Friday, Feb. 24, 2012 | 5:33 p.m.
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Business is booming at Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo Cantina in the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood, but he’s not going to expand his three popular party hangouts into a nationwide chain. He also is thrilled that his tequila brand and new Beach Bar Rum explosion lets him play music when he wants, where he wants, even if it’s free or with low ticket prices.
Sammy’s the rebel red rocker with a cause -- and with a big heart to boot. He runs a charity for children and is a big supporter of our downtown Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. He is donating all the profits of his Sammy’s Beach Bar at McCarran Airport and at Harrah’s in Missouri to local charities.
His life rules follow the reasoning as to why he’s never gotten caught up in the dangers of a sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle. Sammy credits his long marriage runs totaling 43 years for not getting off track. And the rock star has been releasing hits since 1973.
Sammy celebrated the launch of his new rum, Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum, at his Cabo Wabo Cantina here. It was a private event with friends and family after he met with fans and signed bottles of his prized spirit. Sammy’s close friend, celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, and their wives, Kari and Alden, respectively, joined me in a toast with shots of the rum, plus the new cocktails Sammy’s Shark Bite, Sammy’s Beach Rum Toasted Colada and Sammy’s Maui Libre.
Somehow, the hard rockin’ dining and live music venue combines the laid-back beach-town vibe of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where the red rocker resides part time and sometimes jams with unexpected onstage sets at his restaurant’s original location.
Sammy, hard to believe he’s now 64, told me: “Our first year in Las Vegas killed way over expectations, and the second year we’re way ahead. We’re a year and a half into it, and the first six months of the second year is about what the entire first year did. … I’m really proud of the entire crew. But I’m not expanding. I really don’t want to be a chain. I’m happy with Cabo where we’ve been for 22 years, Vegas and the one in Lake Tahoe we’ve had for seven years.
“Maybe I will have just one more on the East Coast, Florida or maybe Atlantic City … and then I’m done. After that, don’t even talk to me about another city in America for a Cabo Wabo. They’re working so well as it is, why spoil the success? We do a great job with each of the three because there are not so many of them that you can have some bad ones.
“The other thing is I think Mexican food is just the greatest food on the planet. Whenever you’re drinking, what do you want to do? Man, I need a taco, or I need a burrito, I need some hot sauce. So, it really goes with drinking and the whole fun party atmosphere. The reason it’s working in Las Vegas is because Las Vegas needs this -- Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville and me.
“Our places are needed because Las Vegas is so glitzy and so glamour-y, and we are ‘just come on in.’ I don’t care how you’re dressed, if you’re gorgeous or ugly, you wait in the same line, and you get in when your time comes. You don’t go, ‘OK, hey, you, beautiful, come in first. I would never do that in a million years.”
I asked my pal, the former frontman of Van Halen, if the new rum was a natural extension after his tequila brand success: “Yeah, it’s an island thing. For Mexico, tequila is very much a party drink and to me is a mixed drink, even though everyone invented this high-end tequila, including myself, that you can take shots of, but it’s still a margarita that’s our best drink on the planet,” he said.
“The second best drinks on the planet are things like Mai Tai’s and mojitos and things you can do with rum. With the rum, I’m making anything you can do with vodka you can do with my rum, and that is a fact. You try it, I don’t care if it’s a martini and you put an olive in it, you put a lemon twist in it, you put a pineapple in it, it is so much more versatile than vodka. Vodka doesn’t taste like anything! My rum tastes like creme brulee, burnt sugar, so anything that goes with sugar.
“You think about it, pepper, believe it or not, goes with sugar. My rum will get you into the bedroom faster than anything -- squeeze just a quarter twist of black pepper into this on the rocks and shake it until the pepper hits the ice just a little bit, strain it, and drink it. It will blow your mind. I think it’s better than vodka any day, and I’ve cleaned it up. See, most people say you can’t drink white rum; it will put you in the hospital. Yes, but this is Hawaiian pure cane sugar. So, I’m hyping it, but, from my heart, I love it. I think it’s the best product I’ve ever tasted.”
His passion and enthusiasm made me ask if he was now more business mogul than rocker and how he juggled the two careers. “It’s all about music. If I can’t play music, I would be a miserable bastard. The money from the business lets me play music now for free so, when I go and get a brand like Cabo off the ground like it did, it allowed me the freedom to pay my band year round, keep my crew on pay, and I go, ‘OK, I feel like playing a show next week, let’s go play somewhere.’
“I don’t care how much I get paid, I don’t care how much the ticket prices are. I just do it for fun, and it’s so much better. When I first started, when I was a kid in a garage, I wasn’t getting paid, and I loved it. I was there every day and every night. So, that’s kind of where it put my music back in perspective. I think I’m the only musician working sometimes for free because I’m earning my money out of the booze business. I don’t think Paul McCartney has to work either, and there are a couple more of them like me.
“Most of my heavy rock generation, the glitter, glam, hair band, heavy metal generation, most of those people probably still have to work, and God bless them, if they’re lucky, they still can. If they can, then they’re fortunate because that’s really all that we all want to do.
"I think I’ve got it together in perspective. I’ve been married my whole life. I was married for 23 years to my childhood sweetheart, Betsy, all the way to the middle of Van Halen. I fell in love with another woman, Kari, it’s all in my book. I left my first wife after 23 years, I got married again, and I’m still married. With Kari, it’s 20 years now. That’s 43 years of marriage. I’m well rooted.
“I’ll tell you right now a good woman will keep you on a leash, and I’m happy to be on that leash now. There’s times when I would be going, ‘Damn, this sucks, I gotta go home,’ but I think it’s really been my preservation. I don’t like to be out of it. If I start getting out of it, I have the brakes on, and I say time to slow down.”
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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