Tony Lindsay is inextricably linked to Santana, and not just because he spent about a quarter century as the band’s lead vocalist. He was at the center of the action two decades ago when the multiplatinum album Supernatural catapulted Carlos Santana from Woodstock icon back into pop music’s top ranks. It’s the kind of career-defining success that could indelibly pigeonhole some artists, but Lindsay came to Santana with roots far too deep and extensive to be severed by the pop charts.
A soul singer with a big, warm, flexible voice, he can evoke the soaring cadences of Stevie Wonder, the sleek funk of Prince, or the romantic balladry of Teddy Pendergrass. Growing up in Kingston, N.Y. in the early 60s, Lindsay started performing at the age of eight, leading a doowop combo called Four of a Kind even though he was the youngest kid in the group. He’s absorbed just about every pre-hip hop idiom in African-American popular music, and he’s still got surprises up his sleeve.
“I grew up listening to groups like The Temptations, The Miracles, and Curtis Mayfield,” says Lindsay, a longtime resident of San Mateo. “Donny Hathaway was my number one favorite, but there was Lou Rawls, Billy Paul, Joe Williams and Teddy Pendergrass, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan too. I took a little piece of all of those people and created my own sound.”
He released a solo album last December featuring that’s yielded several singles topping the indie-soul chart in the U.K., a particular point of pride because the tunes are originals. But his latest project is Pacific Standard Time, an album by saxophonist Michael O’Neill’s quintet designed to showcase Lindsay interpreting American Songbook standards. It’s a winning combination, with the veteran soulman soaring through beautifully wrought arrangements of gems such as “Just Friends” (set to a headlong 6/8 groove) Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia” (dripping with molasses) and Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn’s “It’s You or No One” (a ballad performance par excellence).
Featuring trumpeter and Electric Squeezebox Orchestra leader Erik Jekabson, Ratatet drummer Alan Hall, ace pianist John R. Burr, and bassist/engineer Dan Feiszli (who co-produced and recorded the album), O’Neill’s band and Lindsay are celebrating the release of Pacific Standard Time with a series of gigs around the region, including Dec. 1 at Oakland’s Piedmont Piano, Dec. 20 at Oakland’s Sound Room, and Feb. 4 at Yoshi’s.
O’Neill has carved out a distinctive niche in the Bay Area scene by regularly collaborating with the region’s top vocalists, including Tiffany Austin, Denise Perrier, Clairdee, and the incomparable Kenny Washington, who’s featured on three previous albums by the saxophonist’s working band. He traces his involvement with singers back to 1980, when he returned to the Bay Area after grad school and formed the group Indigo Blue with Patti Cathcart. She went on to fame with her guitarist/husband Tuck Andress, while O’Neill took up with a very different but equally accomplished singer, Madeline Eastman.
But it wasn’t until the turn of the century that O’Neill started forging an extensive network of vocal talent booking restaurants and hotels on the Peninsula, like his current run at Cetrella. “It was kind of cool for me, not being real outgoing or a great frontman, I was kind of like a sideman with my own groups,” O’Neill says. “I’d give my two bits every once in a while, but mostly let them be the front person.”
O’Neill first worked Lindsay in the early Aughts when Nicolas Bearde recommended him as a Cetrella sub. Duly impressed, O’Neill started booking him regularly and they’ve been working together ever since between Lindsay’s tours with Santana. Moving from a percussion-powered rock juggernaut in an arena to an unplugged combo in an intimate venue requires a good deal of flexibility.
“I adjust to every situation,” Lindsay says. “That Santana band had a ton of sound coming off that stage. You set your feet and when you hit those notes they come from your toes. With the jazz thing there’s a lot more control, and not so much sound coming at you. You can play with melodies and riff and rhythms. That’s why I continue to perform in clubs all the time. Some singers get stuck in one way of doing things. Don’t box yourself into a corner so you’re one-dimensional.”
It wasn’t ambition that brought Lindsay to the Bay Area as much as sunshine. After attending college in Albany, he worked on the upstate New York R&B circuit for several years, but the bitter winters persuaded him to follow a former bandmate out to the South Bay in 1980. Living in San Jose he worked a series of day jobs while paying dues and getting to know the local scene, making the rounds at clubs like Bourbon Street, Smokey Mountain and Lord John’s, checking out the bands and sitting in.
He got his first break when he joined saxophonist Danny Hull’s R&B/jazz combo, a popular act that evolved into the nightclub staple Spang-A-Lang (with whom he still occasionally performs). The great organist Chester Thompson, who joined Santana after years with Tower of Power, was a big fan of the group, and tipped Lindsay off that Santana was on the lookout for a new singer.
At the time, Lindsay was trying to get a record deal down in Los Angeles, so he missed several opportunities to audition. But when Santana’s manager called once more and said that his boss still hadn’t found the right singer, Lindsay made a date to come by Santana’s home in San Rafael after finishing up a recording session three blocks away with Narada Michael Walden, a regular employer.
“I went to the audition, just myself, Carlos and Chester, and we did ‘Black Magic Woman,’ another tune and a blues,” Lindsay recalls. “But half way through the blues, Carlos stopped and said, ‘That’s cool man, I don’t need to hear anymore.’ I didn’t know what to think.”
Later that day Lindsay got the call that the gig was his if he wanted it. While he flourished in Santana, the band only required part of his vocal arsenal. O’Neill has played a key role in unleashing his full glorious range. When it comes to balladry, Lindsay’s imploring tone transforms beautifully crafted old pop tunes into searing soul revelations.
“I like doing the ballads real slow, songs like ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is,'” Lindsay says. “You’ve got to take your time. There’s a lyric there, you have to paint the picture and hit that melody solid. The drummer has to be able to hold the groove down. If you can’t play a ballad I’m not going to hire you. Anyone can play a fast song. But do you know how to lay back and let me take my time, change the syncopation when I do?”
With Michael O’Neill, Lindsay has found a bandleader who knows how to make the most of his gifts. Pacific Standard Time is the work of a singer who thrives in the inviting currents where jazz, soul and R&B flow into one mighty stream.