Many believe that Delta bluesman Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads Blues” is a recounting of a Faustian bargain, giving his soul to the Devil in exchange for extraordinary musical talent. The story goes that Satan granted Johnson amazing abilities but as the guitarist was enjoying the benefits of his newfound powers two years later, el Diablo reached out and snatched his life.
The road of rock-and-roll history is littered with similar tales. Like Johnson, many performers have paid the ultimate price: Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Cobain and Winehouse are just a few of the better-known examples. Some have simply faded away. But there’s one guy who’s been perched at the crest of rock fame for more than 40 years. He got there himself, without making a deal with Beelzebub, by applying his own talent and a fiercely focused work ethic. That man is Sammy Hagar, AKA “The Red Rocker.”
Sporting a distinctive unruly mop of blonde curls, this always grinning, always upbeat singer entered the limelight in the early 1970s as a member of California rock band Montrose, fronted HSAS, a supergroup that also included Journey guitarist Neil Schon, then became an integral part of the biggest arena act on the planet in 1985 when he joined Van Halen—with whom he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At 67, he’s still rockin’, bringing his high-energy, kickin’-ass-and-takin’-names performance style to not one but two bands: Chickenfoot and The Circle. Hagar has never been far from the hit record charts, and has always been top-of mind to his multitude of fans, known as “Red Heads.” Indeed, the stellar solo career he’s also enjoyed would be achievement enough for most people. But he’s not “most people.” He gives 120% to everything he does along with passion, drive, commitment and unswerving certainty of success.
Red Head or not, it would be difficult to find an American who doesn’t know at least one of his songs: “Bad Motor Scooter,” “Rock Candy,” “Why Can’t This be Love,” “There’s Only One Way to Rock,” “Right Now,” and his love song to going fast: “I Can’t Drive 55.” And he’s sold a lot of records along the way: before Van Halen, he sang on three Gold- and three Platinum-selling albums. The records he made with Van Halen also went Platinum. Twenty-seven times over.
True to that awesome work ethic and drive to succeed, Hagar isn’t only a prodigious and prosperous rock-and-roll musician. He’s also a wildly successful businessman, with forays into real estate, nightclubs, mountain bikes, restaurants and liquor. His 2011 memoir, “Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock,” penned with respected rock writer Joel Selvin, reached number 1 on the New York Times best seller list (by contrast, Hagar’s nemesis and Van Halen predecessor David Lee “Diamond Dave” Roth’s 1997 autobiography “Crazy From the Heat” failed to chart). It seems everything the Red Rocker touches turns to gold.
Samuel Roy Hagar was born October 13, 1947 while his parents were living in Salinas. “My dad was trying to make it as a pro fighter,” Hagar remembers. “Just like musicians, in order to get gigs, fighters can’t work a regular day job, so he and my mom were in the fields picking vegetables.” A 118-pound Irish Bantamweight, Bobby Hagar found plenty of bouts, but that wasn’t enough to support his family, so the Hagars moved to Fontana, California, where he found a steady job. Though young Sammy was only 2 when he left, he retains sense memories of his birthplace: “The smell in the air around Monterey at certain times of the year puts me in Déjà vu,” he says.
Not long after he got his first taste of rock fame (and money), Hagar invested in Carmel property. “My wife and I were staying at the Highlands Inn,” he recalls. “While jogging on Spindrift Road I saw the most amazing house. It was the coolest I’d ever seen. ” The home was a Mark Millsdesigned structure known as “Copper Spine House.” The property was lost in the shuffle of a divorce years ago, and it’s since been demolished, but Hagar has fond memories of living in Carmel. “I would still live there if things had turned out differently,” he says. “It’s a very spiritual place, especially the closer you get to Big Sur.” A dyed-in-the-wool car nut, he makes the pilgrimage to the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance when his schedule permits. “I’m always looking for an excuse to go to Carmel,” he says.
Supremely outgoing, gregarious and approachable, Hagar makes friends easily. One pal is Monterey restaurateur John Pisto. The two met when the rocker appeared on Pisto’s
long-running cable cooking show, “Monterey’s Cookin’.” Hagar was then promoting his Cabo Wabo brand tequila. Both lovers of fine food and drink, the pair hit it off immediately. “John and I have had huge fun over the years,” Hagar says. “He’s a blast. I love that guy.”
