertwood hasn’t been living in Walnut Creek for too long. In fact, when Santana was breaking in this country over ten years ago, he was still making his way through the European rock and blues scene. Now, as the lead singer of Santana. Alex is singing to an audience of millions worldwide.
Alex Ligertwood grew up in Glasgow. Scotland, in a musical family. Though he didn’t have any formal training in music, he soon found himself caught up in the music scene, and in a band with the late Robbie McIntosh (drummer and founder of the Average White Band).
“Robbie and I went to Italy with an all-Scottish band,” Alex explains. “We had a soul band in the early ’60s The city I came from was a big R&B city. It was pretty violent, and it spawned the blues. A lot of musicians got very involved in the blues and R&B, and it just seemed to fit the lifestyle that they had.”
The names of Alex’s earliest bands may not ring many bells on this side of the Atlantic, but groups like Piranhas and Ceccarelli were among the finest progressive European bands of the day. Alex also spent some time with Jeff Beck.
“When I left Piranhas, I heard that Jeff Beck was looking for a bass player,” he recalls. “I play bass as well, so I went down to audition. When I got there, someone had already gotten the job, so they asked me if I could sing. That was more in my line, so I got the gig as a singer.”
Alex stayed with Beck for only five months before Robbie McIntosh helped him land a job with Brian Auger & the Oblivion Express in 1971. Playing with Auger held an extra incentive for Alex. As he explains, “Brian was coming to the States, and that had always been an ambition of mine. Especially for a musician, if you really want to do anything and progress, this is really the only country where you can do it. It’s very difficult in Europe.”
The Oblvion Express toured all over the U.S., traveling to every state except Maine and Alaska. Alex recorded four albums with Auger, including Second Wind, Live At The Whisky, Reinforcements, and Happiness Heartaches. During the band’s touring, they opened shows for Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, among others. Alex met Mahavishnu drummer Narada Michael Walden during this time, and later, when Walden was forming his own touring band and learned the Oblivion Express was dissolving, he immediately called Alex to join him.
Alex spent much of 1977 touring with Narada’s band, opening shows for the CBS All-Stars. Then. in 1978, Alex got a call from composer-instrumentalist David Sancious, former keyboardist for the E Street Band. Sancious had been unable to find a vocalist capable of handling the range of melody and tone needed for his album, True Stories. Alex was up to the challenge, and completed the vocal tracks in one week.
“To be able to do something for a musician of this calibre is so rewarding,” he says. “That music was intense. It was a new thing for me, a beginning. It bordered on everything I had touched on before in my career—a little touch of jazz. rock and roll, Al Green. And it was as if he’d written all of the songs exactly for me. They were all in my register, all within my range. It was amazing.” Alex worked with Sancious for just over a year, touring the East Coast and playing a two-week tour of England. The day after he got back from England. he got a call to come to San Francisco and try out for Santana.
“That was Narada’s doing, I’m sure,” Alex says with a smile. “Narada and Sainbliaya [Walden’s manager] recommended me to Devadip, which was real nice. It made me feel real good that my friends would think of me like that.”
Alex joined Santana in time for last year’s Marathon album, contributing lyrics to four times as well as becoming the band’s new voice. He also made a vocal appearance on Devadip’s Swing Of Delight album. Santana has continued to tour extensively, and with the departure of Chris Solberg from the band, Alex has become the second guitarist onstage.
On the new Santana album, Zebop, Alex plays guitar on two songs in addition to his vocal chores. Bill Graham produced the just-released LP, and as Alex explains, “He really made it his baby. It was like he joined the band. He gave us a lot of input about the marketing side of it. We gave him our best. and he gave us the best of his mind. It was a good experience for us, and I think a good experience for him.
“We’re trying to appeal to the young market. you know. keeping up with the times,” he continues, “and not trying to be too aesthetic. There’s a lot of music on Zebop everything from J.J. Cale, to blues, to African music.”
With a vocal range covering nearly four octaves, Alex is able to use his voice in many different ways. And he feels that a vocalist should not limit his range or his use of tones. “I‘m still young, still developing.” he says. “My idea of a vocalist is that he’s a musician; his voice is his instrument. And every song should have its own thing. Just like you can change the tones on a guitar, I can change the tone on my voice, and sing the song the way it should be. I’m really into that, and using my voice as much as possible.”
This is the dimension that Alex Ligertwood adds to Santana. He does not feel separated from the musicians, but rather like one of them. And he hopes he can inspire people, just as he sees Devadip Carlos Santana inspiring.
“I don‘t like to put myself in a position of being a frontman in a band like Santana.” he says. “I’m very capable of doing it. I‘ve been doing it for years, but I’m really a band guy. I’ve always had a guitar around my neck. because I‘ve always been not just a singer. but a musician in the band.”