From Watsonville to the world and back Andy Vargas, lead singer of Santana, comes home to launch his own band

By Mac McDonald

Andy Vargas, the lead vocalist for one of the most popular and enduring rock bands in the world, was 7 years old when his musical journey was launched from a stage in front of a boisterous Santa Cruz County Fair audience.

His father Javier is bandleader of Mariachi California De Javier Vargas, and he coaxed young Andy to the stage and got him to sing solo. “It was a challenge,” Andy Vargas said, laughing at the memory during a recent interview. “I just wanted to play with the other kids.”

Vargas, born and raised in Watsonville, said his father remains his inspiration and his mentor, but Carlos Santana is his musical high priest. Vargas has been the lead singer for the superstar’s band for almost 20 years, touring the planet and singing Santana tunes in arenas filled with adoring fans.

Vargas is launching his own band, recording and performing as Andy Vargas & Souleros — with a show scheduled for May 9, in Santa Cruz. And he is busy organizing and fundraising for his Andy Vargas Foundation, which takes at-risk youth and puts them on the right path by educating them through music and engaging them with mentors.

Earning his chops on local stages, young Andy turned out to be a pretty good singer. At the age of 15, his mother got him a meeting with renowned music producer Terry Melcher, who was the son of Doris Day but is better known for producing records by the Byrds, Paul Revere & The Raiders and the Beach Boys, and with Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys. Melcher and Johnston signed the youngster to a production and management contract and eventually got him a recording contract with RCA/BMG. Vargas also moved to the Los Angeles area in 1997 to be closer to the hub of the music industry.

As luck would have it, Vargas’ manager at the time, legendary record producer and music executive Lou Adler, one of the co-founders of the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, got the singer an audition in 1999 with Santana. Not only was Santana coming off induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the time, but he was also riding the tide of his biggest album ever, the multi-platinum “Supernatural,” and its monster hit “Smooth.” Billboard ranks “Smooth” as the second-most successful song of all time.

“I had to learn the new album,” Vargas said. “In fact, to this day I haven’t learned all the Santana songs there are. There are so many of them.” And the catalog just keeps growing. “I was telling Carlos, you’re always pulling one out of your hat, and releasing new music all the time.”

Almost 20 years later, Vargas said he still marvels at his good fortune.

“I learned something then that I keep with me, you know, I’m just going to do my best,” he says. “That’s all I can do. If it happens great, if it doesn’t happen, great. I got to meet the band, meet Carlos. He asked me to tour and three days into the tour, he said ‘You’re in, I want you here.’ So, 20 years later, here we are. It’s gone by so fast. I’ve had so many awakenings where I just say, ‘Is this really happening?’ So I try to live in the present moment and appreciate the day as is.”

Andy Vargas on stage with Souleros. | Provided photo

Even after traveling the world for 20 years and playing to literally millions of fans, Vargas says he still feels like the small-town boy from Watsonville, which he visits often and which keeps him grounded.

“It gave me my foundation as to who I am, my pride at being from the city of Watsonville. It never left me.” he says. “Moving to another city, that’s sticks with you, your values, your experiences, your friends, your schooling, your mentors, your trainers, the love of the people who really know you. That’s what the community of Watsonville has, that connection to me. I’ll always have that embedded in my DNA.”

Vargas says that when he’s “home,” meaning the United States, he’s either in Las Vegas, where Santana has a residency; in Los Angeles, where he lives; or Watsonville, his hometown. He has three children, a son who graduated from Palma High School and who now lives in Pensacola, Fla.; daughter Alessandra, 5; and son Nico, 2, both of whom live with him.

Javier Vargas, Andy’s father, who still lives in Watsonville and continues to perform with his mariachi band, was his first mentor, but Andy counts Santana as his musical guiding light.

“Carlos is definitely my music mentor, my godfather in music,” says Vargas. “I learn from him every day. Something new. We help each other musically. I pray to be able to continue learning from him as long as I can.”

If there’s one lesson he’s learned from Santana, it’s what could be described as “musical mindfulness.” After some thought, he describes the mindfulness: “To also listen to the spaces between the notes, as well as listening to the music. There’s music playing between, in the space, you know. It’s also knowing the respect of the musician and the respect of their parts, when to step in, when to step out and when you bring it, bring it all, as if it’s your last time.”

As his father and Santana mentored him, Vargas is also committed to being a mentor himself. The Andy Vargas Foundation started as a pilot program in San Bernardino and Vargas hopes to expand it to other local communities as well as Northern California, with his dad spearheading the effort.

“I love to mentor youth,” he says, “and I brought forth everything it is that I do, everything I did in Watsonville, in my room, music gear that I had at the time, to write songs and make music, all that inspiration. I wanted to share that inspiration with kids at a young age, to get them inspired about something and get them started on a track, whether they want to continue in music or not. I wanted to utilize what it is I know, what I do, and share that. We wanted to turn on a lightbulb. You’ve gotta start somewhere, you know.”

He said he hopes to gather all the students’ efforts into an album and release it later this year. In the meantime, the debut album of his band, Andy Vargas & Souleros, is expected in August. It will feature a guest appearance by Carlos Santana on a new version of the classic Latin tune “Oye Como Va.”

Andy Vargas & Souleros has already released the fiery Latin soul single “The Beat” in both English and Spanish, as well as a genre-blending video of the classic bolero “Sabor A Mi.

Vargas describes Souleros as a fusion of classic soul and traditional Latin styles, especially bolero, into what he calls “New Chicano Soul.”

Vargas will showcase songs from that solo album on May 9, at The Atrium at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, something that he says he’s looking forward to.

“I’m very excited about it,” he says about the show virtually in his hometown backyard. “It will be my first performance in the area and we’re trying to get as many people out there as we can.”

Knowing his deep connections with Watsonville, Vargas should have no problem filling the room.

Oh, and just to add more to his to-do list, Santana is embarking on a worldwide tour this summer in celebration of 50 years of Santana’s music, the 50th anniversary of his Woodstock performance, as well as the 20-year anniversary of the “Supernatural” album.

And, Vargas might add, his 20th anniversary singing with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. The journey continues.

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Mac MacDonald

About Mac MacDonald

Mac McDonald is a long-time Monterey County entertainment journalist. He was a music columnist and editor for the Monterey County Herald and also managing editor for the Carmel Pine Cone.