A Concert for Ronnie Montrose — A Celebration of His Life and Music was a real-life manifestation of those words. For those in attendance, this wasn’t a concert — it was more like a pilgrimage to Mecca. The second that tickets went on sale, fans around the globe battled to secure them. Four minutes later, the battle was over, the show completely sold out! For those who performed, in the words of Styx bassist Ricky Phillips, “I’m glad there is so much interest in this event, and that it sold out so quickly. We [the musicians] are playing this show to honor and revisit the incredible legacy he left musically, and I hope that the people will see this. Ronnie was a great friend, a great man and an incredible musician…I miss him with every fiber.”
Jim Douglas of Prime Time Entertainment, Ronnie’s close friend and booking agent, was inspired to put together this tribute show shortly after the devastating news of Ronnie’s death on March 3, 2012. “Ronnie had been under the radar for a number of years during his battle with cancer, only playing the occasional gig here and there,” Jim said. “Over the last couple years, he had become more and more inspired to play. Much of that was due to his wife Leighsa becoming his manager. She made things enjoyable for him again. We had a lot of things in the works when he passed, and I just felt like…we weren’t done yet. My goal in putting this together was to acknowledge his contribution to music, and honor his legacy.”
All it took was the mention of Jim’s idea to a couple of friends in the industry, and this historic event in rock history was underway. Those in the loop during its “beta testing” stage worked every resource and called in all favors because they, too, realized that this event had to happen. This core group included:
- Executive Producer- Leighsa Montrose
- Media Sponsors BamMagazine.com,107.7 The Bone, and KFOX.
- Paul Binder (Production Manager for Sammy Hagar/Montrose)
- Dan McNay, Music Director for the Montrose All-Star Band
- Guitar Player’s Editor-in-Chief Michael Molenda
- Show Program Coordinator Glen Letsch (Production Coordinator for Gamma)
- Associate Producer/Video Coordinator Pete Crowley
- Show Producer Mick Brigden
- Event Coordinators- Jim Douglas, Roger Worsten, and Linda Hylen
- Media Manager-
Kenny Wardell (BAM’s Managing Editor)
MC/host Jerry Pompeli
Guitar Player also covered program production costs.
Show Producer Mick Brigden, manager of Chickenfoot and Joe Satriani, was instrumental in coordinating a number of key elements such as booking the venue and coordinating the deal with the Montrose reunion. “I was the tour manager for Montrose from 1973 to 1975 and then co-managed Ronnie, along with Bill Graham, from 1977 to 1982,” he recalled. “Ronnie was incredibly focused and driven. He had a vision and knew exactly what he wanted. He pushed all of us and expected 100 percent. Anything less, and you were gone! We were just kids starting out, so it seemed kind of rough. But it made us realize why we were all there — to work in the music business. He gave me my start, so I had a vested interest in making this show as great as it could be.”
Producer/director Pete Crowley of BamMagazine.com brought in Broadcast partner HDNET who provided the crew and use of their high-end equipment to film this historic event for posterity. The show is being scheduled for a nationwide TV broadcast that will run later this summer. Further news and information will be provided at BamMagazine.com.
So, with cameras rolling, amps fired up, and guitars slung over shoulders, the lights went down at The Regency Ballroom on Van Ness Avenue, and it was time to get this party started! When members of Journey and Styx are the opening act, you know you’re in for one hell of a show! Journey’s Neal Schon (guitar) and Steve Smith (drums), along with bassist Ricky Phillips of Styx and renowned session player Ed Roth on keyboards, kicked off this incredible evening with explosive yet soulful renditions of the instrumentals “Open Fire” and Ronnie’s beloved “Town Without Pity.”
Then came one of the evening’s most emotional moments. In 1981, Ronnie won “Guitarist of the Year” at the Bay Area Music Awards (a.k.a. The Bammies). In the years that followed, the award had been badly damaged. Ronnie often mentioned to his wife Leighsa that he wished it could be restored. After the Journey set, Bay Area Music Awards founder (and BAM Magazine’s Editor-In-Chief) Dennis Erokan took a few minutes to present the restored award, in the shape of a golden microphone, to Leighsa and Ronnie’s daughter Kira.
“We’re here to honor and celebrate the wonderful music of one of the greatest musicians from the Bay Area — Ronnie Montrose,” said Dennis, as the audience roared in appreciation.
