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Santana or Slowhand? That's the choice Neal Schon had to make

The Journey guitarist could've had his name and face on concert posters with both Derek and The Dominos and Santana. Hey, two out of three ain't bad, Neal.

By Peter Lindblad

In the position he was in, it’s hard to imagine Neal Schon refusing an offer to play with Eric Clapton. A mere teenager, whose soulful, expressive guitar playing had caught the ear of the man known as “Slowhand,” Schon had dropped out of high school in the 1960s to follow his musical muse. This was the chance of a lifetime. Other guitarists would have given their eye teeth for such an opportunity, but fate had something different in mind for Schon.

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“I had a good feeling ... I don’t know why, but I had a good feeling I was going to be asked to join the Santana band, because I’d been hanging out with them,” Schon remembers. “I believe I started hanging out with [keyboardist] Gregg Rolie two to three months before I actually got in the band. And him and I would just hang, and he’d play acoustic piano, and I’d play some quiet electric guitar, and we’d jam. He began picking me up at high school, which I was really not into, and we’d take off, and I’d cut school, and we’d jam. And then we started hanging out and playing in clubs, and all of a sudden, we were working in a studio. And we’d work out in the studio 24/7 and just go in there and jam and try to come up with song ideas.”

Santana Legacy publicity photo Coni Loon

Santana's core lineup consisted of Mike Schrieve, David Brown, Mike Carabello, Jose "Chepito" Areas, Gregg Rolie and Carlos Santana before Neal Schon joined the group for 1971's 'Santana III' album. Publicity photo.

On one particular night, while the two were jamming “on some stuff that sounded like ‘Batuka’ on the third [Santana] record, and that was the beginning stages of that song, I believe,” Schon recalls Clapton walking through the door.

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“My jaw dropped. This was just incredible. And I was so shocked at the time I really think I just said, ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’ to the guy,” says Schon.

Clapton soon joined in, trading off solos with Schon. They recorded and played for a couple of hours before Clapton left.

“And he said, ‘It was great seeing you guys. I’ve got a gig tomorrow.’ And he took off, so it was wild, and that was it,” says Schon.

A dumbstruck Schon couldn’t believe what had happened, and he certainly didn’t think anything more would come of it.

“And then the next day, I come into the studio, and there was a note left there from him to me inviting me to play with him and Derek and the Dominos at Berkeley Community Theatre,” relates Schon, who knew Clapton’s catalog backward and forward. “And so, at the time, I didn’t have a license. I got somebody to drive me over there, and I managed to get there about 10 minutes before they went onstage. And I went backstage, and he says, ‘Oh, great. You got here.’ He says, ‘We’re going to go onstage and I’m going to play about seven or eight tunes, and then I’m going to call you up as a good friend, and you’re just going to sit in and jam with us for the whole rest of the night.’ And I said, ‘Great.’ I brought a guitar, and he brought me up onstage, and I just went and plugged in, and his guitar tech turned the amp up to 10, and we were off.”

The night didn’t end there.

This concert poster could've had Neal Schon in it — had the guitarist taken up Eric Clapton on his offer to join up and head over to England to perform. This poster sold for $537.75 at auction. Photo courtesy Heritage Auctions.

This concert poster could've had Neal Schon in it — had the guitarist taken up Eric Clapton on his offer to join up and head over to England to perform. This poster sold for $537.75 at auction. Photo courtesy Heritage Auctions.

“It was really fun to play, and then afterwards, he invited me to go to the hotel with him,” says Schon. “He wanted to sit down and talk, so I went. And as we were talking, he was asking who I listened to, and I told him: Him. And he didn’t believe me, so I picked up an acoustic guitar and I started playing note for note ‘Crossroads’ off the ‘Wheels of Fire record.’ He was like, ‘Wow!’ And he gave me a really kind compliment, and at that point, he said, ‘Well, would you be interested in moving to England and coming and playing with me?’ And I was just like, ‘Whoa.’”

Caught completely off guard by the proposal, Schon wasn’t prepared to answer, “Yes,” even though he could be forgiven for turning down the spot.

“I had just barely moved out of my folks’ apartment and was hanging out with Gregg in Mill Valley, in Marin County, north of San Francisco,” says Schon. “And man, I said, ‘I don’t think I’m ready to move to England, although I’d love to play with you.’”

To some extent, Schon felt an obligation to the members of Santana. He’d spent about a month in the studio with them, and Schon had an inkling he’d be asked to join Santana. Fortunately, he was right.

“I also felt that Derek and the Dominoes were not going to last that long,” says Schon. “It just appeared that there were some issues going on in the band that I could sense, much like an animal, you know (laughs). It was not like the best time period.”

His prediction was eerily accurate, as Derek and the Dominoes, wracked by drug abuse and other vices, barely held it together between 1970 and 1971, recording the album “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” before the whole thing disintegrated — although a live album, “In Concert,” would be released in 1973.

Meanwhile, Schon arrived in Santana just in time to lend his talents to the “Santana III” album, helping the band forge a tougher, more rock-oriented sound.

“We were really quick in the studio. Everybody played live, and there were a few solos that were overdubbed,” recalls Schon. “And I usually got ’em in one take. I remember we were in and out, and it was a great experience. Great record — I love it to this day.”

What people may not know is who actually played lead guitar on one of the LP’s biggest hits, “Everybody’s Everything,” which featured horns by Tower of Power.

“I actually played lead guitar on it,” Schon admits, “and Carlos played rhythm guitar and bass on that.”

Schon’s association with Santana was short-lived.

“Well, during the duration that I played with the band, there were people coming and going,” admits Schon. “There were a lot of fallouts happening. There were a lot of drug issues, and everybody was into a different thing. It got a little crazy and intense, and people were getting p***ed, and they’d take off, and then someone would be replaced for a second.”

Even though the end in Santana was near for Schon, he did contribute to “Caravanserai,” an album he still loves.

“‘Song of the Wind’ is amazing on that, which is a song Carlos and I just winged, and I actually play the first solo on that; he played the middle solo and I played the last solo on that, and you know, it’s two chords, and we just improvised and played.”