Richie Sambora suspected that Bon Jovi would get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when he saw that they absolutely dominated in the fan vote, but he didn’t know for sure until his longtime buddy Steve Van Zandt called him up at 2 a.m. to deliver the news. “He was like, ‘You’re in!'” says Sambora. “I was like, ‘Awww!'” We phoned up Sambora on his Hawaiian vacation later that day to hear his thoughts on the honor, his upcoming solo EP with partner Orianthi and the possibility of an onstage reunion with Bon Jovi at the induction ceremony. Listen to clips of the interview – plus chats with Moody Blues’ Justin Hayward and more about the future of the Hall of Fame – in the latest episode of our ‘Rolling Stone Music Now’ podcast.
How did you hear you were in?
This has been in the wind for a while. And then the fans started ponying up like crazy. That’s what we do this business for anyway. I’ve said this often: You can put on a show and if the fans don’t show up, it’s not a show, is it? The fans are just as important as we are, really. It’s nice to know that you wrote some songs that really connect with people that they can take with them. What am I listening to? Otis Redding and the Staple Singers. Those songs affected me back in my life and now in this digital age you can reconnect with that and younger people can connect with these artists that are legacy artists. I’m not calling myself that yet, though!
What was your reaction when you heard it was definite?
Just gratitude, I guess. And going, “Hey, I’m in the queue with Bob Dylan, Mick and Keith and Clapton, all my heroes and all the guys I grew up trying to emulate.” They are my heroes and my teachers. To be in that line is kind of surreal. I don’t know if I believe it yet. It’s that kind of an honor. It’s almost not the institution itself; it’s the pedigree of how people got there. To be a part of that whole movement and whole energy as things move forward is just tremendous. I have a lot of thanks for that.
Why do you think it took so long?
I don’t know! I wasn’t really paying attention. Honestly, I wasn’t obsessed with it or anything like that. I didn’t know when it was going to happen. I said, “Hopefully I’ll be alive.” A lot of people don’t get in until they pass. The Songwriters Hall of Fame means a lot to me. I believe it’s the foundation of our business, writing songs that connect with humanity and people all over. We happen to do that well. I ended up inducting Willie Dixon into the Songwriters Hall of Fame a few years back and he’d been dead for 40 years. He wrote all those amazing songs and I hope to be around to experience and enjoy the accolades or whatever you want to call them.
I think a lot of old-school rock critics didn’t like the band and that kept you guys out.
Once again, my task was to do the best I could with the situation I was in. Look, I’m way happier doing what I’m doing now. Being in a band isn’t the easiest thing to do in the world, especially when you’re out there for 18-and-a-half months at a clip and life changes when you come back home. People are different. People get divorced. Life’s tragedies happen to everybody. And life’s joys also. You’re out there performing as an entertainer. I always saw myself as a songwriting, entertaining motherfucker! That’s my job. I love it. I’m in Hawaii right now with my family. I’ve been here for three days and I already wrote two songs. I’m working with Orianthi right now. Our next EP is dropping on Friday. It’s been fabulous and been received pretty well. I’m very proud of the music we’ve made, working with our good friend Bob Rock, who is an amazing producer and we’ve sold 70 million records together, something like that.
Do you think the band is going to reunite and perform at the ceremony?
I would imagine so. Nobody has called me yet or anything like that, but I would imagine that would be the protocol. Don’t you? I would think so. Of course, I’d be obliged.
Do you think Alec John Such will show up?
I hope so! Yeah, man. I hope so. He was my roommate, man. He was my guy. We lost contact with him a little while ago. He was always a ghost, man. He was always one of those cats that was a mystery. That was his trip and he held that mystique very, very well. He was the Keith Richards of our band. He’s a cool, straight-up individual and I hope we get ahold of him somehow.
When was the last time you spoke to him?
It was a long time ago. We were playing a show and he showed up and came onstage and jam.
That was 2001.
A long, long time ago. And then the cat just disappeared. He’s like a black cat, man. A black cat!
