Life After Santana
Leon Patillo:Pushing the Limit

by Devlin Donaldson

NBC’s much-lauded public awareness spots remind us time and time again that "The More You Know," the better off you’ll be.

Leon Patillo must agree.

A popular Christian artist in the ‘80s, Patillo’s musical career was inspired by a pre-school teacher. "When I was 4 years old, I had a teacher named Miss Hughes," says Patillo. "She believed every kid had a special gift. She would put different things in front of each kid until she found something that interested them or they had abilities with. One day she sat down at the piano and started playing. I was sitting beside her. My hands started doing what her hands did. I thought what she was doing was the coolest thing."

Encouraged by the words of a teacher who believed in their son’s potential, Leon’s parents soon enrolled the young talent in piano lessons. "I started taking lessons from a German piano teacher named Miss Johnson. My parents really made me practice. I remember sitting at the piano in the big bay window of my house hating it because all the other kids were outside playing football. But soon they were coming in, listening to me, telling me what a special gift I had."

By the time Patillo was 14, his mother’s church asked him to help with the choir, a responsibility he enjoyed until age 18. He then started the VIPs, a musical group that kept busy performing at a variety of dances around San Francisco.

"Then I moved to L.A. and got hooked up with a guy named Richard Perry who produced lots of groups and worked with the Pointer Sisters," continues Patillo. "He got me singing background and doing arrangements with Martha & the Vandellas, the Pointer Sisters and Funkadelic, among others."

Then fate intervened in Patillo’s life. "A guy I knew in San Francisco asked me to help him with a record, but he only had about five songs. So I gave him about four or five of my songs and sang them on the tape."

The friend took the tape to Latin rock legend Carlos Santana in an attempt to sell the songs.

"Santana told him he wasn’t interested in the songs but loved the singer," says Patillo. "To make a long story short, we got hooked up and I joined the band Santana in 1973. I recorded three albums including Borboletta (1974), Festival (1976) and Moonflower (1977). Two turned gold and one platinum."

In 1974, life threw Patillo a curve ball when he attended a Bible study with the brother of a girlfriend. That night’s conversation convinced Leon of his need for God. "I became a Christian in 1974, the very night of that Bible study."

By 1978, Patillo’s conflicts with Santana about the spiritual content of his lyrics were too much, and he left the band. In 1979, Leon released his first Christian album, Dance Children Dance. Over the next decade Patillo released nine albums including Don’t Give In (1981), Live Experience (1983), The Sky’s the Limit (1984) and Love Around the World (1985). Those albums included such hits as "Dance Children Dance," Star of the Morning," "Cornerstone," "The Sky’s the Limit," "J.E.S.U.S." and the popular wedding song "Flesh of My Flesh."

"Looking back," reflects Patillo, "the one that stands out after all this time is The Sky’s the Limit. I was doing a lot of ministry on the road, and the low self-esteem that I found people suffered with was overwhelming. So when I got to the studio, these songs just came rushing out. I really love that record.

"My final record was Love Around the World," Patillo recalls. "That’s when I toured with the all-girl band. It really split my audience. About 60 percent really liked it, and 40 percent hated it. I had been doing about 150 dates a year, and I just got burned out by the end of that tour, so I took a sabbatical. During that time I went through a divorce. Then in 1993, I started working in TV on TBN with a show called ‘Leon and Friends.’ Now I understand the things I did wrong during that time. For years, ministry came first. I hadn’t put my family or my health first.

"I did an album called The Classics last year re-recording all my big hits on my own label, Positive Pop Records. I updated them, giving them a bit more of a ‘90’s sound and re-singing the vocals. I am working right now on a new album for release in August or September. I think it will be really good."

Today Patillo sounds like a happy-go-lucky artist fans remember from the ‘80s, a man with big dreams for the future. "I am working on some projects in Hollywood now. I think the movies are the one area that we as Christians have not broken through in. Amy (Grant), BeBe & CeCe and Take 6 have made their mark in music, but we need to get something happening on the big screen."

Reprinted by permission, CCM Magazine.