Ronnie Montrose died Saturday after a five-year battle with prostate cancer. He was 64.
Best known for his band Montrose, formed in 1973 with vocalist Sammy Hagar, bassist Bill Church and drummer Denny Carmassi, Montrose also founded the groundbreaking Gamma in the late 1970s and issued a series of well-regarded solo projects. Over the years, his albums and tours featured a well spring of talent, including the then-unknown Hagar, Edgar Winter, Aynsley Dunbar, Glenn Letsch, Mitchell Froom and Steve Smith — who gave up an early career in jazz to play rock music after touring with Montrose. Members of Journey discovered Smith on that tour, and asked him to join on the eve of the group’s rocket ride to 1980s’ multi-platinum stardom.
“Ronnie Montrose had just put out a solo album called Open Fire, an instrumental record inspired by Jeff Beck,” Smith told us. “That was in the air in those days, and Ronnie went in that direction, as well. He encouraged me to play in the rock/fusion style.”
Montrose was a respected sessions musician, too — having worked on celebrated albums with Van Morrison (Tupelo Honey), the Edgar Winter Group (They Only Come Out at Night), the Neville Brothers (Uptown), Herbie Hancock (Mwandishi) and Gary Wright (The Dream Weaver), as well as other dates with Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner, Marc Bonilla, Nicolette Larson and Boz Scaggs.
Montrose’s official Web site confirmed his death on Saturday: “A few months ago, we held a surprise party for Ronnie Montrose’s 64th birthday. He gave an impromptu speech, and told us that after a long life, filled with joy and hardship, he didn’t take any of our love for granted. He passed today. He’d battled cancer, and staved off old age for long enough. And true to form, he chose his own exit the way he chose his own life. We miss him already, but we’re glad to have shared with him while we could.”
Musicians immediately took to the Internet to pay tribute to Montrose, including Slash of Velvet Revolver and Guns n’ Roses, who said: “‘Montrose’ is one of the all time great r’n'r albums. Major influence.” Black Country Communion’s Glenn Hughes, a veteran of both Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, added: “Just heard that my good friend Ronnie Montrose has passed away. I’m speechless.”
The Montrose band’s self-titled ’73 debut, underrated at the time, has since become a touchstone recording in rock — serving as a reference point, for instance, in the mid-1970s work of Van Halen. Hagar was then part of a second edition of Van Halen, beginning in 1985.
“Ronnie Montrose gave me my first break as a songwriter, as a front man, as a recording artist, as a touring artist, and for that I will always be grateful,” Hagar said, in a statement on Sunday. “I was looking forward to a reunion for my birthday bash in Cabo with Denny, Bill and Ronnie — one of the few bands from that era where all four original members were still able to do it. It’s a shame to lose Ronnie and I’m so sorry for his loved ones. Rest in peace.”
The original Montrose lineup last reformed in 2004-05, appearing as a special guest at a series of Hagar concerts. Ronnie Montrose’s most recent studio albums were 1999′s solo effort Bearings and Gamma’s 2000 album Gamma 4.