Original Montrose vocalist Sammy Hagar spoke with Greg Prato of Rolling Stone about guitarist Ronnie Montrose, who passed away last week at age 64. He speaks of first meeting Ronnie, the early days of Montrose, Eddie Van Halen the Montrose freak, and pays tribute to the man who gave him his start.
“I’ve got to tell you, for (1973’s Montrose) being my first album I had ever been involved with my life, to have something that’s that classic to still stand up, and it’s still in my opinion one of the best recording projects I’ve ever been involved in – that’s all due to Ronnie. I wrote songs with him, but it was his trip. He’s the guy that got me to sing with him. I had no experience whatsoever; I just wrote the first four songs in my life, which were Bad Motor Scooter, Make It Last, One Thing on My Mind, and I Don’t Want It, played them for Ronnie upon first meeting, shook my hand, and said, ‘Let’s start a band.’ I went from zero to a hundred.
I saw him at Winterland with the Edgar Winter Group, (touring in support of) They Only Come Out at Night, with Free Ride and Frankenstein. And I didn’t know who he was; I didn’t know anything about him. I had a band that was a soul band – we were playing Tower of Power and James Brown – and we sat there and watched Edgar Winter. I just told my guitar player, ‘I want you to be like that’ – like Ronnie Montrose. And he’s going, ‘I don’t want to play that kind of music,’ and I’m going, ‘Well, I do.’ We got into it. It broke my band up, by seeing Ronnie for the first time. I said, ‘I’m going to be like that guy. I’m going to play guitar like that and I’m going to sing like…the way I sing.’ (Laughs)
I was talking to a guy a couple of days after the show, and he was saying, ‘That’s Ronnie Montrose, and that was his last show. He lives in Sausalito.’ I lived in San Francisco, and I said, ‘Do you have his address?’ because I didn’t even have a phone. He gave it to me, and I went and knocked on his door, dressed like David Bowie – big old high heel platform shoes, satin pants, probably had make-up on, with a Les Paul and a notebook pad with all kinds of lyrics in it. I said, ‘I’m Sammy Hagar. I heard you’re looking for a singer.’ He said, ‘Come on in. You got any songs?’ I played him my four songs, we shook hands, and he said. ‘Let’s start a band. Do you know any drummers? I’ve got a bass player, Bill Church.’ I had a drummer, Denny Carmassi – wasn’t in my band, but he was my favorite drummer around town.
Within a month we were signed to Warner Bros. Records, Ted Templeman producing, and the first Montrose album was born a month after that. It was the fastest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Like I said, I went from zero to a hundred in the blink of an eye – all because of Ronnie.
My opinion of him? The most high-energy guy on stage I’ve ever seen. At that time, he was completely running in circles, jumping in the air. I mean, he was just intense. And I loved it. I hadn’t come out yet, and that’s what I really wanted to be – but I didn’t have the balls. And the band I was in, we were a soul band. I couldn’t act like that in a soul band. They wanted me to dance. Honestly, huge influence on me.
He was a changeling. Ronnie never liked to stick with anything. We made one of the greatest hard rock/heavy metal albums of all time with that first Montrose album, and then he didn’t want to do that any more. ‘Nah, nah, we’ve got to have better songs, we’ve got to change our image, that kind of music is out.’ Boy, he was just laying it on us. Ronnie really liked to change – immediately. Like, before it was really established, he wanted to change. We butted heads and I got thrown out of the band (after one more album, 1974’s Paper Money), but I carried on with that ‘first Ronnie Montrose’ I saw. The first guy that came out in Montrose – ’73, that year, what I learned from Ronnie Montrose, I still utilize today when I step on a stage. I try to keep the energy up and the entertainment high.
The first time Eddie Van Halen and I met, it was around 1977. We were on a stadium show with Boston, Black Sabbath, myself, Van Halen. He came to my dressing room, and said, ‘I’m a Montrose freak, I love the band!’ And Ted Templeman told me, when he signed Van Halen, they were called something else, and he wanted to name them after the guitar player. He said on the first Van Halen record, he took the first Montrose record in there and said, ‘Boom. We’re going to have eight great songs, they’re going to be this long, they’re going to be this tempo.’ And pretty much patterned the whole thing after it – right down to saying, ‘Why don’t you guys get Sammy Hagar to sing in this band? He’s been thrown out of Montrose.’ That’s a true story!
Eddie had a totally new twist on the whole guitar style thing, but as far as the chording goes – not his soloing as much as the chording – yeah, he took some of that big open chord thing (from Montrose). The big open A, the big open D, the big open E. Everything as open as you could make it, to make it as heavy as possible with one guitar. And that was pretty much Ronnie’s style, too. And of course the fire, too – Van Halen came out with all that fire, which is Ronnie. Ronnie was full of fire, man.
A couple of weeks ago (was the last time I spoke to Montrose), and about a week before that, and then four or five days before that. We were talking a lot, because we were planning a Montrose reunion for my birthday in Cabo this year. Montrose, the whole band, has not been there. Denny’s been there, Bill’s been there, Ronnie’s been there – but [the whole band together] has never been there. I said to Ronnie, ‘Come on, man. We’re all getting old. Let’s do this again while we can.’ And he was in, we were all in. On my 65th, on October 13th, I was planning on coming out with Montrose, doing the whole first album, then going in with my other band, and then bringing Chickenfoot out. I was going to try to [cover] my whole four decades for the fans that night, without nobody knowing. The fans don’t ever know what I’m going to do down there. And Ronnie was in. It’s crazy. I even played back on my message box, February 10th – ‘Hagar, Ronz…call me back!’ It was all good. It’s fucked up that those songs will never be played by those four members again. That’s so weird to me. It’s like the end of an era. Songs can go forever, but we can’t. It’s trippy.
(I would like Montrose to be remembered) as one of the pioneers of American heavy/hard rock. And certainly, one of the great hard rock guitar players. But he was more than that – he was really versatile. But if you’re going to remember him for anything, put on that first Montrose record.
For me Ronnie’s passing is the end of an era. Ronnie Montrose gave me my first break as a songwriter, as a front man, as a recording artist and as a touring artist, and for that I will always be grateful. The first Montrose album was the first album I ever recorded and it still stands as one of the best recordings I have ever been a part of.
The only positive I can grab onto is the fact that the music will live on. It’s a shame to lose Ronnie and I’m so sorry for his loved ones. Rest in peace.”