Bob Seger

 Bob Seger

 Bob Seger – circa 1978

 “Twenty years now, where’d they go? / Twenty years, I don’t know” – ‘Like A Rock’ (Bob Seger)

Nostalgia is a thing of the past.  When rock ‘n’ roll is born in the mid-1950s, it is all about the moment.  The nearest it comes to musing about the past is remembering last night’s party.  Arguably, rock first starts to reminisce about its early days with the advent of Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1968, an act that mixes reheated rock oldies with its own (very good) original compositions.  Sha-Na-Na in 1969 is a full-blown nostalgia act, ‘completely specialising in 1950s rock ‘n’ roll.’  Toronto, Canada’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Revival Concert on 13 September 1969 starts a wave of shows starring aging rockers from the music’s first generation.  The motion picture ‘American Graffiti’ (1973) and the television series ‘Happy Days’ (1974 – 1984) feed the public appetite for rock ‘n’ roll’s ‘good old days.’  American rock star Bob Seger sees ‘American Graffiti’ in 1974.  By the time of his album ‘Night Moves’ (1976), Seger is mining the past, but in a less glossy, more personal manner.  Bob Seger has more reason than many of his peers to wax nostalgic – his own rise to fame is a long-term project.

Robert Clark Seger is born 6 May 1945 in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S.A.  He is the second son of Stewart and Charlotte Seger.  His older brother is named George.  Bob’s father, Stewart Seger, is a medic for the Ford motor vehicle company.  Stewart Seger spends his off-duty hours as an orchestra leader.  He plays guitar, piano, saxophone and clarinet – as well as singing bass in a barbershop quartet.  “I was really a loner [as a child],” Bob Seger recalls.  “I had very liberal parents.”

In 1951, when Bob Seger is 6, his family relocates from Dearborn to Ann Arbor, Michigan.  In 1955 Stewart Seger abandons his wife and children.  Charlotte Seger works as a domestic and Bob’s brother, George, takes a job with the Wrigley’s Gum Company.  Bob claims, “I was a poor kid.  It was a disappointment to grow up and realise…that in middle-class families the guy went off the bar and got drunk and smashed up the car just like in poor families.”

Bob Seger attends Ann Arbor High School (an education facility now known as Pioneer High School).  Ann Arbor is the site of the University of Michigan and Seger grows up very aware of the social divide between the (comparatively) affluent and well-educated student population and ‘the townies’, “the rough guys, which is what we were.”  As an adolescent, he attends ‘grassers’, unconventional teenager dances held in cornfields.  The headlights of the kids’ cars illuminate the central ‘dancefloor’ and the car-radios – all tuned to the same station – provide the music.

“James Brown was really the first major influence on me,” says Bob Seger.  “I was one of the few white people in the audience…We listened to people like Otis Redding…[We] went for the real primitive rhythm and blues…hard singing and soulful.  Of course, Motown {Records, based in Detroit, was an influence] since I’m from Detroit [well, Ann Arbor, but both are in Michigan].  Black music more than white music for the most part.  Y’know Chuck Berry, Little Richard.  Never was a big fan of Elvis [Presley] except for, like, his early records like ‘Hound Dog’.  The hard ones.”  Seger also cites the mid-1960s influence of Irish singer Van Morrison.  “He’s the Ray Charles of the 1960s,” he says, referring to the 1950s rhythm and blues pioneer who also embraced jazz and country music tendencies.

This is getting a bit ahead of the story.  Although all of these characters influence Bob Seger, by the time he forms his first group in 1961, he would only have heard Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ray Charles, James Brown and – maybe – Motown’s earliest singles.  Van Morrison and Otis Redding would, at that point, be unknown to him.

The aforementioned 1961 band is The Decibels.  This trio consists of Bob Seger (vocals, bass, guitar, keyboards), Pete Stanger (guitar) and H.B. Hunter (drums).  They play in bars and ‘at the fraternity house parties of the well-to-do kids at the University of Michigan.’  The Decibels make a demo recording of Bob Seger’s first song, ‘The Lonely One’, in 1961.  A local disc-jockey plays it – but only once.  The Decibels appear to be fairly short-lived, not making it out of 1961.  By this time, Bob’s elder brother, George, has entered the armed forces, so Bob ‘holds down dumb jobs to keep the creditors at bay.’