In accepting the award, Leighsa read Ronnie’s words from the liner notes of his 1999 album, Bearings:
“Music is one of the most powerful and precious gifts we all share. The best that any of us can do is try to connect with the core of what it is that drives us to express ourselves through any creative medium we choose, and bring as much of ourselves as we can to that process. I have chosen playing guitar and composing music (or have they chosen me? ) as my principal means of creative expression. For me, the work of refining that process is always ongoing. My wish is that you find all of the pleasure and joy in listening to this music that I found in creating it. My deepest gratitude to the incredible gifted and talented musicians who helped me to bring this music to you.”
Leighsa ended by saying, “I am going to do what Ronnie would do.” She then made the shape of a heart with her hands, extending it to the audience — Ronnie’s signature gesture of appreciation. The audience erupted in cheers and tears.
At one of the show’s rehearsals, held at The Record Plant in Sausalito, Neal Schon (Journey), Steve Smith (Journey), Ricky Phillips (Styx), and Jeff Watson (Night Ranger) shared some thoughts about their friend Ronnie.
BAM: How will you remember him?
Steve Smith: For me, I had an experience that was very unique. Playing his music was a bridge for me from being a jazz fusion drummer to — let’s say — a rock fusion with Ronnie. I was working with rock musicians. I don’t know that I would have been able to go right from jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty to Journey. I needed a transition. I can look back now and think it was the perfect transition. For me to be in that position, it prepared me to do the music with Journey. [Ronnie and I] had a lot of fun playing together and hanging out. It was a very positive time in my life.
Neal Schon: What I enjoyed about Ronnie is that he wasn’t stuck in one genre, which I’ve never tried to be, either. I like to try to experiment a bit and play on a lot of different albums. Ronnie seemed to do that. He wanted to always create and come up with what was in his mind, instead of being stagnant and resting on some laurels. In other words, sure he could have just kept on doing the straight-ahead rock stuff, but you know, he aspired to do all the instrumental stuff. I knew him for all those years, but I never really played on stage with Ronnie. But for me, I’m going to be happy and always remember doing this with Steve in his honor, and playing one of his biggest songs. It’s tragic, but he’s got a lot of great music out there that will live on.
Jeff Watson: Ronnie was my friend, mentor and became my producer in the ’70s. It was my involvement with Ronnie and Sammy that lead to our formation of Night Ranger. Ronnie was a musical pioneer, a true American rock guitar hero, and an ever-curious soul. He will be deeply missed, but the legacy he started will live on!
BAM: What songs are you going to be doing at the Tribute show?
Ricky Phillips: Well, along with one of my old bandmates here — Neal Schon, from my Bad English days — and the incredible Steve Smith, who I met when they were both in Journey and I was in The Babys and we used to tour together — and Ed Roth on keys — we’re gonna do “Town Without Pity” and “Open Fire.” Tonight I’m rehearsing with a couple of guys from Kiss. We’re doing “Wild Night” — which is the first time Ronnie ever heard himself on the radio. Every musician remembers the first time they heard themselves on the radio, and that was Ronnie’s. So we’re doing “Wild Night” from when he was with Van Morrison, obviously. Then, let’s see…”Frankenstein,” “Free Ride,” “One Thing on my Mind.” For some reason…or maybe I’m just greedy [laughter]…I wanted to be there for Ronnie, and for Ronnie’s family. When they asked me if I would do the heavy lifting, I said “No, I don’t mind at all, I’m happy to do it!”
Gamma bassist Glen Letsch was the driving force that brought back his Gamma brethren — vocalist Davey Pattison and drummer Denny Carmassi — to the stage for this bittersweet occasion. Guitarist Marc Bonilla (who has worked with Ronnie Montrose, Keith Emerson, and many others) joined the original trio in commemorating many of Gamma’s best: “Thunder and Lightning,” “Razor King,” and “Voyager”, among them.
“In 1990,” said Marc Bonilla, “Ronnie had commented that he didn’t want to see me fall along the wayside. He offered to take me into the studio, at his expense, and produce a guitar instrumental album for me, which is what we did. The album was eventually picked up by Reprise and released as EE Ticket, which gave me my start in the business. He guested on both EE Ticket and American Matador.
“Ronnie was my mentor and true friend,” Marc continued. “He took me under his wing when no one else would. He believed in my abilities, when all I would get from others was the sob story about how hard it was to survive in the business. He was a survivor, and he taught me how to survive. He was always breaking new ground with his musical endeavors and never rested on his laurels. He played low and deliberate on that guitar neck, when all other guitarists were in a dead heat race for the 22nd fret. He had a knack for twisting the right tone and phrase out of the guitar, and he coupled it with inventive arrangements — the American Jimmy Page.”
