It’s been more than a year since Richie Sambora left Bon Jovi “due to personal reasons” and he’s doing just fine, thanks.
Last month, Sambora managed to put in guest appearances with Dolly Parton and Stevie Wonder at two different U.K. festivals in a single day. On July 22 and 23 he’ll play tribute to another legend, his late friend Les Paul, with a trio of special gigs at the Iridium in New York. He also has a new album in the works with his recent touring partner, Australian female guitar whiz Orianthi.
“It’s going to be emotional for me,” Sambora says of the shows honoring his longtime friend and guitar legend, which will be taped for the Public Television show “Front and Center” and will air in the fall. “I’m going to try and get it right. It’s for him, not for me. I want people to actually feel who he was.”
The electric guitar innovator died in 2009 at age 94, but for the two decades prior, he and Sambora had become close friends. They met when a mutual friend brought Paul as a surprise guest to Sambora’s birthday gathering at his New Jersey home. At the time, Sambora had decided to take a few days off after struggling on Bon Jovi’s planned double album.
“I lived on a river and Les and I went out to a dock and sat for a couple of hours,” Sambora recalls. “We didn’t care what was going on inside. We told each other about ourselves and we figured out that we liked each other. And he said, ‘I brought you something, son.’ And he gave me this amazingly beautiful white Les Paul [guitar]. He said, 'I wound the pickups for you. I listened to what you were doing and I think I got you.’ I was like, 'Holy cow.’ And then he said, 'Son, here’s the sword. Go cut the s–t.’”
Sambora took his advice to heart and went back and finished Bon Jovi’s New Jersey album. “It didn’t turn out to be a double album,” he says. “It was a single album with five top 10 songs on it, and I wrote four of them.”
For at least the time being, Sambora is no longer writing and performing with Bon Jovi, and he seems perfectly fine with it, especially since he can stretch out and jam, like his musical heroes ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Art Tatum. “I’m having a great time,” he says. “Going out there and being the lead singer and being the band leader, there’s a lot of musical freedom there, which makes me very happy.”
A year prior to leaving Bon Jovi on the eve of their Because We Can tour, Sambora released Aftermath of the Lowdown, his third solo effort, but first in more than a decade. When asked if he felt the urge to follow his own muse prior to the Bon Jovi split, Sambora responds, “Absolutely, but I don’t even think split is the right word. Maybe it’s just a break. It depends not only on my soul and mood, but everyone else’s. We’re going to get to that at some point, or not.”
In the meantime, Sambora seems to be having the time of his life. He was recently in Abbey Road Studios with Orianthi, recording a new version of “Every Road Leads Home to You,” which was a single from his solo album that was lost shuffle while the indie label that released it went through management changes. This version, however, will likely initially be released overseas before possibly turning up later in the U.S.
He met the 29-year-old guitar goddess while vacationing in Hawaii, when Sambora got a call from old friend Alice Cooper, who asked him if he wanted to take part in an all-star jam. Orianthi, who Sambora refers to as “Ori,” was playing in Cooper’s band at the time. “It was me, Steven Tyler, Alice, and Sammy Hagar; and we were just catching up and rehearsing,” Sambora recalls. “And I said, 'Who the hell is that?’” Sambora was told about her background, which includes a stint playing with Michael Jackson in preparation for his ill-fated This Is It dates, and then he watched her play. “She was killing it,” he says. “And then I got up and did my thing and we just had this organic chemistry that was just blasting immediately.”
Less than a month later, Sambora was offered some Australian dates, including the Soundwave Festival in February and March. He signed on, but four days before leaving for the gigs, his rhythm guitarist had to bow out due to a family illness, leaving Sambora in a jam. He immediately thought of Orianthi to fill the void. “I called Alice and [his manager] Shep [Gordon] and he said she was free, so I called her, and she was up for it. She said, 'Yup, let’s go!’”
Their relationship, which extends beyond music, jelled during those dates. “When we hit Australia and knocked that out of the park, all these offers started coming out of Europe, South America, Pacific Rim, and Canada,” he says. “Now we have to get some music down and get it out there.”
As Sambora, who just turned 55, explains it: although he and Orianthi have a 25 year age difference, they share a certain musical kinship and were often overshadow by their previous collaborators. “She’s a great songwriter and a great singer, but not people know that,” he says. “I think most people think she’s Michael Jackson’s sidearm and I’m Jon Bon Jovi’s side guide.”
Free for now of Bon Jovi’s shadow, Sambora is getting calls for some major guest spots at some of the world’s biggest gigs. Back in June, while Sambora was touring Europe with Orianthi, he got a call asking if he’d join Dolly Parton on stage at London’s O2 Arena for a duet of Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands on Me,” which Parton transformed into a gospel number on her recent Blue Smoke album. “I said, 'Sure,’ because I was there [in London] and she’s Dolly. Come on!”
That went so well an invitation was extended to join the queen of country on the stage at the Glastonbury Festival for a performance that ended up strangely mired in controversy after out-of-sync audio on the TV broadcast led many fans on Twitter to accuse Parton of lip-syncing. “She ain’t lip-syncing,” Sambora confirms. “I was there. I’m telling you, there was no lip-sync going on there….It was fun and it’s an honor for me to play with her.”
As rock stars do, Sambora traveled back to London via helicopter in time for Stevie Wonder’s set at London’s Calling Festival, where the day before, Sambora played his own set and joined old pals Aerosmith on stage. “I’m trying not to name drop, but the day was insane. It started off with Dolly…and then I had to go see Stevie. He’s a huge idol of mine; the reason I ever wanted to sing. So I said, 'I have to go see Stevie. We’re in the same geographical location. I cannot not see him.’”
Sambora went backstage to say hello prior to the gig and that greeting promptly turned into an invite for him to jam with Wonder on a set-closing rendition of “Superstition.”
“That particular day was pretty amazing,” Sambora marvels. “Jam with Dolly Parton in front of hundreds of thousands of people and then play with Stevie in front of 70,000. I think it’s just funny. Who does that? I have a blessed life. Maybe I’m on the path to something really cool. A whole new chapter.”