Saturday, November 12, 2016

A Very Candid Conversation with Santos

Santos and myself at Rock Ministries of Philadelphia, 8/12/2017

Walter J. Santos (professionally known as Santos) started his music career as a jazz percussionist who had a successful music career. In the seventies, Santos played at the renowned Carnegie Hall with jazz organist Charles Earland, who was the opening act for jazz legend George Benson. Santos played with various jazz artists, and in 1978, he played with New Jersey pop rock band Fandango. Fandango was hoping to reach the same level of fame as other fellow Jersey rockers such as Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi. Fandango opened for many big league performers such as Billy Joel and Chicago. They had talent, musicianship, and stage presence, but they weren’t able to catch the break they needed to succeed, which led to Fandango disbanding in 1980.

Side note: One person who had listened to Fandango was legendary guitarist Ritchie Blackmore (best known as the guitarist of Deep Purple and responsible for the famous guitar riff of “Smoke in The Water.”) In 1981, Fandango’s lead singer, Joe Lynn Turner, joined Blackmore’s band Rainbow (1981–1984). In the early nineties, Turner would reteam with Blackmore in Deep Purple. I had a chance to interview Turner on my blog (that interview can be read here). I follow Turner on Facebook. Recently on Facebook, Turner was going through his entire discography and he brought up his Fandango records. I wondered what had happened to the other guys in Fandango besides Turner, and that’s where I came across Santos.

After Fandango disbanded in 1980, Santos played with fifties doo-wop legend Dion (two of his most known songs are “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer”). He played with Dion for twelve years, and Santos went on to marry Dion’s sister and became Dion’s brother-in-law. Dion would be another major factor in Santos’s life besides marriage. Santos had drug problems. Dion, a rocker who had his own drug problems, had found religion as a way to stay clean. Santos found religion to be helpful with his drug addiction.

In the nineties, Santos’s marriage ended and he struggled once again with drug addiction. However, he picked himself up again and never fell down. Today, Santos runs his own ministries. (The Santos Ministries website can be found here.) Santos Ministries is a mobile ministry that tours churches across the US. Like most ministries, it spreads the word of Christ. Unlike most ministries, Santos brings a unique style of music to church: doo-wop gospel music that contains Christian themes. Santos plays percussion, but now he composes the songs and sings them. (An example of Santos’s doo-wop gospel music can be found here.) In addition to finding Christ and staying off drugs, Santos has also kicked his addiction to food. He is a much slimmer person these days.

In this candid conversation, I share Santos’s unique story. We discussed his early days as a successful percussionist, his days with Fandango, his days with Dion, and his remarkable road to recovery. I want to thank Santos for taking the time out to do this interview with me.

Jeff Cramer:   What got you interested in music and playing percussion?

Santos: That started in my neighborhood growing up in New York. I was in a neighborhood in the Bronx in Westchester County just a little outside of New York City. It started in grade school when I joined the drum corps. I started playing parade drums and going to music class, and that quickly escalated to playing Latin percussion.

Once I started with the Latin percussion congas and timbales, that launched me out into a whole realm playing with R&B bands, and it escalated pretty quickly. One of my first jobs was at Carnegie Hall. Usually you work all your life to get to Carnegie Hall, but I start out at Carnegie Hall. [Laughs]. I was on stage with Charlie Earland, who was a pretty well-known jazz artist who played the B-3 organ. We were on the same bill with George Benson and the Jazz Crusaders.

From there, I went on the road playing with Charlie for four or five years. We were playing all the black jazz clubs from here [New York] all the way out to Detroit and St. Louis. I was playing with some pretty good artists. At the same time, I was working as a session player for all types of music. I mainly worked on jazz and a lot of film scores. I worked on a lot of stuff in New York as a union musician. I got to play at some of the best studios, including Electric Ladyland, the studio that Jimi Hendrix launched in Greenwich Village.

JC:  What were some of the jazz sessions or film scores you played on?

