40 Years Ago: Sammy Hagar Begins His Solo Career With ‘Nine on a Ten Scale’
With the title of his solo debut Sammy Hagar showed the world that he wasn't one to lack self-confidence. In May 1976, he released Nine on a Ten Scale.
Until then, Hagar’s only claim to fame had been an impressive but altogether brief stint with Montrose, and their albums had actually sold much better in the U.K. then back home in the U.S. So when Sammy’s relationship with band leader Ronnie Montrose broke down in acrimony, there were no guarantees that the young singer would even get a second shot to live out his rock and roll dreams.
Of course, today we can look back and know it is unwise to ever count out Sammy Hagar, given his achievements as solo artist, Van Halen frontman and business entrepreneur. But back then, the only person who possessed unfailing faith in Sammy Hagar was Sammy Hagar, as is made obvious by this quote from his autobiography, Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock.
“I got home from that [Montrose] tour with nothing in my pocket, no money in the bank. My wife is freaking out and I had nothing going on, nothing coming up. But almost immediately, a publishing royalty check from the first Montrose album, for $5,100, showed up in the mail. I had no record deal [but] I knew I was going to be okay. So I went out and bought a $5,000 Porsche.”
Then Hagar started to hustle, holing up in his basement to write songs while reaching out to every music business contact he still had, including Montrose producer Ted Templeman, who agreed to finance a five-song demo. When these were finished, Sammy literally marched down to radio station KSAN in San Francisco, premiered them live and that’s how they were heard by Capitol Records A&R man John Carter.
Just like that, Hagar had himself a record deal worth $50,000. Sessions for Nine on a Ten Scale were soon booked at the Record Plant in Sausalito, with former Montrose band mates Bill Church (bass) and Alan Fitzgerald (keyboards) pitching in, along with drummers like Humble Pie’s Jerry Shirley and Journey’s Aynsley Dunbar and even a female backing vocal group deployed for LP-opener "Keep on Rockin'" and “Confession (Please Come Back).”
Sammy had a hand in composing about half of the tracks -- most of which were re-cut from that original demo -- including the obviously Montrose-based space metal of "Urban Guerilla” and “Silver Lights,” the solid “Rock ‘n’ Roll Romeo” and the swirling doom stomp of “All American.” In Red, Hagar claimed the latter resulted from the engineer mixing it while high on nitrous oxide!
But the remaining tracks, all covers, showed that Sammy’s musical direction was still quite unclear. “China” was a rather funky little number composed by former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Bob Welch, “Young Girl Blues” was a sultry, seven-minute odyssey through a Donovan track, and “Flamingos Fly” was a full-blown Caribbean cruise, complete with steel drums by Steely Dan’s Jimmy Hodder, that Hagar personally extracted from one of his all time heroes, Van Morrison.
As recounted by Sammy in Red, “One day I’m heading out of the studio when I heard a buzzing at the door. It was Van [and] I chased after him. ‘Van, I’m Sammy Hagar. I’m doing a record with John Carter’ – he knew Carter – ‘do you have any songs?’ ‘Like what?’ he said. ‘Like 'Into the Mystic,'’ I said. It was my favorite Van song. ‘Follow me,’ he said, picked up an acoustic guitar and played me “Flamingos Fly.””
And, with that, Nine on a Ten Scale was ready for public consumption, though it shifted barely 30,000 copies, and found Sammy opening shows for everyone from Joe Cocker to Ted Nugent, slowly building his following and reputation as a standalone solo artist, one concert and city at a time, but we all know how that worked out.
Listen to it today, and Nine on a Ten Scale sounds incredibly modest and haphazard (more like a five or six than a nine) next to Hagar’s future work, both on his own and with Van Halen, but everyone has to start somewhere. Or, in Hagar’s case, start over again, proving the adage that success comes down to as much perspiration as it does inspiration.
See Sammy Hagar and Others in the Top 100 Albums of the '90s