Ronnie Montrose died in 2012 after a prolonged struggle with prostate cancer and that is what music fans everywhere were led to believe. Later reports indicated that he had taken his own life, but in that he had resolved to battled the disease without chemotherapy or invasive procedures, one undoubtedly led to the other. When his former bandmates began to reminisce about him after his death, two major themes emerged. The first was the near deification of him as a guitar player. The second theme was his habit of not getting along with lead singers which contributed to his penchant for disbanding just when the particular group he was in was on the cusp of stardom. Even those closest to him in the industry echoed the statement, “He seemed to be allergic to success.”
Ronnie Montrose was born in San Francisco but did not get started with guitar until the age of 17 when he was living in Denver, Colorado. By 1967’s Summer of Love, he was 20 years old and back in San Francisco. His band Sawbuck was headquartered in a Victorian mansion called Thin Blue where he met the likes of Buddy Miles and Jimi Hendrix. His first upwardly mobile break in the music business came as he was doing carpentry work at the legendary Bill Graham’s Fillmore. He happened to be there when Van Morrison’s manager called seeking guitarists to audition for the singer’s band. While dozens of guitarists auditioned, Montrose claimed he got the gig because when Morrison found out he was from Colorado, his enchantment with cowboys tipped the scale in Ronnie’s favor. J.Geils Band singer Peter Wolf later told Montrose that an excited Morrison had called him up at the time and said, “Wolf, I got a cowboy.” Ted Templeton (former drummer for the band Harpers Bizarre and future legendary record producer) was working with Morrison on his Tupelo Honey record and told Montrose to look him up if he ever wanted to do his own project. Ronnie wouldn’t forget the offer.
It may have been friction with Morrison or the rumor that Morrison’s wife “took a shine” to Montrose, but either way, he found himself out of the band after recording two albums with Morrison. Bassist Bill Church said things began to go south when he and Montrose came to the front of the stage during a gig at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. One simply did not step out in front of Morrison during a performance. Church’s faux paus was forgiven because he was flying on pain meds he was taking for an ankle injury but Montrose’s was not. The longest surviving account says that at mid-tour, Morrison finally told him, “Hey Ronnie, when the bus stops, somebody’s gotta get off,” leaving no doubt that it would be Montrose.
Summoned to New York to audition for Edgar Winter’s group, he joined a band that was already experiencing widespread success on the charts. Ronnie found that his time with Morrison and encouragement from Winter to experiment during live shows helped him develop his signature guitar sound. His star was rising, but dark clouds were again building on the horizon. As Classic Rock Magazine’s Jaan Uhelszki put it in an interview piece published shortly after his death, “It would be safe to say that Montrose was in Winter’s band, but not of it. There was always something removed about the guitarist, holding himself at some distance from the rhythm section.” Winter loved the way Montrose took the music to another level, but Montrose’s feelings toward the lead singer were something else. When he got his copy of the Gold Record for the They Only Come Out at Night album, he pried it open and cut Winter’s picture out of the small copy of the album cover art that was included with the gold disk.
When it was time to move on, Templeton suggested that Montrose hook up with Sammy Hagar again offering his services producing an album. His faith in the pairing resulted in the self titled Montrose album that guitar greats not only praise to this day, but have borrowed from in great slabs of tone and feel. Montrose and Hagar should have been the next Jagger/Richards, Van Halen/Roth, Tyler/Perry, or Page/Plant musical super duo. Hagar now admits that he had unintentional stepped on Ronnie’s toes because he wanted the band to be big but didn’t realize Montrose wasn’t one to share the spotlight. Just as the band’s profile began to skyrocket, he fired Hagar, and then the rest of the band (that included one of Montrose’s oldest friends, bassist Bill Church and drummer Denny Carmassi). All agree that they had something special and still don’t quite understand why Montrose “killed the band.”
Montrose didn’t get along with band leaders, but it seems that he at times treated his own Montrose band members worse than his former employers had treated him. He invited his old Sawbuck and Van Morrison bandmate Church to audition for Montrose, but made him sit through the auditions for a host of other hopefuls. Hager finally pointed out, “‘That guy was cool, but Bill Church, man, he’s like our buddy, man. He’s like cool, he’s fun.’ They were friends, but I think Ronnie just wanted to torture him.” Hager finally talked Church into the band but Montrose fired him after the first album and tour. Hagar’s own dismissal came in Europe when he was battling food poisoning between stops. Tension had been building as evidenced by Montrose telling Sammy to stay on his own side of the stage, but the firing was still unexpected. Hagar described the end to Uhelszki: “We pulled up to the Olympia Theater where we were headlining two nights, and Ronnie turns and leans over the front seat and says ‘After tonight I’m quitting the band. What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘After I finish puking I’m gonna go start a new band. What do you think I’m gonna do?’”
The other members of Montrose were content to keep working with Hagar on a new project until Montrose called and said, “I have a new singer.” Hagar understands how it happened: Montrose had a recording contract and Hagar did not. Hagar went his own way and thirty plus years down the line now says, “He did me a favour. Actually, I am grateful that Montrose did break up because it threw me out on my own and made me do what I’ve done.” Even though Montrose would not let Hagar play guitar in the band, he says he learned a lot about playing, writing, and being a rock musician from his time with Montrose. Denny Carmassi has a slightly different take, saying “I think Sam would have loved to have stayed with that band. He talks about it to me all the time. We could have been huge, as big as Aerosmith, but it was Ronnie. Look what he’s done. I mean, look how many bands he’s had. Look at how many opportunities he’s had. And each one ends up the same.”
Montrose became one of the few musicians who wouldn’t sing the praises of the first two Montrose albums. The more distance he put between his early work and the present, the less he wanted to talk about it. Carmassi summarized it best, saying “Ronnie said to me: ‘I’ve been talking about this record for thirty-five years. I’m tired of talking about it.’ I think he is making a big mistake by looking at it that way. It’s something he should be proud of.” He also became harder and harder to pin down for interviews, making and then breaking most dates arranged. When he finally agreed to talk, he wouldn’t say much about his past, present or future. In one of his last interviews, Ronnie put it this way: “I don’t want to go Jerry Springer, but like it’s the deepest of the deep. My story is the real story. My name is Ronnie Montrose. The band is called Montrose, and all these other guys that were in this band are peripherals to the real true story.” Church summed up his part of the story: “You probably are wondering why I suffered all that? Because at that time, Ronnie was the best guitar player in San Francisco and that was enough for me. It still is.” It seems to be another sad example of the spokes on the wheel recognizing the need for the hub but the hub not returning the love.
There are many clips available on YouTube that show the former Montrose band members playing nicely together during a handful of reunion shows staged around 2005. The original band members also gathered in early 2013 for a tribute show honoring the career of Montrose. The joy on Bill Church’s face as they play the Monstrose classics with various guest guitarists like Joe Satriani is obvious. The quality of the songs and band is just as obvious forty years after they had their day. Like too many highly creative people, it is a shame that Ronnie Montrose himself couldn’t appreciate the career that he had, not to mention the opportunities he didn’t pursue. His former band mates are still at a loss to explain why he treated them as he did, but their view of his extraordinary skills as a guitar player remain undiminished.
TopPiece Video: The classic Montrose line up of Sammy Hagar, Bill Church , Denny Carmassi, and Ronnie Montrose performing their first big hit Bad Motor Scooter in a 1974 television appearance.