Richie Sambora Honored | Bruce Springsteen | Whitney Houston

Richie Sambora: Surviving Heather, Denise

Bon Jovi’s lead guitarist Richie Sambora is back. After a stint in rehab, the ex-husband of Heather Locklear and ex-boyfriend of Denise Richards took the stage Wednesday night at the Recording Academy’s New York Chapter’s Honors show and declared, “Welcome to rock 'n' roll rehab!”

Sambora has in fact never looked better — tanned, relaxed, in good shape. Maybe we should all try rehab.

He told me before the ceremony — in which the group Bon Jovi was honored along with Alicia Keys, Donnie McClurkin and the 50th anniversary of the original recording of "West Side Story" — that he’s feeling great.

There’s a catch, though. He’s on his way back to finish rehab after taking a couple days off for this event.

“I’m sober, I’m good,” he told me. “But I’m going back just to do finish this weekend. I figured, why not get to the bottom of this and really understand it?”

Sambora, you know, like Jon Bon Jovi, is one of the friendliest, most affable nice guys in rock 'n' roll. And after a year or more of being tabloid fodder — something he’d rarely been in 25 years — this one must have been a shock to him.

The program Wednesday night was probably as good a tonic as any. Sambora — and the whole audience — was knocked out by Melissa Etheridge’s take on “Wanted Dead or Alive” and “Living on a Prayer.”

Indeed, the Recording Academy Honors — held at Cipirani’s soaring catering hall, a former bank at 55 Wall Street — was one of the great events of the year. In stark contrast to, say, Fashion Rocks, this was a perfectly timed, well-executed evening of performances that took in all aspects of music: Broadway, gospel, rock and soul.

McClurkin — a pastor and recording artist — got a much-deserved nod. He was also brought to tears when the producers surprised him with a visit from his 5-year-old son, Matthew. The idea of the Honors show is to have other stars do tributes to the honorees, but McClurkin then did his own number with the Choir Academy of Harlem.

“I guess I have to do my own tribute,” he joked. But it was a good idea. No one could have done it better.

Keys got to hear her hit “If I Ain’t Got You” performed by Oleta Adams before Clive Davis saluted her with a moving toast. Adams — known mostly for her hit “Get Here” — was stunning, In the old record business, she would have been more of a superstar.

Keys, by the way, gave a beautiful speech, citing her family and mentors, but stressing how amazed she was to be up on stage accepting such a prize after six years.

“I want to thank Donnie Ienner,” she added, pointing out the former Columbia Records exec who dropped her from his label before she was a star. “No, no really,” she said. It was an awkward moment. Ienner’s mistake turned out to be one of Davis’ greatest success stories.

The Honors show also gave a Grammy to the original recording of “West Side Story,” which opened on Broadway 50 years ago. Chita Rivera and Carol Lawrence from that cast each spoke, and Lawrence sang a little a cappella. Stephen Sondheim accepted the award along with the late Leonard Bernstein’s children.

Then, to our amazement, a bunch of Broadway dancers reproduced the Jerome Robbins dance number, “Cool,” from the show under the director of Alan Johnson. Considering that “West Side Story” isn’t playing anywhere, and this was done just for this night, the Recording Academy maybe should have filmed it.

I asked Sondheim, by the way, if he’d seen Tim Burton’s movie version of “Sweeney Todd.” He has, and he says he likes it.

“It’s not the Broadway show,” he warned me. “It’s only an hour and 45 minutes. A lot of the score has been cut. They’ve made it its own thing. You have to go in knowing that. But what they’ve done is great.”

Bruce's 'Magic' Has Anti-War Message

Bruce Springsteen has already made his political feelings clear in the last couple of years. Remember his Ted Koppel interview? The series of concerts — Vote for Change — he did to support John Kerry?

On his new album, "Magic," Springsteen jumps right into the fray again. In a dramatic new REM-ish anthem called "Last to Die," he sings: "Who'll be the last to die for a mistake/The last to die for a mistake/Whose blood will spill, whose heart will break/Who'll be the last to die for a mistake."

The mistake is clearly the Iraq war. "We don't measure the blood we've drawn anymore," he sings. "We just stack the bodies outside the door."

"Magic," which hits stores Tuesday but is already widely available on the Internet, seems like a party album at first. But it has a dark underside: blood and dead bodies wend their way through the songs.

Even when things are looking up at least musically — the songs are strong rockers — the lyrics suggest dire, dark things are happening.

