On Saturday night at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cleveland, Richie Sambora took the stage with his former Bon Jovi bandmates for the first time in nearly five years. Rolling Stone spoke to the guitarist and songwriter backstage about how it felt to reunite with his old bandmates, why he left in the first place, what the band’s Rock Hall induction means to him and whether he could ever see himself touring with the group again.
Richie, congratulations. How does it feel now that it happened?
You know, it’s really strange. I really haven’t been thinking about it over the last 10 years and I wasn’t really sure it was going to happen. I figured that after 130 million records and all the achievement we had, that eventually it would come to fruition, you know what I mean? So I kind of worried about or thinking about when it’s gonna happen, but right now I’m in a project called RSO with Orianthi and I’m really focused on that and I have been since I left the band.
It’s always great to see the guys. There’s a lot of love here, that’s for sure. When I first walked in, we hadn’t seen each other in three years, and they go, “Does it feel awkward?” No… it doesn’t feel awkward at all. I mean, they’re my songs. We’ve been playing them: Ori and I have been touring the world now also and I’ve been playing those songs as my own, because they are.
Absolutely. The first moment of rehearsal, can you tell me a bit more about that? Was that when you first saw them again?
Yeah, but it’s all [in] your body. You gotta remember, I was in that band for 31 years. I played those shows every night. I could do this stuff sleepwalking. … I have a different energy. People want Coca-Cola, the real thing. That’s why they call it the real thing. They want to hear those sounds, that kind of attitude. And the guys that are playing guitar, John Shanks and Phil X, they’re both great guitar players in their own right. I was kidding around with Phil, I said to him – they were going onstage the other night, and I said, “Hey, it must suck being me without the chicks and the money.” [Laughs] And he started laughing…
Tell me your favorite part of the night so far.
I guess watching my mother and my daughter be proud of me… And being in this [old-man voice] business 40 years now, I seen a lot of friends I hadn’t seen in a decade or so that I was actually very close to and did a lot of business with. It’s interesting in this business, what happens it that you get so busy and people start traveling internationally, all different ways, but then, when you see each other, it’s always.
Unfortunately, my dad passed a couple years back. I always felt that was very, very important for my daughter to see the hard work. I have a studio at the house that I’m constantly in, and she’s watching me work all the time, and when I go out on the road, she’s watching me do that.
Did she see you play with the band much?
Yeah, hundreds of times.
Is there anything you miss about playing with Bon Jovi?
You know, it was just time to just stop for a little bit… What happened is that, [being] in such a huge organization. Tours are 16-and-half months. The last tour I did with the band was 18-and-a-half months. You miss a lot of life, man. You come home: Shit changed. Divorce, birth, death, this. Normal life’s ups and downs. Little tragedies. Love, joy. You miss all those things a lot of times in your incubation mode. Like I said, we weren’t a band that took a lot of time off. My daughter needed me at that time; my dad’s dying of cancer. I was in the middle of a shitty divorce, and I busted my shoulder up… And it was like, “You know, I think the universe is telling me to take a break for a while.” I needed to do something different, and quite frankly, I wanted to sing! I wanted to be a lead singer… A lot of the bands I was in before, I was the lead singer, and I missed it, and it was just time at that point.
“The last tour I did with Bon Jovi was 18-and-a-half months. You miss a lot of life, man.”
What was the first conversation you had with Jon after the years apart?
He came up and kissed me; I kissed him back. He said, “I love you”; I said, “I love you, too, man. Let’s get it on.”
Where was that?
It was at a rehearsal studio in New Jersey. No, actually, the first rehearsal was in California someplace, a couple weeks back.
That must have been a cool feeling.
It was great.
Do you see it as the beginning of possible getting back together?
We’ll see. You never say never. It’s not in any immediate future plan, that’s for sure. It’s just not. I really want to get this RSO thing off the ground. I’m having a ball.
How is that going?
Really well. The record’s probably coming out in mid-May or late May. It’s so different now in this business. But that’s OK. We ain’t got it figured out yet – wait a week; wait two weeks. You know, I mean the music’s there. We hit a songwriting stride where we wrote about 70 songs over a two-year period of time, so I handed 25 songs into the label: two-and-a-half albums.
So are you actually socializing with the rest of the band?
Yeah, we went out to dinner last night. You know what? You kind of just fall in. There’s a caste system in every band, really. Everybody has their distinct jobs that they have to do. Mine was about 10. [Laughs] Songwriting, co-producer; I was the lead guitar player; I was the rhythm guitar player; I was the background vocalist; sometimes I was the lead vocalist; I mixed it; I mastered it. And then we had to go play. And one of the things I always did was try to keep everyone in the band in a happy mood. I’m that kind of guy, and I keep morale up. That’s another job that I did: keeping Jon happy, because he’s intense; he’s got a lot of stuff on his mind, and he does that to himself on purpose… The foundations, and all this other stuff. I mean, I do a lot of philanthropic work myself but he’s gotta spearhead that thing besides doing all this.
Did you have some deep conversations recently?
Like I say, this is the first time I’ve been hanging out with the guys for a good three years. We’ve had a couple of conversations in between, but it wasn’t about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or anything like that. It was more about, “How you doing? How’s your kids?”
Yeah, “How’s your kids? What’s going on?” And our kids, this is the first time they’ve seen each other in three years, and they’re over the moon. All the ancillary stuff that goes on, ’cause it is a family.
“If you play with passion, and that’s the way I learned how to play, maybe I was a damn good guitar player.”
Howard Stern on the air recently has been saying that people don’t realize the full potential of how great you are as a guitar player, that you’re a little underrated.
Oh, that’s very nice of him. But there’s so many good guitar players out there, it’s unbelievable. There’s probably a new one coming up every day… but the fact that he thinks that or the fact that anybody thinks that, it really feels great, and it’s an honor. You know what? If you play with passion, and that’s the way I learned how to play, maybe I was a damn good guitar player. But I’d never say I’m the best guitar player in the world, or something like that. I don’t even know if you can call anybody that. But on a given night, Jimi Hendrix might have been the best guitar player in the world.
Howard Stern kind of went after the Hall of Fame a little bit, but you guys chose not to.
You know what? I guess I felt it was not my place, but the other thing that happened is, I came here last Saturday and played two gigs. I have a relationship with some of the people here at the Hall of Fame. I was on my way to Cleveland from California, and we were playing – I was still in Bon Jovi; this is going back about 10 years. And I get here early; I was here about an hour early. And everything’s so close together. I told the driver, “Hey, fuck it, I’m just gonna go knock on the back door of the Hall of Fame and see if I can get in.” They let me in; they go, “Rich, what’s up!” So I got to walk around the Hall of Fame by myself and look at all the shit. So then, they’re like, “Wanna go into the vault room?” “Fuck, yeah!” So we go into the vault room: Hendrix’s Flying V, Hendrix’s 12-string. I was playing all those guitars. Dylan’s fuckin’ D-18. It was very, very cool. They’ve always been real nice to me.
Yeah, we were nominated a couple times and didn’t get in. But I’m Susan Lucci at the Grammys. I got nominated for 11 Grammys and I only got one.
But you guys didn’t hold a grudge or start going after the Hall of Fame like Stern?
Nah, but you know what? Coming from Howard, you expect that joke. You expect sarcasm. That’s his M.O., and it’s funny coming from him, but if I said it, it wouldn’t be funny.
What was your favorite part of his speech?
Well, shit, he did me a solid right off the bat. Him and I have been friends for a long time. I lived in New York for a long time too; we’d go out to dinner and stuff like that, and I don’t know how many times I’ve been on his show: 50 or something? And he respects me.