From Atlantic City Weekly:
The Red Rocker is co-owner of an Atlantic City beach bar, and will be performing at the resort town’s Boardwalk Hall with Aerosmith later this summer.
Cases are rampant of those who rise out of modest means to hit the heights of stardom only to crash hard. Sammy Hagar climbed that ladder, but his life could serve as the antithesis, the archetypal opposite of a celebrity train wreck. He’s a humanitarian, a successful businessman, and of course a rock ‘n’ roll hall-of-famer who’s enjoyed prosperous careers as both a solo artist and as a member of several bands, most notably as Van Halen’s frontman from 1985-’96.
He currently tours with two groups — Chickenfoot and the Waboritas — the latter of which will perform in Atlantic City with Aerosmith at Boardwalk Hall in August. A close friend of Harrah’s Eastern Division president Don Marrandino, Hagar and Harrah’s teamed to open Sammy Hagar’s Beach Bar (formerly Bally’s Beach Bar) over the 2010 Memorial Day weekend.
Hagar is also the founder/proprietor of the Cabo Wabo brand, which includes a premium line of tequilas and three Cabo Wabo cantinas, including the original in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. He recently spoke with Atlantic City Weekly by phone.
Where did your nickname, The Red Rocker, come from?
I wrote this song called “Red” back in 1976 and I have a fixation with the color red. When I get into a red room I feel different, I act different, it gives me comfort. I have about 65 red guitars and about two or three black ones. Well, about the same time the song came out, a newspaper reporter in Seattle reviewed one of my shows in 1977. I was dressed all in red — red shoes, red T-shirt, red guitar and singing the song “Red.” A kid was waiting outside the hotel room the morning after the show to get an autograph, and he had the newspaper with the review in it. He asked if I’d sign it “The Red Rocker,” so I said sure. And just like with Cabo Wabo [a name born out of “Cabo Wobble,” or someone walking while tipsy], the light kind of went on and I said, “Hey, I like it.” But really it kind of took off on its own. Soon after that I’d hear somebody yell out of their car window, “Hey Red Rocker!” and I’d say, “Well, I guess that’s me.”
Can you talk a little about the history of the Cabo Wabo brand and how you started it?
In 1981, the first time I went to Cabo [San Lucas, on the tip of the Baja peninsula], it was a big secret down there. They didn’t have any TVs, no air conditioning, no phones, no newspapers, and only three hotels. There was one flight in on a Thursday or something, and one flight out. It was like a little pick-up, drop-off point to Guadalajara or someplace. It was so remote but I fell in love with it, built a little house, and once I came up with that name and wrote the song I said, “You know what? I’m gonna build a damn tequila bar.” I didn’t have my own brand of tequila or anything, it was just one dream at a time. Every day it just got bigger and bigger and bigger. MTV spent about $4 million in promotion, flying people down for the grand opening, Van Halen played. It really drew a lot of attention and really caught on. It’s built to the hilt now. It’s like southern France now. You get off the plane and into your car from the airport, which is 20 miles from downtown Cabo, and it’s wall-to-wall hotels and homes and multi-million dollar development. I mean, there’s certain spots where you can’t see the ocean [from the road] where you could before, but quite honestly not a whole lot has changed [about the flavor of the town]. The weather is the most perfect weather in the world and the beaches are still pristine. The Sea of Cortez is between you and mainland Mexico, 400 miles across, and since there’s only so many people that can be there at any one time, it’s kept clean and pristine. You get off the plane in December and the air temperature’s 80 [degrees] and the water temperature’s 78, and it stays that way year-round. I liked it when there was no one there, but if I went again for the first time today, I’d fall in love with it all over again. Like the song [“Cabo Wabo,” written by Hagar for Van Halen] says, “If you go there once, you’ll be there twice.” As much as it’s changed, you can only do so much to change it. I don’t feel totally responsible [for the transformation], but I lit the fire and I used good wood. I helped put it on the map.
How did creating a tequila brand come out of this?
I would have never gotten into the tequila business, or have known how to do it, if I had not opened the original Cabo, the mother ship [two others, unique in design, have been opened in Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas]. The light would have never gone on, but I figured “Hey, I have a tequila bar, why not create my own brand of tequila that’s as cool as this place?” and was lucky to start the business right when tequila was taking off in popularity. I had just gotten turned onto premium 100 percent agave tequila in Mexico about five years before that and it blew my mind. So I went on a search to find the best tequila in the world, and someone to make it to my palate, and I got lucky because tequila just exploded. Petron and Cabo Wabo were the first two premium tequilas in America. What many people may not realize is that tequila’s as complex a spirit as brandy, cognac or single-malt scotches. It’s the same thing, it’s just made from agave. And what makes tequila so special, in my opinion, is that most spirits come from grain [alcohol] and agave takes 10 years to grow a plant to maturity. It’s a special thing. It grows naturally out of the earth and will damn near poison you if you eat it raw, but when you cook it, it turns to honey, and it’s the sweetest honey you’ve ever tasted called agave nectar. It’s such a special plant, it’s just go so much soul. Whiskey, gin, vodka — you can make that stuff out of anything — corn, rice, bran, anything that will ferment and turn to sugar. You can make vodka out of pineapples or oranges, but tequila and cognac — which is made from grapes — are the two most special spirits because they come right from the earth, and they have soul. And when you age them, they have more soul.
How have you avoided many of the pitfalls rock stars often fall into? Did it stem largely from a good family upbringing?
[Laughs] I’m doing an autobiography called Sammy Hagar Red. When you read my family background you’re going to ask “How did this happen? It’s a miracle.” I came from a family in which my father died in the back of a police car when he was 53 years old, drunk on the streets of my hometown of Fontana, California. It was a small steel-mill town where everybody knew everybody else, which made it tough on me, my brother and two sisters. My mom [Gladys] would do ironing and pick fruit to raise four kids. A single mom — that’s where the heart and soul comes from. Even though we were poor we had clean clothes and she gave us values. My mom [who passed away a couple of years ago] was totally uneducated, she only went through eighth grade, but she had heart and soul and creativity. My brother and sisters all have had good lives and no problems, and it’s because of my mom. Fontana was rough and tough and nothing was given to you. This is where I came from and can brag a little bit and put a feather in my cap — I came from nothing, zero.
I read where any personal profits you derive from your bar businesses are turned over to children’s charities — what was the motivation here?
Kids are my soft spot. Years ago, when I was with Van Halen, I was asked by the Make-A-Wish Foundation to fulfill a request. A nine-year-old boy with terminal cancer said he wanted to meet Sammy Hagar, and I was asked if I’d go see him in the hospital. I said sure. Well, it took me down and turned me around. Once you become aware of things like that, I can’t see how anybody can turn their back on it. That’s why I go around talking about it so much — to try to enlighten other people to help out who may not have gotten bit like I did. Because I’ll tell you, once you’ve been bit you’ll want to help out in any way you can. And that’s the idea — build an army. I mean I don’t need the money, so when a new idea comes up like the beach bar, I’m going to give it to kids. It’s really simple.