S:  Well, there were a lot of avant-garde stuff . . . I’m trying to remember. I have a lot of drug damage over the years [laughing] in my head. So, there’s a lot of stuff I don’t remember. But I remember going in and doing sessions. There was a guy named Sonny Sharrock who died. He was pretty well known. Sonny was a jazz guitarist, but he was a jazz guitarist in his own right, and he was a phenomenal guitarist. Even Jimi Hendrix mentioned Sonny’s playing in an article.

Santos at Electric Ladyland Studios (1974)

We did some stuff for James Baldwin who was a black author. We did a couple of movies for him. I did a lot of commercials over the years and stuff like that.

JC:  How did the gig with Fandango happen?

S:  I forget how it happened—I think it was through my good friend Abe Speller. He is still playing drums today. He had this gig with Fandango, and before I knew it, I was on the road with Fandango. Fandango was a whole another realm and it was great.

Fandango sometime during the late ’70s (Santos is on far right)

JC: Fandango was opening for a lot of big-name artists like Billy Joel and Chicago.

S:  Yeah. It was Billy Joel, Charlie Daniels, Marshall Tucker, Pure Prairie League, New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Allman Brothers . . . we did a lot of southern rock: Wet Willie, Grinderswitch, etc. The list is endless. We were hooked up with a booking agency out of Macon, Georgia: Paradigm. And so Paradigm would put us on the road with all these southern rock bands. It was phenomenal. We had great times on the road opening for these southern rockers.

JC:   From hearing the music, you could see that Fandango, this Jersey band, had a mission to reach the top. You were definitely trying to be another Bon Jovi or Springsteen.

S:  Oh yeah, we had a great sound. We had double lead guitars and two drummers. We were into it. I listen to that stuff now and it still sounds great. [This is a must hear live video of Fandango’s “Headliner” at the Capitol Theatre (1978). It begins with Santos playing an amazing percussion opening before breaking into song. For all the Ritchie Blackmore/Joe Lynn Turner fans reading this interview, you know Turner just sings and doesn’t play any instrument. This is a rare chance to see Turner on lead guitar. Click here to hear it all.]

JC:  Now Joe Lynn Turner has said in interviews that what started to break up Fandango was that the band’s equipment got stolen. That started to really unravel the band.

S:  Oh man, yeah. That was incredible. We used to pack it all in a truck—you know, one of those Ryder moving trucks—and a guy named Kenny Newman would take it on the road. He was our sound guy; he was a hard-working guy. In fact, Kenny Newman is still mixing sound today. He works with Barry Manilow these days.

Kenny and I were driving one night. I used to ride in the truck with him just to keep him company because I liked riding in the truck. We were parked on Lake Short Drive in Chicago and locked it up. We went into the Holiday Inn. When we came out in the morning, the truck was gone with about $90,000 worth of equipment in it.

The band was left without anything—not even a drumstick. We got some temporary equipment and continued the tour, but a few weeks later, the police department in Chicago called me and said, “Hey, we found your name on some cases on the side of the street.” There were my cases on the side of the street with no equipment in it. So, that was all I got back from that—the cases. But I wound up getting better equipment. I lost some priceless percussion from South America that was hard to replace.

JC:  There were other factors to the break up, like Fandango hadn’t quite become a success yet and there were tensions among band members. But in Joe Lynn Turner’s interviews, it seems to imply that the stolen equipment was the final blow for the band.

S:  Yeah, well if you get a hit with something like having your equipment stolen, it can really shake ya or break ya. It started to unravel and everybody in Fandango started to go separate ways. That’s what happens. Even with bands that are successful, they start to split up after a while.

Countless musician friends of mine, from the Rascals on down to other people, have a difference of opinion, and before you know it, you’re all split up.

JC:  As you know, Joe Lynn Turner’s career took off like a rocket when Ritchie Blackmore hired him to front Rainbow and later Deep Purple. Did you ever see Joe again after Fandango?

