Richie Sambora was the lead guitarist of legendary rock band Bon Jovi for three decades. And he experienced every bit of success that the band attained alongside its eponymous frontman. But in 2013 everything changed. Sambora abruptly left the band in the middle of a grueling tour. His motivations weren’t entirely clear for a number of years, but in 2020 the guitar maestro revealed the moving reason behind his decision to walk away.
Bon Jovi’s self-titled debut album was released back in 1984 – with the single “Runaway” charting in the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. The band’s follow-up record came out a year later and sold fairly well. But they would be catapulted into the stratosphere following the release of Slippery When Wet in 1986.
“You Give Love A Bad Name” and “Livin’ On A Prayer” were the first two singles from Slippery When Wet. Both iconic songs went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100. The record also topped the album charts for eight weeks in ’86. And it would be named the number-one selling album of the following year by Billboard.
The band has also demonstrated tremendous staying power – enjoying a career that has lasted almost four decades. According to Biography.com, they have sold 130 million records in their career and in 2017 were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Jon Bon Jovi and Sambora – known for their close collaboration over the years – were also honored by the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009.
But how did the band’s two main figures meet? Well, in 1995 Sambora and Bon Jovi gave their own accounts of this during an interview with The Independent. The latter revealed that while working at a New Jersey recording studio in 1983, he was able to put together a song demo featuring studio musicians. The tune was “Runaway,” and it caught the attention of a local radio station, which put together some small scale shows for the group.
Unfortunately, the musicians Bon Jovi had used for the demo were in other groups, so they couldn’t commit to playing the shows. Therefore, he had to form a new band. One of the new members chosen was bassist Alec John Such. At the time, he was playing in another outfit with Sambora, who had recently returned from an unsuccessful audition for KISS. Though the latter was encouraged by Such to come and watch Bon Jovi play.
In Sambora’s words, “I went there, and I thought [Bon Jovi] was so charismatic. It was just magic. I went backstage and gave him a verbal resume. I had certainly never done anything like that before – got down on my knee and said, ‘Here I am!’ – so it was quite interesting, the power he had.” Sambora suggested they get together to jam – even though Bon Jovi already had a guitarist in Dave Sabo.
Bon Jovi told The Independent, “I thought he was a little crazy because he was so forward. But I liked him as a guy, so we just hung out for an afternoon and tried writing together to see what became of it. We wrote two songs. They weren’t the best songs we’ve ever written, but from the start we could see that we were compatible.”
Sambora agreed with Bon Jovi’s assessment – saying they recognized their chemistry as songwriters. He knew that both of them were serious about being successful in the music business and sincere about being good people as well. From then on, Sambora and Bon Jovi were inseparable bandmates for many years – a songwriting team and close friends to boot.
But what was Sambora’s role within the Bon Jovi empire? He told Rolling Stone magazine in 2018, “There’s a caste system in every band, really. Everybody has their distinct jobs that they have to do. Mine was about ten.” Sambora listed off songwriter, guitar player, background vocalist, producer, mixer. But then the musician also talked about his role within the mix of personalities.
“One of the things I always did was try to keep everyone in the band in a happy mood,” revealed Sambora. “I’m that kind of guy, and I keep morale up. That’s another job that I did: keeping [Bon Jovi] happy, because he’s intense. He’s got a lot of stuff on his mind, and he does that to himself on purpose…”
But Sambora hit band morale hard when he left the group in 2013. The guitarist posted a statement on their official website stating “personal issues” as his reason. Unfortunately, it came in the middle of a long tour and Bon Jovi let his frustrations show during an interview with the U.K.’s Evening Standard newspaper. In fact, his comments hinted that Sambora pulled out of the tour because an old demon had reared its head again.
Bon Jovi said, “It’s getting more and more difficult every day to not just sit here and say something… Because all I can say is this – it’s for personal reasons. He’s been through it before, fortunately for us the same guy who filled in last time was available this time.” This quote led many fans to assume that Sambora’s apparent alcohol problem was again the reason for him taking a hiatus from the band.
