Remember When: Bon Jovi Guitarist Richie Sambora Released His First Solo Album

After Bon Jovi finished their 18-month Jersey Syndicate World Tour in February 1990, the five band members went their separate ways. They were burned out after a six-year cycle of albums and tours, and needed a break from the road and each other. Frontman Jon Bon Jovi quickly went on to make his first solo album Blaze of Glory, a collection of rock songs written for and inspired by the western film Young Guns II, indulging in his Old West cowboy fetish.

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Guitarist Richie Sambora, on the other hand, took a very different approach to his first solo album Stranger in This Town, which was released in September 1991. He explored a moody, soulful sound that showed there was a lot more to his playing and songwriting than had been previously heard in the band that made him famous.

Sambora enlisted different talent for the project, including songwriters Bruce Stephen Foster and Tommy Marolda, bassist Tony Levin, Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan and drummer Tico Torres, Synergy keyboardist Larry Fast, and songwriter Desmond Child, who co-wrote some of Bon Jovi’s biggest hits. Bassist Randy Jackson played on “One Light Burning.”

One of the tracks on Stranger in This Town was “Rosie,” a song Sambora co-wrote with Bon Jovi, Child, and Diane Warren at a time in the late ‘80s when Bon Jovi and Sambora were selling songs to other artists like Cher and Loverboy.

Back to His Roots

Stranger in This Town was refreshingly different and showed that as a singer and guitarist Sambora could stand out in his own right. The lead single “Ballad of Youth” had a haunting quality to it. The atmospheric ambient prelude “Rest in Peace” led into the moody “Church of Desire.” “Rosie” and “River of Love” were more high-energy blues-rock numbers. Sambora showed he could let rip on guitar but also be restrained and elegant, and one could hear how his emotive singing was an integral part of his main band’s vocal harmonies.

“With this record, I went back to my roots, where I learned more,” Sambora told French site ina.fr in 1991. “I tried to go back and find what made me want to play music in the first place. Essentially, I think that’s what ‘Mr. Bluesman’ is about. It’s a song about a boy wanting to be a guitar player. Essentially it was me wanting to be Eric Clapton, me wanting to be Jimmy Page or Johnny Winter.

“When I first picked up the guitar, I was trying to emulate Eric Clapton. It was funny that this song was about us and that he was able to come play on it with me. It was quite [an] exciting moment. It’s kind of like my teacher telling me that I’m on the right path.”

Famed blues guitarist Eric Clapton appeared on the sixth track “Mr. Bluesman” at the invitation of Sambora. According to a Rolling Stone interview he gave in 1991, the experience was more daunting than he had anticipated. While his ego had been stroked by a sweet letter from the Bon Jovi guitarist, Clapton thought he would go into the studio and bang something out, not realizing the song required a little more effort. He admitted he was out of his depth, which one could view as a compliment to Sambora—he was better than many people realized.

“The Answer”

One of the most powerful songs on the album is its poignant closing ballad “The Answer” which had been gestating for a decade and was finished during the Stranger in This Town sessions.

They say for every living thing
There’s a guide up in the sky
That helps you pass from world to world
So you never really die

Then with scythe and cloak
Death comes waltzing to your side
As the visions pass you ask
If there was meaning to your life
As you strain to hear the answer, spirits sing, and devils fiddle
As he bends to whisper in your hear, he leaves you one more riddle

“That song has been used as a eulogy all over the world,” Foster told me in 2016. “Rich was telling me years ago, he said, ‘Man, do you have any idea the comfort that we’ve brought to people to help them pass on?’ And how many letters that he got all the time from people saying that they wanted that played at their funeral. It’s funny because I never thought of it being like that. I wrote it as living in the moment, and whether you believe in God or not—if you believe in God, the thing is binding everything together with the love, and if you don’t believe in any kind of super being and think we’re here all alone, the only thing you can do to get through life is the exact same thing. ‘The Answer’ is the same no matter what people believe. That’s all I was trying to convey with that.”

Stranger‘s Legacy

Stranger in This Town reached No. 36 on Billboard’s Top 200 albums chart. “Ballad of Youth” got to No. 63 on the Hot 100 singles chart and No. 13 on the Mainstream Rock radio chart. The title track reached No. 38 on the Mainstream Rock chart. There were three videos were for the album—one each for the two songs that charted and one for “One Light Burning,” a song Mercury Records thought might be a hit for the guitarist. Interestingly enough, the song with the most Spotify streams today is “Father Time,” which has been played nearly 6 million times, twice as many as any other song on the album. Sambora played a number of live dates in North America to support the album.

His solo debut made a respectable showing, but there was some scuttlebutt within the industry that promotion of the album was killed. The first single reportedly just disappeared from many radio playlists for no apparent reason. Whether this was his label deciding they did not want to have Bon Jovi and Sambora successful individually—because, let’s face it, they would make more money if Bon Jovi the band returned—or if it was the jealousy of his more famous bandmate, we will likely never know. But the album itself deserved a lot more attention than it received.

Sambora would go on to release two other solo albums, Undiscovered Soul in 1998 and Aftermath of the Lowdown in 2012. He also recorded music with his former girlfriend and guitarist Orianthi under the name RSO. Their Radio Free America album in 2018 was a lot more pop-oriented than anything else he’s done. Admittedly, it felt very left field compared with his other work.

Sambora recently dropped four new tracks, including the spirited, bluesy rocker “I Pray,” which sounds like a return to his early solo work. The verses of “Livin’ Alone” give off Chris Isaak vibes and could also fit within the Stranger in This Town milieu. He’s returned to a warm sound that suits him best. Let’s hope there’s more to come.

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Photo by Theo Wargo/WireImage

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