Four decades after the breakup of the band that bore his name, the surviving members of Montrose — vocalist Sammy Hagar, bassist Bill Church, and drummer Denny Carmassi — took the stage, with guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani filling Ronnie’s now empty space. In a word, their set was powerful! The crowd at the Regency Ballroom was mesmerized one minute and ecstatic the next. As always, “Satch” boogied in top form with the rhythm section locked in the pocket, as they belted out the songs that made their band a legend: “Good Rocking Tonight,” “Rock Candy,” “Make It Last,” “Space Station #5.” Following their final song, eyes began to water and throats tightened. The band put down their instruments and embraced for a long and heartfelt moment, and then bid the crowd farewell.
During the second intermission, guitars generously donated by Tone Pro’s were auctioned off to raise funds for Ronnie’s charity affiliate, Sweet Relief, and the Ronnie Montrose Estate.
“Words can’t explain all the thoughts going through my head,” said guitarist/vocalist Michael Lee Firkins. “After touring with Ronnie this past year…definitely one of the most important years of my life. I got to learn his songs from him, and I played in front of the fans that he collected for over 40 years. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You really learn a lot about generosity from somebody like Ronnie. Total pro, and a class act!”
“We hit it off, right off the bat!” said Randy Scoles (Ronnie Montrose vocalist). “After just, like, a week and a half of hanging around him before they went on holiday, it felt like we’d known each other forever! Three shows in to those first four, he said, ‘So, do you want to do this or what, brother?’ …’I’m yours if you want me!’ He hugs me and says, ‘I love this man!’
“…The guy was so giving, I learned a lot from him,” Randy continued. “He would pull me aside almost every show and say, ‘You’re a great singer. There’s already a Davey Pattison, there’s already a Sammy Hagar…You got this job because of you…Make the songs your own!’ Who gets that? Especially with the catalog he had! Usually it’s like, ‘Don’t screw with my shit!’…But he was like that…He would say to me, ‘You sounded great tonight…Don’t call me a rock & roll legend! It makes me uncomfortable!’ To his credit, he was very down-to-earth. Music-wise, as huge as it was, that was only one side of him. You guys interviewed him, you know how laid-back and nice he was…just very giving that way. He was fun, we miss him a lot. Steve, Dan and I…it was like a family with Ronnie and all of us, it really was. There was no pretension. I mean, Ronnie was definitely the ringmaster, but we were the three clowns that cut up behind him, you know?”
“I’ve worked as a road manager for Ronnie on and off for the past 10 years,” recalled Richie Varrasso. “So I’ve been privileged to experience his gigs, his colleagues, and his friends. I often had to fetch a waiting friend who brought a guitar or gear from outside the backstage parking lot. Or make sure that a press or radio person was never overlooked. He loved organization and always played a perfect gig. The musicians that surrounded him were all top-notch industry professionals. REO Speedwagon’s world-class lead guitar opted to tour as his bass player. Another guy shed his makeup from rock’s biggest brand to be his drummer. His fans were deeply rooted, with most attending every gig he played in their town. [Ronnie Montrose was] so brilliant and embedded in our musical history that it would be hard not to hear his work permeating air waves daily. And with him, the road went on and on…Until the celebration — where all his colleagues came together one very spiritual time over his passing. Under the design of his wife, Leighsa staged one of the most loving events to exacting detail. Ronnie was truly Californian, and the mix of Hollywood and Bay Area favorites were unbeatable. There was extreme cooperation amongst the musical colleagues, and no grief from the mogul managers; things rolled how they did. The most famous people in the business were there because Ronnie touched their lives. This concert could have gone on for hours! But we ran out of time, yet still have the love left to linger. I’ve been there, and I know he would want us to love and cherish our time with each other always. He was that way. God bless.”
