Bad Boy Rising
Bon Jovi made him a household name. Cher and Ally Sheedy made him a tabloid favorite.
Now RICHIE SAMBORA wants his own blaze of glory
By Lisa Bernhard
“The Richmeister! Richarama! The Bonjovinators!” Richie Sambora is talking to himself. It's only 11:00 a.m. and the Bon Jovi guitarist is as wired as his six-string ax — not from drugs or alcohol, but from an early-morning radio show that incited New Yorkers to play “Stump the Richmeister.” For two hours, a guitar-saddled Sambora rattled off challenging requests like “Kung Fu Fighting” and “That's the Way (I Like It).” Sitting beside him in the studio was Saturday Night Live's Rob Schneider, whose character, Richard “the Richmeister” Laymer, has poked fun at everyone from Sting (“the Stingman”) to Glenn Close (“Senorita Glennita”). Sambora was his latest victim. Most celebs would fire their publicists for having to start their day singing songs from Seventies hell while Schneider calls them “the Richmeister,” but Sambora was game. A few hours later, this tattooed, six-foot-one rock & roll bad boy is proudly calling himself “Richarama.”
On a muggy New York Tuesday, Sambora is being shuttled from the radio station to a photo shoot in the umpteenth limo of his limo-filled life, and he looks “damn happy to he here.” And why not? After ten years as Bon Jovi's second banana, he's promoting his first solo album, Stranger in this Town. It's a bluesy, emotional effort that the 32-year-old says lets the listener in on “what the hell it feels like to be in my shoes.” To those not in the Bon Jovi know, this guy's shoes have taken him around the world, to the winners' circle at the MTV Awards, to romantic rendevous with Cher and Ally Sheedy, and to the bank. And now they're about to take their first step out from under the long, shaggy shadow of the ultimate “Bonjovinator” — Jon Bon Jovi himself.
A year ago, Jon's platinum-selling Blaze of Glory had critics predicting the band's demise and casting a very dark shadow over Sambora's career. “Jon definitely got restless with the band,” explains Sambora, maintaining his jovial tone. “I was pissed. I said, 'Hey, man, I've dedicated ten years of my life to this. And now, all of a sudden it's questionable?' Everybody asked me, 'Aren't you frustrated because you couldn't sing [lead]?' Thirty million records and sixteen months of sold-out tours — yeah, I'm complaining! Jeez!”
Sambora does credit Jon's solo effort as the deciding factor in his own choice to go solo. “When Jon did Blaze of Glory, it was destiny going, 'Okay, this is the door to your career,'" he says, his eyes widening in excitement. “But I was very scared, very insecure and very tired.” Sounding part lonesome cowboy, part Rodney Dangerfield, Sambora summarizes his predicament: “After you play the same songs over and over again, you say, 'Am I doing anything good? Or, am I an asshole?'”
By all accounts, he's the same as he ever was — a good New Jersey boy. He resides in affluent Rumson, the Jersey suburb Springsteen made famous. Sambora's parents live in nearby Point Pleasant. To this day, Joan Sambora delights in the moment her only child first flexed his musical muscles. “We started him on the accordion when he was 7,” she boasts, “and he took one lesson and came home and played 'Strangers in the Night' by ear.” By the time he was 12, Sambora had switched to guitar, eventually fronting the bands Horizon and Mercy. Then came session work in L.A., a bit part in 1983's Staying Alive and even an audition for Kiss. At a New Jersey nightclub, he saw Jon Bon Jovi's band, the Wild Ones (which included future bandmates David Bryan, Tico Torres and Alec John Such), and introduced himself to Jon by saying, “We should be working together.” After Sambora signed on, the band was renamed Bon Jovi, and the group had two modestly successful albums. For their next record, Slippery When Wet, Jon and Richie hooked up with professional songwriter Desmond Child and penned four songs, including “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Livin' on a Prayer.” The Album sold 14 million copies, and Bon Jovi began behaving like rock stars. Sambora earned a reputation for being a ladies' man, especially after his much publicized affair with Ally Sheedy in 1988. “It didn't really last long — a couple of months. I was going through a bout with alcohol at the time. And she was going through a drug period that I had no idea about,” he says, intent on setting the record straight. “I was on tour, and she was breaking up with me all the time. I dealt with this for a few weeks and finally I just went, 'Fine, then f--- it.' I didn't take any calls anymore. I was kooky myself, and I split for Hawaii. The next thing I knew, she was in a rehab center.”
Sheedy has been cryptic about the relationship, but Sambora feels he did all he could. “I tried to call, but the doctors didn't think it was a good idea for me to talk to her,” Sambora says. The two have not spoken since, though he adds, “I wish she was able to come to terms with talking to me, because I really did care about her.”
His romance with Cher proved less tumultuous, despite tabloid tales of her pregnancy and fights over their age difference (she's 45).
“None of that was ever true,” says Sambora. “I didn't do an interview for a year and a half because I didn't appreciate the way her relationship with Robert [Camilletti] was just totally — I mean, everybody knew everything. That stinks.”
The two met when Sambora and Desmond Child wrote “We All Sleep Alone” for Cher's 1987 album. “I helped her straighten out a lot of stuff in her life,” he explains, “and she helped me straighten out stuff in mine. Cher was one woman who took care of me.
“I don't mean she would make me sandwiches and wash my clothes,” explains Sambora (we didn't think so). “I mean in an emotional way. When she would talk, I understood her. When I would say something, she understood me, deep.” When the romance began to suffer at the hands of their careers, Cher called it a wrap. The have been “just friends” for the past year.
“Basically, she told me to take a hike,” he explains. “Not a hike — that's the wrong term — but she was feeling very pressured because she had a tour, a movie and a record and also family stuff to deal with. And I was doing my thing and was all over the place. We weren't seeing each other. We both knew that it was never going to work out, but she said it first.”
These days, Sambora's keeping company with Rebecca Bramlett, the 23-year-old daughter of Sixties songwriters Delaney and Bonnie. The two met at a Moody Blues concert where Bramlett was performing as a backup singer. “We talked until the wee hours of the next morning,” confides the slender platinum-blond. “The next day he sent me flowers in my hotel. The card said, 'To a true lady from a true gentleman,' and I went, 'I do have to go out with the man!'”
Sambora, who appeared at Bramlett's New York showcase, says, “I'm playing it by ear, we'll see where it goes.” In the meantime, he's preparing for his own tour, beginning in November. No matter how the solo album does, he expects there'll be another Bon Jovi record. “If 30 million people buy your record,” Sambora reasons, “in a few years, they want another one.”