Richie Sambora moves on with partner Orianthi, but 'can't say never' to future Bon Jovi reunion

Jon Wiederhorn
Writer
Richie Sambora and Orianthi perform at the NAMM convention in Anaheim, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017. (Bill Alkofer/The Orange County Register via AP)

From 1983 until 2013, New Jersey guitarist Richie Sambora was the seemingly irreplaceable lead guitarist for multiplatinum rocker Bon Jovi. Along with frontman Jon Bon Jovi, Sambora co-wrote songs for 12 albums and rode the wave of success, from struggling New Jersey club act to international stadium rock sensation. Then, after Sambora failed to appear at an April 2013 show in Calgary, Canada, and didn’t return, many fans were convinced that ugly infighting or money disputes had led to his departure.

At the time, Sambora told The Today Show in Australia, “My spirit just wouldn’t pull myself out the door. I needed to be home.” Jon Bon Jovi later told CBS This Morning, “He just didn’t show up for work anymore. And that’s the truth of the matter. And you know, life goes on.”

Replaced by experienced session player Phil X, Sambora spent time with his daughter, Ava, now 20, and took a much-needed professional break. And then he saw Australian guitar virtuoso Orianthi (who has played with everyone from Michael Jackson to Alice Cooper) playing at a benefit show in Hawaii.

“I was sitting in the audience and I turned to Alice and said, ‘Hey, who’s that?’ And I pointed to Ori,” Sambora tells Yahoo Music. ‘And Alice goes, ‘Oh, that’s Orianthi. She used to play for Michael Jackson and she plays for me now.’ And that was it. I was first attracted to her looks, and then I listened to her playing and I was blown away. I told her I’d love to play with her, and she laughed and gave me her number.”

Shortly after, Sambora was booked to open a festival in Australia when his guitarist’s mother got ill and had to cancel. “If I had to, I’d have done it myself, but I called Ori and thought, ‘Why not bring her back to Australia?’ I called her and she said, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ And that was it. We quickly got together [romantically] after that, and it’s been great in every way ever since.”

After writing a batch of new material together, Sambora and Orianthi formed the new band RSO in 2014. At the same time, Sambora insists, there’s no animosity between Bon Jovi and him and that he has “talked to Jon a little bit” since his departure, though the band has been touring a lot so they haven’t spoken about what he’s doing with RSO.

When Sambora was in Bon Jovi, he was able to indulge in various styles of music, ranging from delicate heartstring-tuggers to fist-pumping rockers. However, the sonic changes he took part in with Bon Jovi are almost static compared with the genre-hopping he does with RSO.

“When we started, we did things ass-backward,” Sambora says. “We started touring first and saw how our voices meshed together and how our guitar playing worked off one another. It was pretty good right off the top. But once we started writing together, we wanted to hunt down every genre we could, and own it to the best of our abilities. It’s not just about the two of us playing guitar, which is of course what we’re primarily known for.”

RSO’s recently released debut EP, Rise, features five songs, each with a distinct voice. The title track is slinky hard rock with a bluesy main riff reminiscent of Lenny Kravitz; “Masterpiece” is a slick pop-funk number saturated with lavish production and sweeping vocals somewhat redolent of Adele; “Truth” starts with pianos reminiscent of Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” then evolves into a heartfelt, confessional love song; “Take Me” is a shuffling, jazzy, Latin-flavored song that features trumpet and a flamenco guitar solo. And the EP ends with a horn-infused, country-tinged number that features a guest appearance by Canadian rapper k-os.

“We’re fans of so many styles of music, so we just really wanted to do something no one had done before,” Orianthi tells Yahoo.

Sambora and Orianthi recorded Rise with veteran producer Bob Rock (Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe, Metallica) in their home kitchen studio in bits and pieces during the past few years. And it’s just a sampler of what’s to come. RSO recorded 22 songs, and right now the plan is to release them over the next year as a series of four EPs.

“Oh, man, the solos are coming!” Sambora enthuses. “There’s a lot of guitar playing of all different kinds that we’ve done. With Rise, we decided to give everybody a little taste of what’s on the RSO menu — and there’s a lot more on the way. There’s more blues, acoustic music, heaviness, and definitely more guitar playing.”

There are also more special guests. Future tracks will feature performances by Doors guitarist Robby Krieger, who stopped by Sambora and Orianthi’s studio for a home-cooked meal (“Ori is an amazing cook,” Sambora says) and Alice Cooper, who actually recorded his vocals over the phone from Transylvania. They also received musical guidance from Paul McCartney.

“Paul was playing a show and he’s a friend of mine,” Sambora explains. “Throughout the years we’ve played together a lot. So we went to see him and he invited us up to his hotel suite afterwards. We hung out for a while, which was extraordinary. And I said to him, ‘I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you’d like to come by the studio tomorrow so I could play you a couple tracks.’ And he said, ‘All right, mate. I’ll be there at 1:30.’”

Sambora was flattered that McCartney accepted his offer, but didn’t expect the music legend to show up, since he had another show to play that night. So Sambora didn’t tell anyone working at the studio that the former Beatle might swing by.

“He rode his bicycle over and walked into the studio wearing a tracksuit and a baseball cap,” Sambora recalls. “Ori didn’t recognize him. She thought he was a bicycle messenger. We were working in a small studio downstairs doing overdubs when he arrived, and Paul poked his head in and looked right at Ori and she just kept working with her guitar while everyone else stopped dead in their tracks.”

McCartney listened to some songs and gave Sambora and Orianthi his blessings, but suggested they add a guitar lead to an orchestrated number called “One Night of Peace,” which Sambora says RSO plan to perform for a televised concert on Nov. 29 “to salute the troops.” “I told Paul, ‘Yes, sir,’ and as soon as he left I put a guitar solo on there. It’s a pretty heartfelt song.”

Sambora says he and Orianthi will also perform in Chicago for a PBS Soundstage special on Halloween. “I did a tribute to my good friend [the late] Les Paul, and it did really well for PBS and in a bunch of places all over the world, so we have a good relationship with them. I think we’re going to perform at least the first two EPs in their entirety.” Following the TV performances, RSO will stage a full-scale world tour, with stops at multiple festivals across Europe and South America. They’re currently in the process of hiring players for the tour.

In addition to marking the birth of RSO, 2017 is a landmark for Sambora for another reason: It’s the 30th anniversary of Bon Jovi’s groundbreaking Slippery When Wet world tour. Bon Jovi were just announced as a nominee for the 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and next September will be the 30th anniversary of another massive Bon Jovi album, New Jersey. At this point, nobody’s proposed the idea of Sambora rejoining his bandmates for any sort of celebration, yet he refuses to completely shut the door on the idea of playing again with the band he helped build from the ground up.

“You know, you can’t say never,” Sambora says. “We made a lot of people happy. We put a lot of asses in the seats over the years and sold a lot of records, so that’s nothing to be sneezed at. I have complete gratitude for all of that stuff. But right now, my main focus is about Ori and I building our own brand and solidifying our own space.”