Sadly, Sambora had previously needed to check himself into rehab facilities in 2007 and four years later to deal with alcohol abuse. His earlier stay was a month long and took place in the Cirque Lodge unit in Utah. After leaving the facility, Sambora reportedly said, “I was just drinking too much, and I needed to get my life together.”
The 2011 stint was brought on by exhaustion following a lengthy tour – with Sambora feeling he needed to get sober again. Between the two rehab stays, there was also an incident in 2008 in which the guitarist was arrested for driving under the influence. Sambora was apparently given three years’ probation and paid a $350 fine.
Yet in 2013 Sambora fired back at Bon Jovi’s claims – indicating to MailOnline that his reason for leaving on this occasion had nothing to do with alcohol. He said, “I don’t have any major problems in life right now, I love my fans and I feel bad for them at the moment. Bottom line.” He then suggested that, far from Bon Jovi being angry that he’d left the band, he’d actually wanted him gone.
“My opinion is [Bon Jovi] wants to see if he can pull off stadiums by himself,” Sambora claimed. “He is making it very difficult for me to come back.” The guitarist then called for an end to the disparaging comments, saying, “Enough with the trash talking. [Bon Jovi] needs to stop talking about me publicly.”
But it didn’t end there. Bon Jovi took several more opportunities to voice his opinion on the matter in the years following Sambora’s departure. During a 2016 interview with CBS This Morning, he told Gayle King that he hadn’t been in Sambora’s company for more than three years. The star then made a disparaging claim about his ex-bandmate’s work ethic.
“[Sambora] just didn’t show up for work anymore,” Bon Jovi claimed. “And that’s the truth of the matter. And, you know, life goes on.” The rock megastar insisted that he wasn’t angry at the guitarist in any way, though, because he wasn’t tied to the band forever. In Bon Jovi’s opinion, there are no life sentences when it comes to rock and roll.
“You have other things in your life that you care to do,” Bon Jovi went on. “But it’s okay because you share your art as long as you choose to share it. You know, you don’t have to do this for a living. You choose to do it for a living.”
But what about Sambora’s side of the story? Well, he gave some insight into this during a 2018 radio interview on the Rock Talk with Mitch Lafon show. He cited a disappointment that, over the years, it felt like Bon Jovi was a one-man-show – as opposed to a group in which each member was vital. He said, “I thought we should have made more strides to become a band.”
Sambora continued, “It was going towards [Bon Jovi] being the front-guy and nothing else. I kept on going, ‘American rock ‘n’ roll band, American rock ‘n’ roll band, American rock ‘n’ roll band.’” Yet he also claimed that the frontman issue didn’t emerge when the group had already hit the big time. No, the realization that things were shifting this way allegedly set in as far back as the recording of their second album: 1985’s 7800 Degrees Fahrenheit.
In a 2019 interview with trade publication Pollstar, Bon Jovi tried to explain why the band was able to continue without Sambora. In the process, though, he seemed to downplay the guitarist’s role in the group. He said, “This isn’t a band that is dependent on the guitar player like Van Halen or U2 or something. It was about the songs and it was about me.”
Bon Jovi then touched upon Sambora’s departure, saying, “We got it. I wish he was here, too, because we were a formidable duo. Our voices were the magic and he’s a great guy and all that kind of stuff, but his choices have led him astray.” But that wasn’t all. In 2020 Bon Jovi offered his thoughts again regarding Sambora’s alleged behavior.
Speaking on the Rock Antenne YouTube channel, Bon Jovi was asked if he would ever want to change anything about his career. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this prompted the rock legend to bring up his ex-bandmate yet again. He said, “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wish [Sambora] had his life together and was still in the band.”
Though once more, anything positive said about Sambora by Bon Jovi was quickly undercut. He said, “Some things happened that were the catalyst for why other good things happened, you know?” He then added, “In a weird way, it’s because of his inability to get it together anymore that we went on and wrote This House Is Not For Sale.”