S:  Did I ever see Joe? Yeah, I’ve seen him one time, I believe. I was passing through Jersey and I went to a house. I got to say, “Hello, how you doing?” and converse for a little bit. I was hoping to see him again. We’re like ships that pass in the night. I get to talk to him once in a while, but I hadn’t really seen him. I hope he’s doing well.

JC:  After Fandango, one of the next people you met was Dion. He was obviously going to be a very influential person in your life.

S:  He’s incredible. In the latter years of Fandango, I started using drugs. The members of Fandango had a little clue. One time when I was on the tour bus, I was in one of the bunks and I started having a seizure—foaming at the mouth, flopping like a fish out of water on the bunk. They knew I kind of had a little of a drug problem. I forget which guy in Fandango suggested to me, “You better get some help, Santos, you’re pretty messed up.”

They didn’t know how messed up I really was. But that was my life. I was on some kind of therapy to try to get me off the heroin. I was on methadone and finally got arrested in New York under Nelson Rockefeller who was the governor at the time. I was facing twenty-five years to life in prison.

JC: For what?

S:  For selling three bags of heroin to undercover detectives. Under the law, Governor Nelson Rockefeller said that if you get caught selling any amount of hard drugs, you’re going away for twenty-five years to life. And he wasn’t playing. I went before a judge on that charge. The judge looked at my rap sheet and realized that I wasn’t a violent offender; I was just dumb. He hit me with a five-year probation sentence and said, “I never want to see you in my courtroom again. Go get some help.”

I left that court, left New York, went down to Miami, Florida, and started playing in the clubs down in Coconut Grove. I worked with different studio musicians, like Miami Sound Machine and Allen Blazek, who produced one of the Fandango albums. Blazek was a session producer at Coconut Grove Studios. I also played with musicians at Criteria Studios, a pretty well-known studio.

While working at the studio in 1981, I got asked to play on a recording session for Dion. I remembered Dion from New York City. He had a reputation for being a drug addict, even in his later years. He had the gold records and was in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but he couldn’t stop using heroin. So when I got hired to play on his session in Coconut Grove, he had a transition where he started doing born-again gospel music.

Dion was doing a session for Word Records and they hired me to come in. I saw Dion and he just looked so peaceful. I said, “Hey, D, how did you get off drugs?” He looked at me and said, “I got born again.” I didn’t know what that was. I thought he was out of his mind.

Dion explained to me how he came to the end of himself and he just reached out and went to a twelve-step support group for help. At that time, they said, “You have to come to know a power greater than yourself.” At that point, he was going to a little Bible study and he professed Christ as his savior. That was a transition for him.

And there he was, explaining this to me. In 1981, I was at the end of my rope. I had ran drugs to the end of the line. I was suicidal. After that session—I guess it was about three weeks later—I tried to commit suicide in Hollywood, Florida. The police found me in my car and they put me in South Florida State Hospital. That was where I hit the bottom. That was where I said, “I’m done. I want what Dion has. What do I gotta do?”

So when I got out of that state hospital, I reached out to Dion and he invited me to a little church service north of Miami. I made a commitment that night to God and to myself that I was going to try a different avenue, and I was going to try the spiritual. And you know what? It really worked for me. At the same time, I was going to twelve-step support groups. That whole wrap-up set me on the course that I am still on today.

Today, I’m a certified drug and alcohol counselor and I get to help so many people. I’m affiliated with a rehab in California and I direct people, especially a lot of musicians that I run into. I tell them, “Hey, there’s a better way. You don’t have to self-destruct.” That was the beginning. That was 1981 when I ran into Dion in that recording session in Miami. That’s what happened, man. It just was the best thing that ever happened to me.

JC:  Right.

S:  Otherwise, I would have died.

JC:  Also, it changed your music direction where you became a doo-wop gospel singer.

