The Edgar Winter Group, Sammy Hagar,
and Being a Rock Star
by Michael Buffalo Smith
Chuck Ruff may forever be remembered best as the drummer for The Edgar Winter Group, and for his percussion on their songs like "Frankenstein," "Free Ride," and "Hangin Around." Now living back home in Reno, Nevada, Ruff still plays music, but he has settled in well as a family man. A family man with gold records on the wall.
I recently saw an old episode of "The Midnight Special" on VH1 from 1973, with The Edgar Winter Group playing "Frankenstein" live. I can still remember watching that the first night that it aired. I wanted to ask you about the lead guitarist who played that night. He was the same one who played with you guys when I saw you here at Greenville Memorial Auditorium. It wasn't Montrose or Derringer, but he was hot.
That was Jerry Weems, who by the way, just died recently of liver failure. I got him into the band when Ronnie Montrose quit. I kind of grew up with Jerry here in Reno, and I knew he could play and sing really good. A lot of people don't realize it, but we re-recorded "Free Ride" with Jerry and the band, and Jerry actually wrote the solo that you hear on all of the TV commercials where they use that as the background music. That solo that Rick Derringer plays on that was written by Jerry. He recorded it originally, and when Edgar and Rick re-recorded the song , and when Edgar just re-recorded it, and when Dan (Hartman) re-recorded for an album just before he passed away, they all used Jerry's solo. On the album "They Only Come Out at Night" it's Ronnie Montrose playing two solos simultaneously, and gave it an Eric Clapton feel.
What are your memories of "They Only Come Out at Night?"
It came out in 1972 and at first nobody would touch it with a ten-foot pole because of the album cover. They thought of it as a transvestite, or glam rock. Then when they listened to the record they said hey, this isn't a glam-rock band, this is a rhythm and blues band, a rock and roll band.
Where are you originally from?
I was born right here in Reno, Nevada, and I was raised between Reno and the San Francisco Bay Area up until I was about eleven years old. Then we moved here and stayed here. So Reno is actually my home town since I was about eleven years old.
When you first started playing, were the drums your instrument of choice?
No, when I first started playing music I was in the third grade, and my Uncle gave me a trumpet. I started out in the school band playing second chair trumpet until about the fifth grade when I discovered that my Dad was a Dixieland jazz drummer. I never even knew, because when I was two years old, my parents split up. Then when I was ten or eleven, they got back together again. I didn't even know what my Dad looked like until I was eleven years old. But I got interested in drums through my Dad. He was a D.J. There was always some kind of music playing around my house, or we were listening to him on the radio. I'll tell you a true story. My Dad was a D.J. at a radio station in California called KKIS, and he brought home all the demonstration records that they weren't allowed to play on that radio station. One of them was Johnny Winter's "The Progressive Blues Experiment." That was like my favorite record, until I lent it to a friend and somehow somebody sat on it and broke it. I used to blow people's minds, I'd say, you've got to check this guy out. There he was playing all that hot slide guitar, and people are going "what the hell?" Then I'd tell them he was an albino, and they'd just go totally out.
That's pretty cool. Not to mention synchronicitous.
Yeah. I'd been listening to records by Ricky Nelson, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley. The best guitar players in the world were Scotty Moore with Ricky Nelson and James Burton with Elvis. And of course Buddy Holly. Plus a lot of my Dad's show band, big band and Dixieland music.
When and how did you first hook up with Edgar Winter?
I had been playing in a band in San Francisco from 1968 until 1970 called Sawbuck. We did an album for Bill Graham on a subsidiary of Epic Records called Fillmore Records. Ronnie Montrose and I were in that band together. When the band broke up, I came back to Reno and Ronnie was out on the road playing with Van Morrison. When he left Van, he went and did some gigs with Boz Skaggs. When he was with Boz Skaggs, they did some gigs with White Trash, and during that time Ronnie met Edgar, and that's when Edgar started talking about having a straight ahead rock and roll band instead of an r & b band. A four piece rock and roll band. So he flew Ronnie out to New York, and they started auditioning people. Then somehow, through Rick Derringer they got a demo tape from Dan Hartman, and almost all the songs of Dan's that ended up on the album were on that demo- "Free Ride," "We All Had a Real Good Time," "Autumn," all of those. Dan and Edgar hit it off real well. So they had Dan and Ronnie and Edgar. They got Randy Jo Hobbs to play bass because Johnny wasn't doing anything at the time. He was down in Louisiana drying out or something. That part of the show has always been unclear. Knowing Johnny, he probably just checked into the hospital because he was sick of people. He gets really put out with people at times. People get around him and they just won't leave him alone. I was back here in Reno, just biding my time, playing for $30 a night. Ronnie called me up and asked me what I was doing and I told him, and he said well, come on out to New York. We'll send you a ticket. So I flew out to New York in January of 1971, and if I'm not mistaken, they had already recorded "Free Ride" before I even went out there. But I fell right into the whole thing through Ronnie Montrose. I always thought it was pretty weird that a local from Reno, Nevada could fly to New York and become a rock star. It's pretty funny.
How long did you play with the Edgar Winter Group, how long did that last?
I started in January of 1971, and the band split up just before the end of 1976. We did one last big tour with Bad Company.
