Growing up in St. Louis with an older sister and brother, Ricky Baker had access to all the latest record albums. His sister collected records and his brother sang in a doo-wop band.
He listened to Miles Davis, Earth, Wind and Fire and other groups. But when he heard Santana, the music “grabbed me,” said Baker, leader of Rico, a Santana tribute band performing Jan. 19 in Round Lake Beach.
“I remember this African drum sound and this melodic, haunting guitar,” said Baker. He plays lead guitar and sings with Santana-influenced instrumentalists who play bass, conga drum, timbales and electronic keyboard.
During high school, a friend gave him a guitar. “I was immersed in the guitar night and day,” he said. A guitarist and drummer mentored him, he said, and soon he started the first Rico band performing covers of Santana, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull, among others.
The band was starting to hit its stride when Baker, an athlete in high school, got called to join the Cleveland Indians in minor league baseball.
“I wanted to pursue this while I was young,” he said, adding he also hoped to get a college degree.
He played with the Indians and the Chicago Cubs, ending up in AAA his sixth year. Then he went back to college and his music.
He earned a degree in physical education, taught at Oak Park and River Forest High School, and began performing again.
“I would teach and then I would go to my gigs. I did this for a number of years,” Baker said.
In the early 1990s, he said he “reconstructed Rico” in the Chicago area after finding a great conga player. The group not only has done covers, but also released three albums of original music, he said.
“The whole thing was to play any thing that really moves us — a lot of that was Santana,” he said. “Our sound is from our influences. Our sound is between the guitar and the rhythms. It can be any kind of music — reggae, for example — and we’ll always have the meat and potatoes — the guitar and the rhythm. You hear that on all of our original music like you’d hear it on Santana.”
In Round Lake Beach, the tribute to Santana will include music from the group’s beginnings, including when it performed in Woodstock.
“We’re able to play all of it,” Baker said, “because of the high talent level of the musicians.”
Santana’s music is everlasting, he said. “Some music sounds dated. This music is forever. It’s because they didn’t get into one particular thing,” and followed their own voice, he said.
Rico performs to a wide range of Santana fans — some who know every tune from the early days until now and others who know the group by the later song, “Smooth.”
“They appreciate us doing some stuff nobody else is doing,” Baker said, for example, “Song of the Wind,” which was on Santana’s first album.
The audience will hear “Soul Sacrifice,” which Santana performed in 1969 in Woodstock and “Jingo” off Santana’s first album, “Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va” from the second album and “Everybody’s Everything,” from the third album, as well as some of the group’s latest hits.
Many bands perform Santana tribute music, Baker said. But the best are those who are truly passionate about the music, he said. “I’m so connected to the music that I can hear conversations between guitar lines.
“You really have to be immersed in the phrasing and all of that — the voicing, the tone, you have to have all those elements together, including that the guitar is like a lead vocalist. If you’re not playing those notes right, the real Santana people aren’t going to like it. You need quality musicians throughout the band.”
Performing for more than 25 years, Rico headlines summer festivals and performs at indoor venues in winter, he said.
The group has played at House of Blues in Chicago, and in Grant Park during A Taste of Chicago where Baker met Carlos Santana. He recalled Santana saying, “We gotta jam together.”
He never did get the chance, Baker said, “But it was great to get the invitation.”
Baker said he told Santana he was the reason he started learning guitar.
For Baker, the best is yet to be seen. “We consider ourselves a young Santana,” and they’d like to start performing in Europe and South America.
“The music we play is uplifting,” he said. “Our goal is to bring everyone together and spread this positive vibration and hopefully inspire people to be better people to one another. For us to play and have them escape from everyday doldrums in life, is a beginning.
“From there, hopefully those vibrations they heard, some of the things we have to say will subconsciously and consciously awaken them to be a better human being.”
Rico: A Santana Tribute
Time: 8 p.m. Jan. 19
Location: Round Lake Beach Cultural and Civic Center, 2007 N. Civic Center Way, Round Lake Beach
Information: 847-201-9032; rlbciviccenter.com
Sheryl DeVore is a freelance reporter for the News-Sun.