Settling In With Leon Patillo
Embracing his new-found faith in Jesus Christ, Leon Patillo left the stardom of the popular funkrock band, Santana, way behind. Pursuing the Lord with the steam and drive of a locomotive, Leon found his salvation experience to be the most important step he had ever taken.
That was eight years ago and Leon is still in hot pursuit of the Lord. Perhaps it was because of his somewhat unusual conversion that Leon believes the main focus of his ministry is salvation.
He was raised in the church , or rather churches. His mother was Baptist and his father was Methodist and young Leon alternated Sundays in each church. The Methodist church was very small, but gave him the personal attention his developing talent needed. The Baptist church was huge, but taught the Word extensively. When the Patillos realized they had to make a stand in church together as a family, they began attending the small Methodist church.
As Leon grew up, church became just a social hall where he met pretty girls in the choir he directed. But he did learn a great deal of Scripture, including one verse which he especially remembers, Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.”
During my teenage years, I knew that if the Lord came, I only hoped to go to Heaven, but I didn’t have any confidence at that time,” says Leon.
“When I left the church and went to Hollywood it seemed like when I got involved in the industry, I always tried to write songs that would be helpful to people. Anyhow, my mind and my talent was too molded and shaped by the church to even want to do that in the secular industry. It seemed like every time I would write a song, Scripture would pop up. I didn’t know where it would come from, but I’d be writing a song and in the middle of the song, a great, big, long line of Scripture would come out.”
Leon joined the already successful Santana in 1973 and a year later was confronted with the Word via the brother of a girl he was dating at the time. For eight months, Leon and this brother would go all around the Scriptures, until Leon finally consented to going to a Bible study one night.
When I went to the Bible study with him, the people who were there and the lady who was giving the Bible study were constantly showering me with Scripture,” Leon recalls. “I just couldn’t get away from it. When I left the meeting and got back to the driveway it was pretty obvious that the Lord had spoken to me and that he was trying to tell me something.
“Those words were going straight through, like somebody taking darts and aiming them at my heart, piercing me in the right area. And at the same time, they were popping the bubbles and inflationary things that were built up in my heart. Those little darts of God’s were popping each one of them and all of this stuff was just oozing out, and puffed up me was just no more.”
Giving his life to the Lord that night, Leon went directly into his house and wrote the song, “We Must Believe,” which he later recorded on his second ccm album, Don’t Give In. He then started writing songs with more Scripture in everything he was a part of. Scripture songs and Scripture scourges became Leon’s testimony to Santana.
“When I went on tour will all these people that we traveled with,” says Leon, “I’d let everybody know that they had to get saved and stop trippin’. Boy, I had my sword out, and my shield of faith blazing before me. People would come up and say anything to me and if it were all wrong, I’d just block it off. I’d take out my sword and quote, ‘Jesus said,’ and then I’d stick them with it.
“As time went on I realized that I wasn’t getting any converts. I was just leaving bodies behind. I’d look back and everybody would be cut up with the Scriptures. They’d have Scriptures scrawled across their faces. And now I’ve got to go back and clean up and wipe off some of those bandages and put them in the right perspective.”
During this same time Leon came to the end of another one of his life’s searches. Driving down the street one day he saw her - the one. Leon turned his car around and followed her to a stoplight where he introduced himself. Her name was Jackie, and Leon talked her into going to a recording session with him. From their first date, Leon knew she was going to be his wife, and when he proposed that same night, Jackie laughed. But Leon was “serious as a heart attack.”
“I knew the first thing I should do was deal with the salvation aspect, because I couldn’t have an unsaved wife. So I started coming over every day and praying with her and reading the Scriptures to her,” Leon remembers.
Most of Leon’s friends in the band warned him not to tell her about Jesus for fear he’d blow it. But Leon told them he knew that if it was meant to be, it wouldn’t matter. Jackie was surprisingly receptive to his witnessing to her. She knew she needed something in her life.