In 1963 Bob Seger graduates from Ann Arbor High School.  He goes into music full-time with The Town Criers.  This unit consists of: Bob Seger (vocals, bass), Larry Mason (lead guitar), John Flis (bass) and Pep Perrine (drums).  By 1964, The Town Criers are history and Seger finds himself working on the Ford automobile assembly line.  It’s only a temporary thing and, before too long, he quits and returns to music.  Yet perhaps the blue-collar mentality stays with him.

In 1965 Bob Seger is co-vocalist for Doug Brown And The Omens.  The most notable thing about this crew is their manager, a club owner and concert promoter named Eddie ‘Punch’ Andrews.  Seger seeks out Andrews for a quiet word and sings him his latest composition, ‘East Side Story’, ‘a song about life in the seedy section of town.’  Punch Andrews is sufficiently impressed to scrape together the cash to issue the song on his own Hideout record label in 1965.  It is the beginning of a partnership lasting over forty years.

Around this time, Bob Seger produces a recording session for Hideout Records featuring another Michigan singer, Glenn Frey.  In the 1970s Frey becomes part of the very successful country rock band, The Eagles.

In January 1966 Bob Seger puts together a new backing band.  Bob Seger And The Last Heard consists of Bob Seger (vocals, some guitar, some piano), Carl Lagassa (guitar), Don Honaker (bass) and Pep Perrine (drums).

In 1966 Bob Seger And The Last Heard make a parody record under the pseudonym The Beach Bums.  ‘The Ballad Of The Yellow Beret’ is a send-up of Sgt Barry Sadler’s gung-ho patriotic song ‘The Ballad Of The Green Beret’.  The song is withdrawn shortly after release when Sadler threatens legal action.

“I left Ann Arbor about 1966,” Bob Seger notes.  “It was pretty laid back and quiet when I grew up there,” he points out because, in the late 1960s, the University of Michigan becomes a hot-bed of student unrest and Detroit is home to the radical White Panthers.  But, as Seger says, he was out of there and spending most of his time touring the U.S.A. – albeit at a very low, grass-roots level.

Bob Seger’s ‘East Side Story’ is picked up by the Cameo-Parkway record label.  Things look promising for another Seger Single, ‘Heavy Music’ (US no. 103).  This is how he tells it: “’Heavy Music’ was about [no.] 66 on the charts [locally?] and the record company [Cameo-Parkway] folded…I never really knew what happened.”  So far as can be determined, the record label is accused – rightly or wrongly – of some kind of stock manipulation of its assets that results in the federal authorities shutting them down.  It’s a kick in the teeth for Seger.  He drops out of the music business for eleven months.  He obtains ‘psychiatric help for his suicidal depression.’

In 1968 Bob Seger marries Renee Andrietti.

Punch Andrews continues to represent Bob Seger and, in 1968, lands him a recording contract with Capitol Records.

The celebrations are somewhat dampened by the news in 1968 that Stewart Seger has died.  The singer’s estranged father perished in a house fire, too drunk to get out of the way of the flames.

At Capitol, ‘Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man’ (1969) (US no. 62) in April is credited to The Bob Seger System.  This name is applied to a revised version of The Last Heard consisting of: Bob Seger (vocals, some guitar, some keyboards), Bob Schultz (keyboards), Dan Honaker (bass) and Pep Perrine (drums).  The album is co-produced by Punch Andrews and The Bob Seger System.  The album’s title track, ‘Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man’ (US no. 17), becomes a hit.  Another song from this disc, ‘2 + 2 = ?’, is inspired by the death in the Vietnam war of a boyhood friend of Seger.  It is ‘one of the first anti-war songs directly critical of the conflict.’  It has taken Bob Seger eight years from the time he recorded his first song (‘The Lonely One’ in 1961) to the release of his first album.  Little does he know that he must wait a further six years before he will achieve a breakthrough.

Shortly after the release of ‘Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man’, Bob Seger’s short-lived marriage to Renee Andrietti comes to an end.

The Bob Seger System is augmented by singer-songwriter Tom Neme for ‘Noah’ (1969) in September.  This and the next three albums are all produced by Punch Andrews.  ‘Noah’ ‘stiffs’ and, disheartened, at the end of 1969 Bob Seger quits the music business and attends college instead.

Naturally, Bob Seger is drawn back to rock, too stubborn to give up.  ‘Mongrel’ (1970) (US no. 171) is recorded without Tom Neme or Bob Schultz.  The fiery ‘Lucifer’ (US no. 84) brings some attention to the album.  This is the last disc credited to The Bob Seger System and the group is disbanded.

