Out of the shadow
The spotlight shines on Bon Jovi's Richie Sambora after years playing guitar behind the band's famous leader.
By Sean Daly
Published February 16, 2006
Richie Sambora likes to kiss and tell.
The first time Bon Jovi's ample-haired guitarist made out in the back seat of a car, Layla was playing on the radio. He'll never forget it. The song and the smooching have blended into one steamy teen memory.
"I remember what I was doing, you know?" the 46-year-old laughs during a teleconference call from his Los Angeles home. "I remember how that smelled. How it felt. It's like a sonic picture."
He's telling this story to try to explain why his band, after 20-plus years of power chords and poufy 'dos, is still stuffing arenas worldwide, including the St. Pete Times Forum on Friday and Saturday. As co-writer of Bon Jovi's biggest hits - including arena-rockin' anthems Livin' on a Prayer, Wanted Dead or Alive and You Give Love a Bad Name - Sambora is well aware that New Jersey's hunky native sons cater to that "back seat" demographic.
"We're a part of the fabric of people's lives at this point," says Sambora. "As songwriters, but also as a band, we can stand up there and sing songs that (people remember) listening to the first time (they) made out in the car with somebody. It's a big privilege for us. When we walk out there and sing those songs, you see what's in the eyes of those people. We're singing about everybody."
Like fellow Garden Stater Bruce Springsteen, Sambora comes across as a wealthy man in a working-class body. His voice is all gravelly blue-collar cool, and although he's on the phone, you fully expect Sambora to offer you a cold Coors Light and show you his bowling trophies.
If you're waiting for him to say something snarky about sexy lead singer Jon Bon Jovi, you're wasting your time. (And if you're waiting for Sambora to comment on his crumbling marriage to actor Heather Locklear, alas, this interview was conducted before she filed for divorce.)
Sambora knows that his music career is dipped in lucky dust, and he's not about to mess with his mojo now.
When asked if he ever gets tired of playing the same old hits night after night, Sambora dismisses the question, almost as if the rock 'n' roll gods will smite him for complaining.
"Everybody asks that question a lot," he says. "How does it feel to play Livin' on a Prayer for the 20,000th time? You know what? Songs like that don't get tired."
Sambora has a right to be thankful. Bon Jovi is riding a red-hot rebirth. The 2005 album Have a Nice Day has shown solid sales. And the band's current world tour has been nothing short of gangbusters. The first wave of dates sold out so rapidly that the band added second nights in several cities, including Tampa.
"God, it feels as if we're as big as we've ever been," Sambora says.
It wasn't always so. After the band signed a major-label deal with Polygram/Mercury in 1983 (Sambora joined the band a short time after it formed, replacing original guitarist Dave Sabo), Bon Jovi landed a major gig opening for metal heroes Judas Priest, whose leather-clad fans pelted Bon Jovi with invective and projectiles, including M-80 fireworks.
It was 1986 before Bon Jovi could truly court a mainstream audience. That's the year the band released the seminal pop-metal masterpiece Slippery When Wet, which sold more than 10-million copies. The album turned them into superstars - and turned Jon Bon Jovi into a sex symbol.
But during the '90s, when America got down with grunge, Bon Jovi went through a rough period, dangling on the precipice of high-haired '80s has-beens.
At least in the United States.
These days, however, America and Bon Jovi are steaming up the ol' back seat again, and Sambora thinks he knows why.
"You know what happened? We grew up and then America caught up to us," he says. "In the '90s, we started talking about more social issues. I mean, we still wrote great love songs, and we still wrote good rock songs. But we started growing up . . . and having kids, going through our own stuff, and writing about the feelings that we were having. . . . Sometimes with an artist, people have to catch up to you and your thought stream."
Sambora's presence in the band has continued to grow. Marrying a Hollywood hottie always helps with exposure, of course. Plus, though Jon Bon Jovi has made movies and bought sports teams and supported politicos, Sambora has remained a straight-ahead rocker, a good-time guy, hungry for guitar licks and banging heads.
His inventive, bluesy guitar style has been emulated up and down the Billboard charts, and his harmonizing gives Bon Jovi songs a fraternal last-call charm. Fans have responded to Sambora, too; the Internet is now loaded with fan sites devoted to one of the great second fiddles in the rock canon.
Sambora, currently working on a solo album, says Have a Nice Day is a balance of Bon Jovi's philosophical one-two punch: Jon's political voice and Richie's rock 'n' roll swagger.
"Jon's particular take on Have a Nice Day was that the whole country was bipartisan," he says. "He saw this great divide in the country. For me, the album's message is more social. That's what makes a band happen, you know? It's all about different kinds of feelings, you know? For me, 'Have a nice day' was the operative line. When the world gets in your face, I say, 'Have a nice day.' Very Clint Eastwood, you know?"
No matter how political Bon Jovi albums might get, though, Sambora promises that Bon Jovi shows will forever be rowdy.
"After you come to see a Bon Jovi live show, you're going to be converted," he says. "After all these years, if we haven't learned how to be a great rock 'n' roll band, then something's messed up. We put out that boxed set, 100,000,000 Bon Jovi Fans Can't Be Wrong. Well, they can't."
And he swears that he and his bandmates remain tight.
"We're a band of brothers," Sambora says. "I think that people want to see people stay together. They want to be entertained by people that are staying together, and people that have camaraderie. We still like each other. That's pretty unbelievable after 22 years."
And will the relationship last another 22 years?
Sambora laughs: "Well, you may be in danger of that happening."
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His blog is at www.sptimes.com/blogs/popmusic.