“I wasn’t entirely convinced it was the Lord,” recalls Jackie, “but things weren’t going like I had always thought they would go when you grew up and got out on your own. I had a secret in the back of my mind of what I wanted in order to happy with a man, and it seemed like all of a sudden those things were happening and only God could’ve known those things. He was a new Christian and he was into the Bible and he loved the Lord and he had had an experience. There was no doubt about that. It wasn’t just something someone had told him, or he had read out of a book. Something had happened to him, and it was real.”
It was only about two weeks until Jackie also found herself at the foot of the cross. Within that year, Leon and Jackie were married and began struggling through the dichotomy of the rock ‘n’ roll life versus the Christian’s walk.
Leon was the lead singer for Santana for a total of three-and-a-half years. For most of his Santana days, Leon confesses that he as just “working” and using his spare time to minister to those he came in contact with. But as he matured in the Lord, he began to realized that the band was going one direction and he was headed another. And then Carlos Santana asked him to leave.
“I think I fulfilled my usefulness in the Santana group,” says Leon, “meaning the people I had a chance to be around, like Eric Clapton; Peter Frampton; Earth, Wind and Fire and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. I had an opportunity to do or to say things for the Lord in that environment, but after I got to a certain point, it just seemed like that was it. It was like the Lord had finished using me and he was going to move me on to another realm.
When I was later approached to continue with the group,” Leon continues, “I told them that I had to follow the doors that the Lord had opened.”
Leon’s hunger to get out from under the direction the band was going led him to pursue the Lord’s paths. He wanted to find an area in which he could be more useful in the ministry. At that him he didn’t even know contemporary Christian music existed, but he knew the Lord gave him the talent for a reason.
He thought he was going to be one of the pioneers of a new way to communicate the Love of God to young people. When he was offered the chance to play at the Warehouse in Sacramento, Calif., he gratefully accepted it, but was shocked that so many Christians were gathered in one place to listen to Christian music. And then he began seeking the Lord about making an album.
“I wanted to do an album after I got out of Santana,” Leon admits. “That was really one of the most impressing things on my heart. I wanted it to under the anointing of God. I didn’t want to do just another album….I prayed and said, ‘Lord, You’ve got to tell me what I’m supposed to do. The way I’m going to show You how serious I am about wanting to follow Your will, I’m not going to eat. I’m going to fast and I’m not going to come out of this fast until I’ve really got a clear answer.’
“So on the third day of my fast, I was praying, and it was almost audible, the words I heard. He said before I could do an album, I had to go through a study program, Genesis to Revelation. And I would be ready when I got out. I couldn’t do any records, secular or otherwise, and I was getting calls from people in L.A. to come down and do projects with them.”
What would ordinarily have taken Leon three years of regular study took him only half the time. He was in the Word every waking moment of the day. When he and Jackie had to go into town for something, Leon would take his Bible and read while Jackie drove on the way. In order to be fair to his family, Leon would drive home.
Shortly after Leon finished the study course, he and Jackie were invited to tour the Holy Land with Pastor Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa, Calif. During the tour, the Calvary Chapel delegation was scheduled to meet with Israel’s president Menachem Begin and Leon was slated to sing at the meeting.
“It was really a phenomenal experience,” says Leon. “That was kind of like the celebration of the end of my reading, because I had just finished about two weeks before, but I hadn’t been ordained yet. It was scary because I knew the Scriptures were very specific in the way that the Lord was going to be coming back….I said, ‘Hey, I’m tampering with history here, what if Begin gets saved, and everybody gets saved? What’s going to happen then? I was really frightened. I didn’t know how to approach this thing. I didn’t know if I was supposed to be a “real Christian” or if I was to just hang back and just be a witness, or what. I really was confused at the time at that time. I didn’t know if I was supposed to sing. I sang anyway – I sang my heart out.”
Returning home, he was later ordained into the ministry by Pastor Chuck Smith at Calvary Chapel. Although he doesn’t envision himself as a pastor, like David, he knows he is a man after God’s own heart.
And also like David, Leon often feels pursued by the enemy. His enemy is not the government, his son, or specifically a personification of the devil, but rather his successes – his talent.