In one song, “Seven drops of blood fall” as a woman smooths the front of her dress. In another, a kiss produces “the taste of blood on your tongue.” There’s a “bloody red horizon.”

But I digress: “Magic” could be the release to save Columbia Records, a company at a crossroads.

A few weeks ago, Lynn Hirschberg profiled new chief Rick Rubin in The New York Times Magazine. Rubin, who refuses to work from an office, was nevertheless scouting Los Angeles for new, much more expensive offices rather than for hit records. The story sent off alarms all over the business.

Ironically, it was the prior Sony administration that made “Magic” possible. Critics went berserk when Andy Lack, brought over from NBC, helped finalize a much-vaunted contract for Springsteen said to be worth $100 million. They claimed that Bruce wasn’t worth it, that he was over the hill and not a big seller. Ouch!

But Lack was right. Springsteen is the last of a dying breed of big-name rockers who are indeed worth the money. Not only has he got a fervent, dedicated following — he’s good. In fact, he’s great.

Springsteen’s last E Street Band album, "The Rising," was nominated for Grammy awards because it presented serious stuff about 9/11.

He followed that up with less commercial projects: "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" and "Live in Dublin." You couldn’t dance to any of this, and in this generation of a dumbed-down audience, that was a risk.

You can dance to “Radio Nowhere,” the lead single from “Magic,” and sing along, too. The whole album, made with the E Street Band, is designed for pleasure. There’s nothing here as poignant as “You’re Missing” from “The Rising.”

In concert, “Magic” is going to work like … magic. It doesn’t miss a beat; there are no good stadium bathroom breaks. The whole thing sounds like hit singles, if they still had hit singles.

Fans are going to love “Livin’ in the Future,” with its throwback arrangement to Springsteen’s real “Glory Days.” Clarence Clemons blows his horn, the band swings into action and it’s the Bruce everyone loves. There’s even a sing-along na-na-na chorus at the end.

But don’t be deceived. The lyrics show Bruce’s maturation and his love of stark images:

“Woke up election day/Skies gunpowder and shades of grey/Beneath a dirty sun, I whistle my time away … I opened up my heart to you/It got all damaged and undone.”

You gotta take the bitter with the sweet.

“Magic” is also an album full of rockers, many showcasing Springsteen’s love of the Wall of Sound. “I’ll Work for Your Love” and “Gypsy Biker” — with wild guitar and harmonica solos possibly from Nils Lofgren — stood out for me, and I think after one more spin, “Your Own Worst Enemy” is going to be lodged in my brain forever. It’s an obvious hit.

“Devil’s Arcade” is the closest Springsteen gets to his haunting Western gothic style. It’s a slow brewing beauty of a song too, with melodrama and magnificent imagery: “A bed draped in sunshine, a body that waits/For the touch of your fingers, the end of the day.”

“Devil’s Arcade” would be a great last song on any album, but on “Magic,” it’s a bridge to something more somber. Springsteen wrote “Terry’s Song” for his late friend and personal assistant of 30 years, Terry Magovern, who died last summer. Springsteen played it at Magovern’s funeral, and here it’s a fitting final moment:

“When they built you, brother, they turned dust into gold,” he sings, “When they built you, brother, they broke the mold.” The same could be said for Springsteen, who’s always a mensch.

Will “Magic” be a hit? Even with the downloads, I think so. Springsteen plays the "Today" show Friday morning for the first time ever. He undoubtedly knows things have changed dramatically in the music biz.

And Lack’s critics were right about one thing: the Boss has never sold multimillions of records. But he’s sold the right records to the right people. “Magic” can only bring him new fans to add to the old, and some more Grammys besides.

Whitney Houston's Comeback Continues

Once more, from Wednesday, just in case anyone misunderstood. Contrary to tabloid reports, Whitney Houston does not have a new contract with Arista Records/Sony BMG. She always had a contract.

In 2001, L.A. Reid handed her a check for $20 million. She spent it. Her recordings didn’t earn out. So now, still under contract, she’s making a new album. She’s in New York working on what she started in Los Angeles a few months ago. All systems are go.

Arista, meanwhile, has rejiggered her financial arrangements. They did not give her $10 million, as reported elsewhere. But sources at the company tell me that Houston has been compensated recently, they’re looking out for her, and making sure she’s happy and in good shape. How will it all turn out? Your guess is as good as mine.