The second half of the night featured The Ronnie Montrose All-Star Band, a collection of former band members and long-time friends who came together to do what musicians do at times like this…JAM! The influence Ronnie had on music was made abundantly clear by the cavalcade of musicians compelled to play at this event in his honor. Michael Lee Firkins (vocals/guitar, Michael Lee Firkins Band), Dan McNay (bass, Ronnie Montrose), and Steve Brown (drums, Ronnie Montrose) started off the “All-Star” set with a string sliding, bluesy version of “Spaceage Sacrifice.” Randy Scoles (vocals, Ronnie Montrose) joined the trio for “Connections,” the Rolling Stones cover that appeared on Paper Money. Tesla — Jeff Keith (vocals), Frank Hannon (guitar), Brian Wheat (bass), Troy Luccketta (drums), and Dave Rude (guitar) — played “Flight Rock” and “Little Suzy.” Eric Martin (vocals, Mr.Big) and Keith St. John (vocals, Ronnie Montrose) shared the vocal mic for “One Thing On My Mind” with Tommy Thayer (guitar, Kiss), Eric Singer (drums, Kiss), and Ricky Phillips (bass, Styx). Jeff Watson (guitar, Night Ranger) ended the evening with “Frankenstein.”
Later, renowned session drummer Jimmy Paxson shared his memories of Ronnie Montrose:
“The other night at the tribute concert, I was holding back tears from the word go. All that music started with Ronnie’s visions. He was the shit. I will never forget him, and when I see Leighsa’s love for him, as well as all the love he was surrounded with, I know he felt he was in great hands and very much in love and loved in every way. He was never a complacent guy, he was a doer…He did the work. He understood. And I know I speak for many in saying that he left an impression that will always reside in the warmest place in our hearts. Ronnie reached for it constantly, and never rested upon his laurels. Theodore Roosevelt once said, ‘It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.’ Ronnie never failed, nor was he ever cold and timid…He was constantly moving forward. Every moment was amazing. Now and forever — I love you, Ronnie.
“We all love him for his songwriting and signature guitar tone/playing style,” Jimmy said, “but for those of us who got to know him well, probably love him best for just how genuine of a person he was. Extremely gracious of his time to everyone he met, basically opened up his heart and let you climb right in. To me, he was a mentor not only in my guitar-building career but also as a guitarist/vocalist. He shared everything from gear tech talk, favorite BBQ recipes, guitar design ideas, to taking you under his wing, helping me out musically. Sharing any amount of stage time with him was always energizing, allowing for some very special moments shared by all and would electrify a room. I applaud him to no end for the diversity in all he created, and will forever cherish the time we shared.”
And finally, here is my own Ronnie story…
When I was asked to do an interview with Ronnie at the filming of his live DVD for BamMagazine.com, I was sure I was the luckiest person on the planet! Little did I know then that it would be his last interview. When the interview was posted, I got an email from Leighsa Montrose. “Ronnie and I thank you from the bottom of our hearts,” she wrote. “Ronnie had a total blast sitting and pouring out his feelings to you. He told me he has not felt more comfortable in an interview setting for quite a long time. Thank YOU so much for being there for him! We will do it again!” I was stunned. A few days later, Ronnie forwarded an email to me. It was a letter of reference that he had sent to a number of his contacts, on my behalf. In the header, he’d written, “Bet you thought I’d forget. Feel free to use it again as needed. I sense great things in your future. Best of luck to you and BAM.”
I share this because it is yet another example of the common theme expressed in every testimonial about the man. Ronnie was a consummate mentor and producer — in more ways than just music. His passions and emotion ran deep. Add to that, he had an empathic quality that filtered the world around and people around him. I share the same sentiment as his singer, Randy Scoles, who said, “I’d only known this man for a span of about four or five months… and I’m at his birthday party, we shoot a live DVD… Then next, I’m at his funeral. When you talk about a snapshot of a person’s life that you could be in, I really came in at a pretty critical area — between his birthday, his first ever live DVD, and his death — you know what I mean? I’m honored to have known the man and the family and friends that I’ve been introduced to since then. It’s a good thing, and there’s not a day goes by that we don’t miss him.”
Thank you, Ronnie, for your gift of your legacy which will outlive us all. Thanks and appreciation are extended to the following. This tribute became a reality because their efforts and generosity.
- All the Musicians
- Leighsa Montrose
- Mick Brigden
- Jim Douglas
- Roger Wiersema
- SherieLyn Hafalia
- Paige Benjamin
- Kenny Wardell
- Dennis Erokan
- Michael Molenda
- Pete Crowley
- Dan NcNay
- Dwight Deaveroux
- Bob Gordon
- Dean Markley
- Lagunitas Brewing Company
- Ibanez Guitars
- Gelb Music
- Rick Harrison
- A V Images
- Steve Haworth
- Michael Indelicato and The Record Plant
- Roger Worsten and Polarity Post
- Jerry Pompeli
- Steven Seaweed
- Paul “Lobster” Wells
- Rob Kern
- David Lefkowitz
- Joan Rosenberg