S:  Well, after getting clean, I wound up getting married to Dion’s sister. I was on the road with Dion for about twelve years, traveling all over the world as his brother-in-law and as a road manager, and he would bring me up on stage to sing. He kind of influenced me that I could use that old music that everybody loved. I have an interesting story when touring with Dion.

JC:  I’d love to hear it.

S:   It was years ago when I was touring with Dion, and we had to do The Today Show. We showed up at Rockefeller Plaza early in the morning, like 5:30. We went upstairs and did the show. We were coming down around 9:30 in the morning and there were these guys in the lobby. I mean, there was about fifty of ’em. They were wearing thick glasses and pens were sticking in their pockets. Their arms were full of albums with Dion’s picture on it, and they were lined up to get an autograph from Dion. These guys were like geeky record aficionados. That was their whole world. I just wanted to look at ’em and say, “Man, you guys need to get a life.”

They lived for that. It’s just amazing that there’s this culture out there that just lives and breathes that. That’s everything to them. And every artist or personality has those people stalking them and following them. It’s amazing. I didn’t even know there was that side of life.

JC:  What led you into starting Santos Ministries?

S:   Well, like I said, Dion led me to the Lord and I wound up traveling with him. I married his sister. Then twelve years into it, me and his sister got divorced, and instead of running for help and getting help, I went back to drugs. In 1993, I crashed and burned. I wound up overdosing in the Bronx. I was dying of an overdose when the guy I was using with beat me in the chest and got my heart going.

Afterwards, I didn’t know where to turn. I reached out to this little ranch in California called Calvary Ranch. It’s been there for forty-something years. It’s a drug rehab. The pastor who started it was from Jersey City. I went all the way out to California and I started over again in 1995.

Santos singing in his ministries (Santos Ministries)

Since then I’ve gotten better. I’m remarried now. My life has gotten better and now I help people. I haven’t looked back since that time. I learned a valuable lesson about staying plugged in and being accountable, because when you’re out there on your own, you can crash and burn real easy.

Today, I’m still a gospel doo-wop singer. I wound up recording some songs and just going on the road. That’s how the ministry started. My ministry today is all over the country and I’m always running. Today, I go from prisons, to jails, to churches, to nursing homes, and to drug programs all over the country. I drive my own tour bus. It’s a motorhome. It’s called the “Taxi for Jesus.” I’m always on the road singing somewhere. It’s great. I love doing that. [Hear Santos lead a church in a rousing rendition of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” by clicking here.]
JC:   Congratulations for kicking the drugs. I also noticed that you’ve lost a lot of weight. I’ve lost weight too and that’s hard enough, so I can’t imagine what it’s like to quit both food and drugs.

Santos (before and after) losing weight

S:    Food’s the hardest addiction to kick.

JC:   Really?

S:   Well, you can’t abstain with food. With drugs or alcohol, you can just stop using it. With food, you’ve got to use it. I’m on a program called “Take Shape for Life.” I became a health coach and I get to help others. It dovetails right in with the drug and alcohol recovery, which I’m certified as a drug and alcohol counselor. It all works together, and food fits right in there.

I’m on my diet daily because I could gain that weight back in a heartbeat. I have to eat a certain way, and I’ve learned how to discipline myself to eat-to-live, not live-to-eat. That’s what it’s all boiled down to today. I could go hit the neighborhood pizzeria tonight and really backslide, especially if you’re a drug addict or a person who had a problem. It’s the same thing with food. Before you know it, I could be five hundred pounds.

JC:   For me to drop weight, I’d hit two hundred pounds. What got you to drop weight?

S:   What happened to me with the food?

JC:  Yeah, what happened?

S:    I had a heart attack. I realized that I had warning signs over the years, but I just wouldn’t take it seriously. I tried all the diets, the quick fixes. Nothing worked until I decided to make this commitment last year [2015]. A friend of mine called me and said, “Hey, I’m a health coach. You wanna do a program? I lost fifty pounds five years ago and kept it off.” I said, “I’m ready. What do I gotta do?”

