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+ {Ronnie Montrose} + {Gamma}

On par with gunslinger guitarist TED NUGENT, Colorado-raised axeman Ronnie Montrose and his short-lived MONTROSE never quite challenged for hard-rock supremacy – but they came damn close! Spurred by workaholic session work in the early 70s for everyone from BEAVER & KRAUSE’s “Gandharva” to VAN MORRISON’s “Tupelo Honey” and The EDGAR WINTER GROUP’s “They Only Come Out At Night”, Ronnie – now re-settled in San Francisco – enlisted the services of former Van Mo bassist Bill Church, drummer Denny Carmassi and top-drawer journeyman singer, Sammy Hagar.
Touted as America’s answer to the influx of British hard-rock/heavy metal exports and helped by “Tupelo Honey” producer, Ted Templeman (who helped them seal a deal at Warner Brothers), their eponymous set MONTROSE (1973) {*8} was a different kettle of fish completely. Widely cited as one of the best metal album debuts ever released (as voted for in Kerrang!), the super-charged likes of `Rock The Nation’, `Bad Motor Scooter’ and `Space Station No.5’ achieved new levels of axe-wielding abrasiveness; `Rock Candy’ and the funky FREE-esque `One Thing On My Mind’ provocative and powerful. But the tension between Sammy and Ronnie was almost tangible.
Although the record failed to break the Billboard Top 100, it subsequently went platinum and with Alan Fitzgerald replacing Church, the group worked on a follow-up. The fact that PAPER MONEY (1974) {*6} was issued when their previous set was starting to kick in, served only to highlight its shortcomings. Still, the Templeman-produced sophomore set shot up to No.65 in the charts, despite its relatively softer approach (a reading of The ROLLING STONES’ `Connection’ was an example). Possibly a tad too derivative of Brit rivals, DEEP PURPLE and BAD COMPANY, failure of singles `We’re Going Home’ and the title track (plus best-on-show `I Got The Fire’), left all concerned licking their wounds.
Further tensions and problems with the group’s main contributors resulted in only one outcome: SAMMY HAGAR had to leave (his debut “Nine On A Ten Scale” followed soon afterwards). Plucked from relative obscurity, singer Bob James stepped into Sammy’s shoes and, with the addition of keyboard player, Jim Alcivar, the revised quintet cut WARNER BROS. PRESENTS… MONTROSE! (1975) {*7}. Although effective group compositions, `Matriarch’, `All I Need’ and `Whaler’ possessed the power, their second Top 100 entry failed to rekindle the livewire spark of the debut; maybe the need for three diverse covers, namely EDDIE COCHRAN’s `Twenty Flight Rock’, ALAN PRICE’s `O Lucky Man’ and Kendall Kardt’s `Black Train’, were a touch too much.
With Randy Jo Hobbs installed as bassist, MONTROSE sought out Jack Douglas to produce what was to be their swansong album, JUMP ON IT (1976) {*6}, while two tracks were prised from future disco-man, Dan Hartman (`What Are You Waitin’ For?’ and `Rich Man’); a hard-rocker with soft centres it only reached No.118 in the Billboard charts.
Both Church and Carmassi subsequently sided with SAMMY HAGAR on his solo sets, while Fitzgerald and Alcivar backed RONNIE MONTROSE on his own debut, OPEN FIRE (1978) {*6}, a jazzy instrumental affair with EDGAR WINTER guesting on keyboards. The record’s radically different approach was given the cold shoulder both critically and commercially (they covered `Rocky Road’ and GENE PITNEY’s `Town Without Pity’); Ronnie forming the harder-rocking GAMMA as a result.
Between 1979 and 1982, imaginatively-titled albums for Elektra Records came thick ’n’ fast. Augmented at first by Alcivar and Fitzgerald, plus vocalist/co-songwriter Davey Pattison and drummer Skip Gillette, GAMMA 1 (1979) {*6} mixed in hard-edged pop into the equation. Very much in the mould of FOREIGNER or BAD COMPANY, rockers such as `Thunder And Lightning’ and `Fight To The Finish’ thankfully overshadowed covers HOLLIES song `I’m Alive’ (a minor hit) and MICKEY NEWBURY’s `Wish I Was’.
Beset with numerous personnel changes there on in, US Top 75 album GAMMA 2 (1980) {*6} featured fresh bassist Glenn Letsch and MONTROSE oldboy, Denny Carmassi. Arena-rock without any twists bar a cover of THUNDERCLAP NEWMAN’s `Something In The Air’, identity would prove to be band’s albatross. The equally ineffective GAMMA 3 (1982) {*5} – featuring Alcivar’s replacement Mitchell Froom – Ronnie at least had a consistent writing partner; Top 100 breaker `Right The First Time’ and the prophetic sci-fi cue, `What’s Gone Is Gone’, were worthy of further inspection.
RONNIE MONTROSE eventually resumed his solo career with TERRITORY (1986) {*4}, another album that maintained his love of jazz fusion, and the odd cover version by way of GEORGE HARRISON’s `Love You To’, Mann-Weil’s `I’m Gonna Be Strong’ and Sean O Riada’s `Women Of Ireland’.
Recruiting a band of sorts (numbering Letsch, future FOREIGNER vocalist Johnny Edwards, and drummer James Kottak), MONTROSE attempted to draw in the glam-metal brigade for MEAN (1987) {*5}; but for a cover of The MINDBENDERS’ `Game Of Love’, his toughest work in years.
Although with the addition of synths (supplied by Patrick Feehan), subsequent instrumental set, THE SPEED OF SOUND (1988) {*7}, saw the guitarist once more taking a laidback solo approach; the aviation themes of the record even went as far as including the obligatory rendition, this time through The TORNADOS’ `Telstar’.
Issued on Roadrunner Records, 1990’s THE DIVA STATION {*5} brought in the talents of Aynsley Dunbar (acoustic drums), Davey Faragher (electric bass) and guest vox from Davey Pattison, although it was another experimental affair, illustrating Ronnie’s restless creative energy; the solitary cover came in the shape of Lorraine Ellison’s `Stay With Me’. MUTATIS MUTANDIS (1991) {*4}, MUSIC FROM HERE (1994) {*4} and MR BONES (1996) {*4} packed about the same punch; the latter soundtrack piece achieving cult status when accompanying the Sega video game. While there was a bit of glory when SAMMY HAGAR asked his old buddies in MONTROSE to accompany him on his 1997 set, “Marching To Mars”, Ronnie was content to deliver the odd solo set. Self-released and instrumental to the core, ROLL OVER AND PLAY LIVE (1999) {*4} and BEARINGS (1999) {*4} completed a trying time for one of rock great guitar heroes.
And finally there was GAMMA 4 (2000) {*6}, a nice attempt to re-unite an understated rock band; Ronnie, Davey Pattison, Glen Letsch, Denny Carmassi and keyboard player Edward Roth, producing a rip-roaring comeback set featuring a version of ASHTON, GARDNER & DYKE’s `Resurrection Shuffle’.
Ronnie would duly perform with a reunited MONTROSE for the odd tour (Keith St. John would be his most prominent lead vocalist), but when prostate cancer, diagnosed in 2006, became terminal in the coming years, and suffering from long-term depression, he chose to end his life (by a single gunshot to the head) at his Millbrae, California home on March 3, 2012. He was survived by his wife, Leighsa, a son, a daughter and five grandchildren.
© MC Strong 1994-2004 / rev-up MCS Feb2013

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