Taking Care of Business
Even if they don’t make a deal with the devil, many rock stars end up broke, victim to management greed, living well above their means—or all. Sammy Hagar is a rare exception: a thriving musician who has parlayed his earnings into one successful conventional business venture after another. He demonstrated the first inkling of his innate business sense by investing his Montrose earnings in apartment buildings. He bought a mountain bike store in Marin County in the 1990s and found himself on the crest of the huge wave of mountain bike popularity. His Sausalito Cyclery was soon the number one independent bike store in the state. Then he fell in love with Cabo San Lucas.
“When I first went to Cabo, it was all dirt streets,” Hagar says. “You could stand on the beach and not see footprints for miles except your own. I knew I wanted to be there.” He bought a house, then wanted a place to play music. “So I built Cabo Wabo Cantina.” In another example of the Hagar sense of timing, the restaurant and nightclub became—and remains—wildly popular, paralleling the growth of the resort town itself. “That place is a friggin’ gold mine,” he says. That success spawned another location in Las Vegas, and that led to the founding of Sammy’s Beach Bar and Grill with six locations around the country, including several airports, and also a fine dining establishment, El Paseo, in his adopted hometown of Mill Valley.
But it’s perhaps tequila that really put Sammy Hagar on the business map. “I got turned on to good tequila while in Cabo,” he recalls. At the time, high-quality versions of the liquor distilled from the agave plant were plentiful in Mexico, but scarce in the States. Cabo Wabo Tequila was born, and became another home run for the singer, eventually earning him many millions when the brand was acquired by Gruppo Campari.
Paradoxically, being in business is not about the money to Sammy Hagar. “When people look at all I’ve done outside the music business, they don’t realize that everything was done out of passion,” he says. “When you do things just for money, all you end up with is a pile of money. I do these things because I love them and they make me happy.” Like his restaurants, for example. He claims that, for the most part, they’re not big money makers. “I think I’m actually a pretty crappy businessman. I’ll do things that aren’t necessarily smart. For example, I love restaurants. One of the biggest joys in life is taking your family out to a nice meal. I love being able to give that to people. A couple of my places make money, most just break even, but I wouldn’t think of closing them.” He takes the same philosophical approach to El Paseo, his Mill Valley homage to fine cuisine. “The food is phenomenal. I want it to be the best restaurant in Mill Valley. It’s not making me rich, but it makes me happy. To me, success is being able to do the things you like to do.” And he gives back: all the proceeds from the Sammy’s Beach Bar and Grill airport locations are donated to charity.
None of this is an accident. Despite his freewheeling attitude and selfdeprecating remarks about his business skills, The Red Rocker is quite astute. As in his bands, he surrounds himself with top talent and lets them do their thing, while demanding from them the same dedication to hard work that he himself exhibits. There are parallels between Hagar and another musician/businessman: Jimmy Buffet, whose juggernaut Margaritaville company has earned that singer a vast fortune. Buffet’s enterprise peddles products ranging from tequila to clothing to margarita machines to furniture. Hagar saw that Buffet was selling much more than just stuff: he was selling a lifestyle. In the process, both singers have gone from being guys in bands and have become guys who are brands.
Hey! It’s Your Tomorrow
It’s not likely that Sammy Hagar will wind up rehashing his hits on the county fair circuit. He’s as vital at 67 as many performers half his age. “I like big crowds, I like loud music and I’m trying to figure out how to play music on a high level for the rest of my life without becoming a caricature of myself, a nostalgia act,” he muses. He’s performing interesting original music with Chickenfoot, but also wants to play Van Halen hits, Montrose songs and his own catalog as well.
“That’s why I’ve got The Circle (the band includes Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony and Jason Bonham, son of legendary Led Zeppelin drummer John).”
The Red Rocker’s professional life is perhaps summed up when he says: “When what you do is passion-driven, it doesn’t feel like work,” he says. “But a strong work ethic is just as important as talent or luck.” Clearly, this guy doesn’t need a hand up from the Devil. Maybe he visited the crossroads once, looked at the available options, and created his own path…and he certainly didn’t drive down that road at a plodding 55 mph.