‘Brand New Morning’ (1971) is credited to Bob Seger alone.  It is his last work for Capitol…for the moment.

In 1971 Bob Seger begins working with the duo Teegarden And Van Winkle.  Dave Teegarden (drums, vocals) and Skip Knape Van Winkel (keyboards, vocals) had their own act going, but they join up with Seger to help him lay down ‘Smokin’ O.P.’s’ (1972) (US no. 180).  The title comes from a slang phrase for ‘smoking other people’s’, being so poor you can’t afford to buy your own cigarettes and have to borrow them from others.  It fits the contents because, aside from revisiting ‘Heavy Music’, this is mostly an album of cover versions of other people’s songs.  ‘Smokin’ O.P.’s’ is created for Palladium Records, a label formed by Seger and his manager Punch Andrews, but this label is virtually still-born.  Distribution is picked up by Warner Brothers’ subsidiary Reprise Records who also issue Seger’s next two albums.

In 1972 Bob Seger begins a long-running romantic relationship with Jan Dinsdale.

‘Back in ‘72’ (1973) (US no. 188) and ‘Seven’ (1974) are both co-produced by Bob Seger and Punch Andrews.  ‘Back in ‘72’ is home to the original version of ‘Turn The Page’, a smouldering song of hurt and anger born from Seger’s long years of touring: “Well you walk into a restaurant, strung out from the road / And you feel the eyes upon you as you’re shakin’ off the cold.”  ‘Seven’ is so named because it is Seger’s seventh album.  The highlight of this set is the ‘ballistic’ ‘Get Out Of Denver’ (US no. 80).  Parts of both of these albums are recorded with the Muscle Shoals studio musicians in Alabama.

Bob Seger returns to Capitol Records and, at this point, his career begins to turn upwards.

Bob Seger’s music is usually characterised as heartland rock, the music of blue collar workers from the middle parts of the United States.  It is unpretentious, basic, meat-and-potatoes rock.  Seger is usually lumped together in this category with Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and John Mellencamp.  Springsteen is the acknowledged leader (even by Seger), but Bob Seger is actually the one who has been at the game the longest.  His first album is dated 1969; Springsteen’s debut is not until 1973.  Coming from Michigan, from a relatively poor family, and having a resume that includes a stint in an automobile factory, Seger epitomises the heartland rock values.

Bob Seger writes most of his own songs.  What comes to typify his material is a nostalgic viewpoint.  This is less about rock ‘n’ roll’s supposed ‘golden days’ than about his own, more innocent, youth – though there is some overlap between the two.  Seger explains that he is “searching for words you can sing with conviction ‘cos that’s what I’ve been trying to do more than anything else.”

The voice of Bob Seger is a hoarse rasp, filed to a point by long nights playing bars across the country.  Somewhere between the bark of a wild dog and the roar of a lion rests Seger’s distinctive vocal style.  His early fascination with black music is instructive since that feeling of hard-won experience pervades both soul singers and Seger.

As Bob Seger reassesses his career, he reinvents his backing group.  The Silver Bullet Band is founded in 1974.  The members accompanying Seger (vocals, some guitar, some keyboards) are: Drew Abbott (guitar), Rick Manassa (keyboards), Alto Reed (a.k.a. Tom Cartwell) (saxophone), Chris Campbell (bass) and Charlie Allen Martin (drums).  The Silver Bullet Band travel with Seger on his seemingly endless touring schedule and, usually, work with him in the recording studio.  However, Seger sometimes records with the ace session musicians at Muscle Shoals.  On other occasions he uses session musicians from New York or Los Angeles to augment – or substitute for – members of The Silver Bullet Band.

The first album in Bob Seger’s new phase at Capitol Records is ‘Beautiful Loser’ (1975) (US no. 131).  Production duties on this and Seger’s next three studio albums are shared by Seger, Punch Andrews and The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.  Thematically, the album looks over Seger’s career to date as a try-hard but largely unsuccessful artist.  “It wasn’t really autobiographical,” Seger claims, “but people saw it that way and after all people will take what they will from whatever you write.”  It is this personal element that really seems to ignite his work and thrusts him into a more successful future.  The scorching ‘Katmandu’ (US no. 43) may be the disc’s best known track.

April’s ‘Live Bullet’ (1976) (US no. 34) is a double album concert recording from shows in Detroit, Michigan.  The set list collects together the best tracks from Bob Seger’s previous albums and his run of not-quite-hit singles in one place.  The better known version of ‘Turn The Page’ is this live recording.  By this time, Roby Robbins has replaced Rick Manassa on keyboards in The Silver Bullet Band.

