LOS ANGELES — Rock wild man Sammy Hagar talks about his first exposure to guitarist Ronnie Montrose, who died Saturday at age 64 of prostate cancer, as if it took place last week rather than nearly 40 years ago.
At the time, Hagar was in a soul and R&B band in the Bay Area when he saw Montrose playing with the Edgar Winter Group.
“I was over the soul and R&B thing and wanted to be a high-energy rock ‘n’ roll guy — what I’ve been doing ever since,” Hagar said Monday. “Edgar Winter came through San Francisco and Tower of Power was opening, so we went to see them. I saw Ronnie Montrose that night and he blew my mind. I thought, ‘I want a guy like that in my band, and if my guitar player isn’t going to do that, then I’ll be like that.’
“That actually broke up my band. When I got back together with my band, we had big arguments over it. They still wanted to play funk, so I said (forget) it. I was talking to Johnny Blakely from Stoneground, and he said, ‘You know, Ronnie lives right here in Sausalito. That was his last show last night, and he’s looking for a singer.’
“I asked for his address, because I didn’t even have a phone at that time,” Hagar said with a chuckle. “I went to his house, knocked on the door and he said, ‘Do you have any songs?’ I had four songs I’d just written, he shook my hand and said, ‘Let’s start a band.’”
That was the first itieration of Montrose, which also included bassist Bill Church and drummer Denny Carmassi. They quickly put together the band’s debut album, “Montrose,” released in late 1973.
“I knew nothing about nothing,” Hagar said. “I didn’t know anything about publishing — he could have stolen my songwriting credit, but he got me my own publishing deal. Later on … well, right away, we started butting heads, but at that point in my life I was seeing a guy I thought was rich and famous and he was reaching out to me and bringing me up.”
Although Montrose fired him after the group’s second album, “Paper Money,” Hagar stuck with the full-throttle approach onstage that he’d witnessed from Montrose that night in San Francisco, even as Montrose himself moved on to other avenues of expression.
They still saw each other from time to time and remained friends, although Hagar said he would advise Montrose to stick with one style, while Montrose would needle Hagar about “trying too hard” with his kinetic stage delivery.
“I don’t talk about that period that much because he changed so much,” Hagar said. “He was only like that for a year or so. Denny liked to say that ‘If you didn’t see us in ‘73, you missed it.’
“Ronnie was the most fiery, intense guitar player of everybody,” Hagar said. “There was Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Clapton, those were the guys, but none had Ronnie’s fire. He played at 100 (percent), he was just on fire — he jumped around, just was a really high-energy performer. I learned all that from him, and everything I do today — no ego involved — it came from him, from seeing him perform that first time with Edgar Winter and then standing next to him within a week and rehearsing. I was always a high-energy guy, but I wasn’t that way (onstage) until I got in Montrose.”