Seen A Million Faces
Richie Sambora and Jon Bon Jovi may have written a song about life on the road that peaked at number 7 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, featured in TV shows and movies, and kickstarted the hugely successful MTV unplugged series, but it all was made possible by Sambora’s mother not doing the laundry the day they wrote it.
This was because the international hit Wanted Dead or Alive was written around 1985 in the basement of Sambora’s home, where his mum’s use of the family washing machine might have changed the course of music history. At the time Bon Jovi were playing around 300 gigs per year and the lead singer was listening to the Bob Seger song, Turn the Page, which deals with the theme of life on tour. Jon Bon Jovi wanted to write something along the same lines and evoked wild west cowboys to conjure up the colourful image of moving from town to town, ‘stealing the money, the girls, and the booze before the sun came up.’ So he turned to Sambora and said "We got to write a song like this."
Taken from the Slippery When Wet album, the power ballad has many versions, some with one of Sambora's trademark multi-neck 12-string Ovation guitars, and others where he switches to one of his Stratocasters. Sometimes Jon sings the whole song while on other versions the pair take turns singing during the second and the last verse.
The music video shows the exhausted band members travelling from Rochester, New York's War Memorial Auditorium to Chicago's UIC Pavilion, and from Denver's McNichols Arena to Huntington, West Virginia. But it doesn’t really matter where they actually are because: “It's all the same, Only the names will change… I'm a cowboy, On a steel horse I ride, I'm wanted, Dead or alive.” The mix of weariness and euphoria of life on long tours is then succinctly summed up in the song’s final lines: “I been everywhere, oh yeah, Still I'm standing tall, I've seen a million faces, And I've rocked them all.”
Richard Stephen Sambora was born on 11 July, 1959 in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, to parents of Polish descent. His mother was a secretary and father a factory foreman, and as he describes it in one interview: “I was a kid who grew up next to a swamp in New Jersey, [from a family] with a lower class income and I was able to get and do it [like …] Springsteen, same cat, Bono, same cat, Jagger, same cat – just because they love music. I never had money, my first guitar was ten bucks, it never stayed in tune, but I still taught myself how to play it…”
His lifelong commitment to raising money and awareness for charities can be traced back to the enthusiasm he felt at around the age of 12 when he first started playing guitar. “If you get a little bit good at it, you get obsessed, [and you think] maybe I could play like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, and when that happens as a child you start to create…”
Sambora's key influences included BB King, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimmy Page, but perhaps surprisingly he also loved Spanish classical music and the legendary Janis Joplin. Having first tasted what it felt like to be on a stage at a Catholic youth dance, he later played on a track called Lessons by the band Message in 1982. Sambora often sang lead vocals in his subsequent bands, such as Mercy, Duke Williams & the Extremes and Richie Sambora & Friends; something that is often forgotten by many who mainly know him for his skill on the six string.
After opening for Joe Cocker and auditioning for Kiss, a mutual friend, Alec John Such, suggested he attend one of Bon Jovi’s gigs. Sambora was immediately impressed and after chatting with the lead singer back stage he auditioned and then joined the band, after guitarist Dave Sabo left to form Skid Row. On the same night he was hired he went to Jon’s mother’s house and the pair co-wrote Come Back and Burning for Love, both of which would appear on the band's eponymous 1984 debut album.
Over the following 30 years the band became one of the biggest acts in the world, with their studio album releases including Slippery When Wet (1986), Crush (2000), Bounce (2002), Have a Nice Day (2005) and What About Now (2013). Hit singles included You Give Love a Bad Name, I’ll Be There For You, Blaze Of Glory, and the legendary anthem Livin’ On A Prayer. The latter in particular struck a chord with working class American youth as it tells the story of dockworker Tommy and waitress Gina, who are working to build a life together despite constant financial problems and other trouble.
At Bon Jovi’s peak Sambora said that writing songs was “a 50 50 thing with me and Jon, but it’s still five musicians working very hard and that’s where the magic lies; we make this musical soup together and stir it up - that’s when we become Bon Jovi.”
Frustrations with constant touring and friction within the band were brought to a head when Sambora’s daughter was becoming independent – he particularly notes her passing her driving test as a symbolic moment in this regard – and he wanted to be with her, so he left the band. "I really needed to take some time to be with my daughter," he stated "She needed me and I needed her, actually.”
In 2014 Sambora was asked in an interview how scary it was to ‘go solo’. In response he says “I was a lead singer in most of the bands I was in before Bon Jovi and I have managed to fit in three solo albums and three solo tours along the way. I was the guy who wrote all those songs and produced all the records and my last tour was 18 and a half months in 52 countries…”
Specifically his first solo album was 1991's bluesy Stranger in This Town, which hit the top 20 in the UK, with its lead single Ballad Of Youth reaching 63 on the US Billboard Top 100 chart. Eric Clapton, Tony Levin, and former bandmates Tico Torres and David Bryan all helped promote it. 1998’s Undiscovered Soul was Sambora's sophomore solo album, which hit 24 on the UK album chart, with the lead single Hard Times Come Easy entering the top 40 in the UK. Following a series of life challenges including a battle with alcoholism, a divorce, and the death of his father, Sambora released Aftermath of the Lowdown in September 2012. Again, his solo album entered the UK top 40 Albums Chart.
While on a trip to Hawaii, Sambora hooked up with his old friend Alice Cooper who happened to be doing a concert there for disadvantaged youth and asked if Sambora would join him on stage. During rehearsals for that gig he noticed the Australian guitarist Orianthi, and asked Cooper who she was. “the reply was ‘that is Orianthi, she played with Michael Jackson and she plays with me now” and I said … “not for long! (laughs)” Shortly after Sambora asked Orianthi to ‘jam with him’, and they released a couple of EPs together under the name of RSO. Their joint album, Radio Free America, was released in May 2018.
While Sambora played together with Bon Jovi again in 2018 - when the band were inducted into Rock n Roll’s Hall of Fame -, relations remain difficult with his co-writer, with Jon commenting “There's not a day that goes by that I don't wish that Richie had his life together and was still in the band.” Sambora was unhappy both with Jon’s public statements and in particular his insinuation that his life was ‘untogether’. In his reply he said: “…I don't have any major problems in life right now... Bottom line: Jon needs to stop talking about me publicly. He is making it very difficult for me to come back.”
In fact Sambora says he feels really good about where his life is. “I’m spending a lot of time on different projects like writing songs for other people, producing records and being the lead singer of a band again […] My daughter just graduated from LSU as a psychology major and we have a great relationship. [Also] I’m blessed with this incredible career in music and if I can help raise awareness for certain issues because of my celebrity status I will certainly do so.”