Have you heard Edgar's new band?
Oh yes. They are excellent. I just went up to Oregon during the summer and they were playing at a Harley Davidson function up there. He came over after the show and we hung out and he played his new album "Winter Blues." That album is really good. The drummer, Rick Latham is from South Carolina.
When we met Edgar, he was extremely nice.
He is one of the nicest guys I've ever known. He's lead such a protected life that you'd think he'd be real shy, but you can ask him anything and he'll give you a straight forward answer. He loves to talk about music. His guitar player, Mitch (Perry) is a really nice guy too.
When they played here, Mitch's amp blew, and during the down time we were treated to Edgar unplugged on "Dying to Live" and "The Music is You."
"Dying to Live" has been one of my favorites for ever and ever.
Mine too. Have you seen Johnny Winter lately?
The last time I saw Johnny was at a place called The Keystone Corner. He had just put out one of his Alligator blues albums. He only had like half the tattoos he has now. I sent a note back stage that I had a couple of people I was with that wanted to meet him, you know. I said, "Tell Johnny that I'm out here." The roadie brings the note back and says, you better get your ass back here. I walk around backstage and Johnny throws out his arms and says, "Chuck Ruff?! I thought you were dead!" I said, no I ain't dead, I've just been hiding out.
I know you are married, do you have kids?
Sure do. I have a 19 year old and a twenty-four year old.
My kids are 16 and 11, and they like all kinds of music. I'm always trying to get Îem to listen to Edgar and Johnny and The Allman Brothers...
We did a lot of shows with The Allman Brothers Band back when I was playing drums with Sammy Hagar.
I didn't know you played with Sammy.
Oh yeah, from 1977-1980. We recorded a bunch of live stuff. One of the albums was recorded live in Europe. I also did two studio albums with him. One was called "Street Machine," and the other was called "Danger Zone." They were pre-1980, so you could probably find them in a recycled record store. We have a really good place here in Reno called Recycled Records. Since my dad passed away, I inherited some old mint 78's. Collectors items.
That reminds me of "Sanford and Son."
(Laughing) I want my Daddy's records! I want my Daddy's records! Then he gets them back and puts them on the driveway and Bubba backs over them!
Funny stuff! But I didn't know you played for Sammy.
Yeah, ol' Sammy is a card, I'll tell you. He's a really nice guy, but he doesn't have any substance to him. He's a Bill Clinton type of guy. You see him from a distance, and you hate his guts and you get up close to him and he talks to you and you fall in love with him. Then he burns you so bad you want to kill him. One of those kind of guys.
I want to get your thoughts on some of your former band mates. Edgar Winter.
He is the absolute most gentlemanly, kindest, most generous guy. There's only one Edgar Winter, and he's the greatest. He's the nicest guy I have ever met in my life. That's like the exact opposite of Sammy Hagar, who was the nicest until you got to know him. When I was playing with Hagar, Edgar brought his wife Monique out to see us, and I gotta say she is just so nice. Edgar finally got him one. A very special woman.
The late Dan Hartman.
Very jovial, a real prankster. A maestro kind of musician that knew everything about instruments. He could write a song on the spur of the moment. You could give him a title and he'd write a song. He was kind of like a guy that would work at an advertising agency. If you needed a jingle, boom, he could do it. He'd get the feeling for what the word was, and then he'd put it into music. It would just come pouring out of him.
The most underated guitar player on the planet. The guy is the best. If he chose to be a jazz guitarist, he'd probably be right up there with the best of all time. The guy just knows that guitar like I know the drums, he knows the drums. He really can play anything on the guitar. I've only known two people that could play like that and one of them was Ronnie Montrose. The other was Tommy Bolin. I hung out a lot with Tommy when we toured with The James Gang. But Rick was kind of like our dad. He was a producer and had been doing it since the McCoys in the early Î60s. He toured with The Rolling Stones when he was 18. He knew everybody. He introduced me to everybody from Dave Mason to David Gilmour. I mean he knew everybody. He and his wife Liz. She even became a writer for Andy Warhol's Interview magazine. She knew Jerry Hall, Mick Jagger, all those.
Ronnie was kinda like Rick was to me later. He was five years older than me. I've always been in bands with guys that were older than me. When I first met him, he had hair down to his butt. He lived in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, and he was a carpenter. He hadn't been playing guitar very long but he was very good. He was working installing door buzzer systems in these old Victorian mansions that they had turned into apartment buildings. I think Derringer is the greatest guitar that was ever born, but Ronnie is right below him. You could find any stringed instrument and put him in a room for eight hours, and he'd learn how to tune it and play it. He's a natural. When he first left The Edgar Winter Group, he went back to San Francisco and started putting together the band Montrose. We were recording "Jasmine Nightdreams" and "The Edgar Winter Group featuring Rick Derringer." That one had the song "Good Shot" on it, one of my favorite songs we ever did. Edgar never ever got up before the sun went down. But here he was up in the morning in Dan's house, which had been hard wired for recording. Edgar was here, unshaven, standing in the closet with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other. You remember Sly did that song "Family Affair" from bed, and Edgar wanted to get a sound like that.
Special thanks to Chuck for all of his help with Ronnie, Edgar, Kirk Munchoff and various oither cool contacts!