Imagine working with both Sammy Hagar and David Lee Roth during the most turbulent time in Van Halen history. Jesse Harms doesn’t have to imagine it. He lived it and oh, the stories he has to tell.
Harms was a guest on the RetroZest podcast to talk about his stellar five-decade career, which included a stint as keyboardist and background vocalist for Sammy Hagar from 1982 to 1985. Harms was a full-time member of Hagar’s band when his 1984 album VOA reached the top 40 on Billboard and went platinum thanks in big part to the single “I Can’t Drive 55”.
With the success of VOA, Harms career was in high gear. Then Hagar suddenly and unexpectedly punched the breaks. He was the new lead singer of Van Halen while Harms, guitarist Gary Phil, bassist Bill Church and drummer David Lauser were out of work.
“He just dumped us,” Harms told host Curtis Lanclos. “I read his book Red. Everything in there where I was actually present didn’t happen that way. There was a lot of fabrication. I think he said he paid us or whatever, but he basically just dumped us. I had just bought a house. After the VOA tour, I’d saved all my money up and bought a house there because we were supposed to do another leg of that tour in Europe and Japan but then he got the thing with Van Halen.”
Despite the career hit, Harms said he was still optimistic. He certainly couldn’t blame Hagar for taking the Van Halen gig and, besides, this gave him the chance to further his own career.
“From my standpoint, I had done things before Sammy,” Harms said. “Sammy wasn’t gonna be my whole career, I knew that. There were things I wanted to do so I just looked at it like, ‘OK, well I’m just gonna learn how to do something else now.’ I really wanted to work on songwriting and improving that way and so my attitude with him was, ‘Hey, good for you. Go ahead and do that and I’m just gonna do something else.’ He actually gave me the keys to his house when he went down to LA to work with Van Halen and I spent, oh, I don’t know, maybe six, eight months writing songs and trying to get a record deal.”
Although Harms’ record deal didn’t pan out right away, he was offered a gig, but not just any gig. He got a call from producer Ted Templeman, who had worked with Harms as producer of the VOA album. Templeman was now producing David Lee Roth’s first solo album Eat ‘Em and Smile and, as with Roth, wanted to bring in the best musicians around. Harms took the offer and would end up being credited with playing keyboards on the #12 US Rock single “Goin’ Crazy”.
“That was the best band I ever worked with,” said Harms. “Steve Vai. Billy Sheehan. Gregg Bissonette was an unbelievable drummer! Those guys were the A Team. They were the best rock players I worked with throughout my whole career.”
Harms said Roth offered Harms the job as full-time member of the band but he wouldn’t be performing with the band on stage, at least not right away. Harms told Roth he needed a day to think about it.
“He never talked to me again after that! Never talked to me again,” said Harms. “He was insulted! It was like, ‘You turned down David Lee Roth?!’ So that’s how it went down but I have really fond memories of Dave, he was a fantastic guy. Really interesting, super good condition. It was a fun experience.”
As far as what Hagar thought of his friend and former bandmate now working with his number one rival David Lee Roth? Well, that didn’t go over so well.
Harms said, “One of the deals when I [recorded on Eat ‘Em and Smile] was that they instructed me, ‘You can’t tell Sammy that you’re doing this.’ Sammy and I were still talking. Sammy and I were actually really good friends even though things kinda turned sour towards the end over money [but] we were really good friends. We hung out, we played tennis, we did everything together. We were still [talking often] on the phone when he was in Van Halen. He was calling me up and I couldn’t tell him that I was working with David Lee Roth in the studio. But he found out. And then he called me up and he was mad at me! For moving on and getting a good [job], he should have been happy. It’s like, ‘WOW! That’s a great gig!’“
Eventually things cooled down with Harms and Hagar and the two would work together again, this time on Hagar’s 1987 album I Never Said Goodbye featuring Eddie Van Halen on bass. Harms played keyboards on the entire album and co-wrote the track “Back Into You”.
“It was great hanging out with Eddie, who was a super sweet guy,” said Harms. “Everything about it was really fun.”
After stints with Eddie Money [Harms wrote Money’s top ten single “Walk On Water”], REO Speedwagon and the McAuley Schenker Group, Harms once again teamed up with Hagar as keyboardist/co-writer beginning with 1997’s Marching To Mars. He returned for Red Voodoo (1999), Ten 13 (2000) and Not 4 Sale (2002).
In 2003, Harms was a member of Hagar’s touring band for the highly publicized “Heavyweights of Rock” tour, featuring Sammy Hagar and David Lee Roth as co-headliners. Not surprisingly, the Sammy/Dave drama returned, and Harms was there witness it all. You can hear those stories and more from Harms on the RetroZest podcast below:
Jesse Harms, who released his first solo album Best Of What I Got in 2004, recently released the 6CD set All Sides. It includes material featuring Harms on lead vocals, plus collaborative work with several artists including Sammy Hagar, Kevin Cronin, Robin McAuley, John Waite and Gina Schock.