Do you think that Hugh McDonald should be inducted also?
Yeah. He’s an essential part of this band. He’s amazing and a dear, dear friend of mine. I met Hugh long before I met Jon. I was doing sessions and gigs and we’d just kind of run into each there and we became friends back then. He’s essential, absolutely.
Bands usually play three songs at the ceremony. Can you wager a guess as to what three songs you’ll do?
No idea. As I said, I haven’t talked to anybody. I’m sure these conversations will happen. Personally, I’m cool. I’m easy. I’m happy to be there. I’m not worried about what’s going to go on, really. I’m just going to say, “Thanks a bunch.” Honestly, I’m glad I get to do what I do for a living. That’s some crazy shit. Let’s face it.
It’s you guys, Dire Straits, the Cars, the Moody Blues and Nina Simone. Are you a fan of all them?
Yeah! I wish the Eurythmics would have gotten in. Dave [Stewart] is a good friend of mine. They deserve it. I’m surprised they only picked five, especially with a band like the Eurythmics and Dave being such a prolific producer and songwriter. I was hoping they were going to get in too.
Are you able to envision a big all-star jam with everybody?
Sure! Are you kidding? I’ll play with anybody, man. We just did a gig in New York City with me and [Billy] Gibbons and Ori. I like to jam. I like to play with everybody. I just love working. As I said, we have our EP out on Friday and we just got done with this huge push of gigs, ending up at the Grammy Museum. We got a standing ovation and we played all new songs. It’s about changing people’s minds too. People just look at me like I’m the sidearm of Jon Bon Jovi and Ori’s the sidearm of Michael Jackson. They don’t know that we’re songwriters and singers on top of that. The songs that we’ve written and that we go out and play … it’s surprising to me that people are surprised.
Tell me about the songs on this new EP.
We wrote like 70 songs and recorded 25. We have 25 masters. Now the way the business is, you have to put out a little at a time since people’s attention spans aren’t the way they used to be. We just decided to come out with five at a time.
What do you miss most about being in Bon Jovi?
I’m not really missing anything, to be honest with you. Listen, we did 31 years together and we worked very, very hard. I guess I miss the shows. I always say this to everyone: Making the music is the great part, the fun part, the part where you’re trying to connect with people. It’s the travel you get paid for, the 22 hours a day where you ain’t onstage. That’s what you get paid for. You miss a lot of life when you’re on the road for most of your life. [Laughs] I just decided, “I gotta get back to my family. I gotta get back to being an individual.”
When is the last time you spoke to Jon?
It’s been a couple of years. There’s been some texts back and forth. There ain’t no malice or anything like that. It wasn’t moving anywhere. 31 years is 31 years. That’s a long time and being in a huge organization like Bon Jovi, it’s all-consuming. You really don’t have a chance to do anything else but that. That’s where you are and that’s it. It’s some stone-cold stuff right there. That’s it. You gotta move and roll with the punches, be flexible with the business, be flexible with the band; you gotta be flexible with your employees. It’s a big job.
I think the fans are going to be thrilled to see you back onstage with the band after all this time.
I hope so. But you know what, even on this thing, everyone is always asking me about getting in and I said, “I ain’t counting on it, man. You never know what’s going to happen.” I’ve been nominated for a lot of shit, a lot of awards. You know what? It’s what you throw down every day and your sincerity is what matters. Anytime anyone comes to see me play now they can count on that. I am going to bring all the love and passion of why I started to make music in this life to that moment. Ori is the same way. You’ll see it’s real. That’s what it is about. As long as you got that, you won’t be afraid of walking in front of anybody.
I’m always playing with Buddy Guy. I used to play with B.B. when he was still alive. I did the eulogy at B.B.’s funeral. I like to play with everybody, it doesn’t matter who. You’re going to call me up or if a new artist wants to work with me and write songs, do whatever, I’m always in. You just gotta be on a path to be the best you can be. I never felt I was in competition with nobody else because it’s just the best you can do. That’s how I see it.