Bon Jovi was referring to the band’s 2016 record, which was their 14th studio album and the first without Sambora’s participation. Impressively, it also hit number one on the Billboard 200. Bon Jovi told Rock Antenne, “It was a very strong record. I don’t know where we would have gone, but through all that pain and heartbreak came this.”
A few weeks later, Sambora conducted his own interview with DailyMailTV. And he lifted the lid on what he claimed were the real reasons behind his choice to leave the life of a touring rock star behind. In a pointed retort to Bon Jovi’s claims, he said, “When people say I don’t have my life together – are you kidding me? I’m the happiest dude on the block.”
Sambora explained that severing ties with Bon Jovi was an extremely difficult decision to make. After all, he knew the band’s legions of fans would be heartbroken. The guitarist said, “Obviously it hurts and, you know, breaking up is hard to do. I was in a situation and it was not easy to make that decision to leave the band and the fans.”
The core of the matter, though, was that Sambora’s family was in trouble and he needed to take some time to be with them. He revealed, “I was in a dire situation with my family and I had to make a tough decision and I did, and I’m sure people weren’t happy about it.” At that point in time, Sambora’s ex-wife Heather Locklear was experiencing serious personal problems.
The couple had sadly divorced in 2007 following a 13-year marriage. But Locklear’s life took several dark turns in the years following the relationship break-up – including brushes with the law for driving under the influence and domestic abuse. The police were contacted by people concerned about her mental health and she was forced to seek help at medical facilities. And it left Sambora and Locklear’s daughter Ava in an unenviable position.
Fast forward to 2020 and Sambora is adamant that he made the right decision. Ava has recently left college and the guitarist’s relationship with Locklear is also in a great place. He told DailyMailTV, “My daughter just graduated on the dean’s list from LSU and she’s gone on to grad school now.”
Sambora continued, “And so it’s just, you know, [Ava] and I have just been really fantastic, and we just have a great relationship.” Turning his attention to Locklear, he said, “I love [her] now more than when we first met. We still maintain a friendship and realize that we are definitely bound by blood and family. Whatever I had to do to support her, I did.”
An anonymous friend of Sambora’s spoke to the Daily Mail and reiterated that he left the band to concentrate on his duties as a father. The pal also took issue with Bon Jovi’s characterization of the situation – alleging that his words were an attempt to discredit his old bandmate. And that wasn’t all: they also labeled the singer a “low-class rock star.”
Another apparent insider gave People magazine more details about the musician’s decision. They said, “[Sambora] sacrificed a lot to be there for his daughter when she was still very young and needed him the most, and he’s so proud to see how well she’s doing now. She just had her birthday, and they had a family celebration.”
The source continued, “It was the right decision to step off the stage to be a full-time father. At the end [Sambora] was suffering being on the road so much. He has no regrets about leaving the band.” The person then indicated that the time he has spent as a more hands-on dad has been wonderful for him and his daughter.
“[Sambora] was happy being there to drive with Ava to her first day of high school and to pool parties with her friends,” the apparent insider stated. “These last seven years have been the most loving and rewarding in his life. They have traveled the world together and brought friends to truly share the fun. He wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
All in all, the source believed that Sambora’s whole family has benefited from him leaving Bon Jovi behind. They claimed, “Especially now that [Locklear] is doing so well and loving life again, they feel like they have a second lease on life.” As we can see, the insider’s insight into Sambora’s home life sounded a world away from Bon Jovi’s accusation that he didn’t have his life together.
Regardless of Bon Jovi’s comments, Sambora insisted there is no feud between him and his former frontman. He told DailyMailTV, “We’ve had our ups and downs throughout the years as any married couple have.” And he was adamant that they have no bad blood and are not engaged in a “war of words.” That’s a relief!
But will Sambora ever rejoin the group? Well, he gave his fans a glimmer of hope by indicating he wouldn’t rule out a reunion with Bon Jovi. The rocker said, “It would have to be a special situation for me to go back, but I’m certainly not counting it out. I have no malice toward that band.”