He put me on this program and I signed up for Take Shape for Life. They taught me how to eat. With this particular program, they send you the food. I bought my food—it was Medifast—and they have seventy varieties of meal replacements. I do six meals a day. I have five meal replacements and a lean-and-green meal. I’ve been doing that since last year [2015].

And I can travel with it. I don’t have to worry about buying food or counting calories. I follow the program, and when you get to your goal weight, they help you transition to just to eat healthy. Low glycemic, easy on the carbs, etc. Everything is nutritionally balanced on the program with vitamins and everything. They give you a book called The Habit to Health and they teach you how to drink, sleep, eat, and live that whole lifestyle.

It’s a daily thing, and as you do it, you start to feel better and motivated. I’ll tell you that nothing tastes as good as fit feels. That’s my motto today. I even have a website called Inch by Inch. It might help other people. People are constantly asking me, “How do I do it? What do I gotta do?” Some people want to do it and some people don’t want to spend the $12 a day that it costs to buy the food.

But if they’re serious enough and they’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, they come on board. I have a bunch of clients that I work with and coach. I’m a health coach, so I talk to them about making right decisions. That’s how it works.

JC:  So what’s next for the ministries?

S:   I’m going to take a look. I haven’t had time because I’ve been busy. I had surgery. I had bladder cancer last year. I had surgeries done for that. Now, this year, I’m working off the skin cancer. I’ve been in surgery this week.

JC:   Oh my goodness. Well, you have a lot of tremendous energy for having gone through all that.

S:   Yeah, and I still drive my own tour bus now. It’s a motorhome. I’m getting ready to leave for Florida in December. I’ll be down there most of the winter working that whole state and then I go to different parts of the United States. I just came from San Diego, drove across country, stopping in cities along the way. I’m in different venues around here.

Lot of times I’m in Philadelphia. On Kensington Avenue, a friend of mine has a ministry called Rock Ministries. His name is Buddy Osborne. He was in that original Rocky movie and Sylvester Stallone is a good friend to him. He’s working with street kids from Kensington. You ought to see that place. He uses boxing to transform these kids’ lives. It’s incredible.

 I’m always trying to pump hope into people, especially these days when people are just having their cages rattled by so many things. It’s a cool thing to have a solid faith in God, especially in the Christian faith. There’s an old hymn called “Rock of Ages.” What that hymn talks about is that God is a rock. God is a rock and you can put your faith in Him.

God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. That never changes, and that was something that I needed. I needed that kind of anchor to hold me in place when the wind is blowing and all of this stuff goes on around you. My center point is my relationship with God, and that’s what Dion passed on to me. And here I am doing that today.

A couple weeks ago, I was at a church in Colorado. I was with my good friend rock legend Richie Furay. Richie’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

JC:  Oh, really? How do you know Richie, and how did you come into contact with Richie recently?

S:  Yeah, Richie was with a band called Poco, and Fandango used to tour with Poco. Before Richie was with Poco, he was with Buffalo Springfield. Because Richie was in Buffalo Springfield, he’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Today, Richie pastors at the Calvary Chapel of Broomfield, Colorado. But Richie’s still singing too. That’s the cool thing.

Richie does the same thing as I do—we help people, especially musicians, because you know they’re trying to get their success and they’re willing to go to any length. When you be the right person, you get the right person. You may want that career, but first you gotta take care of yourself.

Make sure that you’re not going to be blowing all over the place, especially in the entertainment business. So many people crash and burn. I mean, the list is endless: Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson, etc. They get in the spotlight and they burn up. They’re like shooting stars. I don’t wanna do that anymore. I just want to be a blessing.

Today I’ve come full circle. I’m doing my music. I love what I do. I love being a positive influence to so many people around me. But I have to have that grounding in my own life.

Santos doing a sound check before performing at church

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