“I get the feeling sometimes like someone is chasing me and trying to bump me off,” Leon confesses. “I have fear of being pursued by the things that are successes. Like the music industry, for instance – the secular music industry. There’s always the fear that I’m going to allow the influence from the secular industry to take away my desire for ministry for the Lord….I’m always on my knees saying, ‘Lord, please deliver me from my enemy.’ I know that these particular things chasing me are enemies, because God has chosen me to do a specific thing.”
Many of Leon’s successes are also in the Christian industry. He’s enjoyed sold-out concerts five nights in a row, from one end of the country to another. His dynamic performance, stage presence and ministering spirit have touched young hearts and old hearts alike. A Leon Patillo concert often results in the audience jumping out of their seats and singing and clapping and praising the Lord for more than half the concert. And those successes often pursue him.
If we do very many of the big gigs in a row,” says Leon, “it’s hard for us to go into the small towns and stay in one of those little funky hotels they have. A lot of times they have hotels that are really the dumps. At the same time they have don’t have the type of restaurants that we like to eat at. See, since we’re on the road, wherever we stay becomes our home, and wherever we eat is our kitchen. But fortunately we do all these concerts in order to keep our ministry humble.”
Knowing the temptation to just entertain people, Leon strives to bring as much of the Word into his concerts as possible. He spends about 25 minutes to tell people about the Lord, and has, surprisingly enough, been asked by some promoters not to preach.
“The only reason I’ve such a clarity on that is because I know when Paul talked about us going into battle, that unless the trumpet sounded clear, people are not going to know what to do,” Leon explains. “And sometimes they get so into the music and the art form that they forget what the words are saying. So I have to have a time where I just shut down the music and purely speak.”
But when Leon is not on the road, he shares a rather humble life with his family in the lush green hills of a small California community, inland of Santa Cruz. Their rural lifestyle might surprise many longtime Patillo followers who’ve watched Leon leave the glamour of Santana, Hollywood, and secular superstardom. Their redwood home, unpaved access road, and water well are features they’d never imagined when growing up in San Francisco. But now, that’s the only way Leon and Jackie would have it.
More than just Leon’s wife, Jackie is also his road manager, booking coordinator (she works very closely with Leon’s Nashville-based booking and management agency), sound and lighting coordinator, as well as mother and traveling nurse for their six-month-old son, Gabriel. While Leon studies and plunks around in his studio located about 500-feet from the main house, Jackie organizes tours, publicity and general P.R. from her in-home office.
The Patillos believe that the family unit is an important element in the success of a ministry. Until Gabriel came along, it was just Leon and Jackie from town to town, but now the three of them travel as a team more tightly knit than when Leon toured with Santana.
“We really have a burden for couples,” says Jackie. “We really want to be an encouragement to them. There are so many the Lord has brought our way that are really not making it. You can imagine how it is for other Christian artists who don’t travel with their wives. We’re hoping that our lives are witness to them that they can do it, not that it’s right for every couple. We really prayed when we first got into this as to how we could work this together, and what part the Lord had for both of us. It’s really been a blessing because He’s fulfilled us both. I don’t think God will call a husband without calling his wife.”
With the recent addition of Gabriel, the Patillos have had to adjust their lifestyle to include him in all their plans. At his early age, Gabriel’s already been across the United States and Europe, a plan Leon and Jackie hope to continue throughout his childhood. Although Gabriel was a complete surprise from God in the sense that he was not planned, both Jackie and Leon admit he is the greatest blessing they’ve ever received. Embracing Gabriel with all the love and joy Abraham and Sarah must have had for Isaac, Leon and Jackie agree that the Patillo family table would not be complete without him.
A CCM Selected Leon Patillo Discography
Dance Children Dance, Marantha! MM0049, ’79
Don’t Give In, Myrrh MSB-6662, ’81
I’ll Never Stop Loving You, Myrrh MSB-6711, ’82
Earlier, Leon recorded albums with Creation (Atco) and Santana (Columbia).