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Born Sam Roy Hagar in Salinas, CA on Oct. 13, 1947, he was raised in Salinas, where his father, a former champion bantam weight boxer, worked at the Kaiser Steel Mill. Sports and boxing dominated Hagar's life until his early teen years when he saw the hysterical reaction that television appearances by Elvis Presley or Little Richard generated in his sister and her friends. He soon switched allegiances to rock-n-roll. Hagar played with a vast number of Southern California garage bands, occasionally releasing obscure 45 singles, before leading his own group, Skinny, which haunted San Bernardino area clubs. After changing their name to the Sammy Hagar Band, they headed north to try their hand in the psychedelic San Francisco music scene, where Hagar developed a small but devoted following.
In 1973, Hagar was invited by former Edgar Winter Band guitarist Ronnie Montrose to join his new group, Montrose. In addition to lending his leathery howl of a singing voice to the band, Hagar penned or co-wrote most of their more popular singles, including "Bad Motor Scooter" and "Make It Last." Hagar would record two albums with Montrose before acrimony between band members forced his departure in 1976, following which he would record a demo that made its way to Capitol Records. His 1976 debut album, Nine on a Ten Scale, was an eclectic mix of originals and unexpected covers of songs by Donovan and Van Morrison, which seemed in sharp contrast to his high-volume, hard-driving delivery. Subsequent recordings like 1977's Musical Chairs showed an interest in political and environmental issues, as well as more offbeat subjects like interplanetary life. He would cultivate his musical persona as the hard-partying rock-n-roll lifer "The Red Rocker" - a moniker borrowed from the song "Red" from his popular, self-titled third release - and mine a vein of party-hearty, guitar-driven rock and pop to occasional critical acclaim and a small but passionate audience.
1982's Standing Hampton was Hagar's ticket to the upper strata of the album charts, thanks to the Top 40 single "There's Only One Way to Rock," which became one of his signature tunes. Its follow-up, 1984's Three Lock Box, featured a Top 20 hit with "Your Love is Driving Me Crazy." He paused briefly to form a supergroup with Journey guitarist Neal Schon, veteran bassist Kenny Aaronson and former Santana drummer Michael Shrieve, which toured briefly to support various charities before recording a live album, Through the Fire, which generated a modest radio hit with a cover of Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale." Hagar returned to his solo career that same year for 1984's VOA, which featured the wailing single "I Can't Drive 55," a Top 40 hit that became the song by which he was most identified.
The following year, Eddie Van Halen approached Hagar with an offer to replace his longtime vocalist, David Lee Roth, who had quit the group under a cloud of acrimony. He was soon minted as Van Halen's new lead vocalist, to the surprise and dismay of many longtime fans who considered Roth irreplaceable. However, the group's first album with Hagar, 5150 (1986), reached the top of the Billboard album charts and generated three Top 40 hits, including "Why Can't This Be Love," which reached No. 3 on the Billboard singles chart. For the next decade, Hagar would lead Van Halen through a period of remarkable success, with the studio albums OU812 (1988), For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991) and Balance (1995) all debuting at No. 1, landing 17 singles in the Top 20, and snagging a 1992 Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance with Vocals. Hagar was contractually required to complete his commitment to Geffen Records, and released I Never Said Goodbye in 1987. He became a remarkably successful entrepreneur, with a popular nightclub, Cabo Wabo, in Cabo San Lucas, and a line of tequila with the same name, among his holdings.
Following the completion of Balance in 1995, Hagar's relationship with Van Halen began to deteriorate. Problems began when the group decided to record a song for the "Twister" (1996) soundtrack, which Hagar felt was unfair to their fans, as it required them to purchase an entire album in order to hear a single track. The situation grew even more dire when Van Halen's new manager, Ray Danniels, who also happened to be drummer Alex Van Halen's brother-in-law, announced that the group would begin work on a greatest hits album. Hagar was again opposed to the idea, citing that he felt uncomfortable with a record that featured his songs with the band alongside those with Roth. The end of his tenure in Van Halen came when he learned that the group had been working with Roth on new material for the greatest hits compilation; sources varied on whether Hagar quit the group or was fired, but by Father's Day of 1996, he had left the Van Halen camp.
For the next half-decade, Hagar concentrated on his reignited solo career while dabbling in side projects with a variety of players. The Van Halen controversy generated major interest in 1997's Marching to Mars, his first solo effort following the split, which reached No. 18. In 1999, he formed a new group, the Waboritas, which featured longtime collaborator David Lauser; the quartet enjoyed a modest following over the course of four records between 1999 and 2002. Following a well-received joint tour with David Lee Roth in 2002, Hagar surprised many by reuniting with Van Halen for three new tracks on the long-overdue greatest hits album, Best of Both Worlds, and a subsequent world tour. Though enormously successful, with ticket sales reaching nearly $55 million, the 2004 tour was plagued with difficulties. Eddie Van Halen had fallen out with longtime bassist Michael Anthony, barring him from recording sessions and agreeing to bring him aboard the tour only if he signed on as a hired player. This drove a wedge between Hagar, a longtime friend and supporter of Anthony, and the Van Halen brothers. Tensions were further exacerbated by Eddie Van Halen's mounting alcoholism, which hampered his legendary guitar skills. By the end of the tour, Hagar and Van Halen had again parted ways. Hagar soon reunited with the Waboritas, releasing two studio albums and a live recording between 2002 and 2006. In 2008, he teamed with Anthony, guitarist Joe Satriani and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith in the informal supergroup Chickenfoot, which released a self-titled debut album in 2009. It shot to No. 4 on the album charts, prompting a tour and a second album, ironically titled Chickenfoot III, in 2011. Hagar's business profile also continued to rise, with Cabo Wabo eventually expanding to a franchise and Cabo Wabo Tequila becoming the second best-selling premium tequila in the United States.
By Paul Gaita