Bob Seger’s potential crystallises in ‘Night Moves’ (1976) (US no. 8), released in October.  The tremendously affecting title track, ‘Night Moves’ (US no. 4), is a look back at awkward adolescent sexual encounters: “Workin’ on our night moves / Tryin’ to make some front-page drive-in news.”  “That one took about eight months [to write],” Seger admits.  “I’d go back to it now and then.”  There is a pause late in the song after Seger sings “We felt the lightning / And waited on the thunder.”  “I got the idea [for the pause] from Bruce [Springsteen’s] ‘Jungleland’,” the author confesses.  When Seger refers to “Started humming a song from 1962 / Ain’t it funny how the night moves,” he has in mind ‘Be My Baby’ by The Ronettes…but that song is not released until 1963.  Ooops!  Bob Seger plays acoustic guitar on ‘Night Moves’ and it is basically recorded with only his bassist and drummer after everyone else has left the recording studio.  This accounts for the song’s hushed atmosphere.  ‘Night Moves’ is Bob Seger’s best individual song because it encapsulates his main themes – the past, rural towns, the importance of rock – and packages them movingly without seeming false or syrupy.  The Muscle Shoals crew are used for ‘Mainstreet’ (US no. 24).  “Many people have asked me what street I’m talking about in this song,” says Seger.  “It’s actually Ann Street, just off Main Street in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I grew up and went to school.  There was a pool hall (I can’t remember the name) where they had girls dancing in the window and rhythm and blues bands playing on the weekends.”  Thus it is that Seger’s narrator notes, “There was this long lovely dancer in a little club downtown / I loved to watch here do her stuff,” and “In the pool halls, the hustlers and the losers / I used to watch ‘em through the glass.”  Pete Carr provides the stinging guitar lines that frame Seger’s steely growl on ‘Mainstreet’.  ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Never Forgets’ (US no. 41) also comes from this set.

‘Stranger In Town’ (1978) (US no. 4, UK no. 31) is Bob Seger’s best album.  This album brings Dave Teegarden back on drums, in place of Charlie Allen Martin.  Things get off to a hot and lively start with the barrelling rock of ‘Hollywood Nights’ (US no. 12, UK no. 42).  “She stood there bright as the sun on that California coast / He was a Midwestern boy on his own,” barks Seger.  “I love the song,” he later tells an interviewer, while denying it’s about his old buddy Glenn Frey, a Midwestern boy who found fame in California.  “It’s just a made-up imaginary story.”  The strolling pop of ‘Still The Same’ (US no. 4) is about a gambler.  “I don’t gamble,” Seger insists in an interview, though he allows that his manager, Punch Andrews, is more of a betting man.  As far as the writing process goes for this track, the singer marvels, ”It just sort of fell out of the sky.  I was sitting on my basement steps and just started strumming it and it all came together real fast.”  ‘Old Time Rock ‘N’ Roll’ (US no. 28) is written by George Jackson and Thomas Earl Jones III, though Seger notes, “I rewrote the verses but asked for no writing credit (I wish I had) [since it is one of] the most popular juke box singles of all time.”  This resolute rocker is not a cover version; Seger is the first to record it.  ‘Stranger In Town’ ranges from the angry ‘Feel Like A Number’, a rant against society’s tendency towards dehumanisation, through to the oceanic calm of ‘The Famous Final Scene’ that closes the album.  Of course, the ballad ‘We’ve Got Tonight’ (US no. 13, UK no. 41) cannot be overlooked.  “I figured I had a winner with ‘We’ve Got Tonight’,” says Bob Seger, while acknowledging that such ballads “are easier to program” for radio play lists.  The delicate, yet pained, tone of that song ties into the albums’ centre piece, ‘Brave Strangers’, and harks back to ‘Hollywood Nights’.  ‘Stranger In Town’ possesses a unified vision of life for someone (a travelling rock musician perhaps?) condemned to always being on the move, without a real home, whose interpersonal relationships are necessarily limited.  This overarching theme makes this Bob Seger’s greatest achievement.

‘Against The Wind’ (1980) (US no. 1, UK no. 26) is ‘a less raucous, more thoughtful’ work.  The album’s best known songs are mid-paced affairs, neither rockers nor ballads.  The best of them may be ‘Fire Lake’ (US no. 6), with The Eagles on backing vocals.  The Eagles’ producer, Bill Szymczyk, co-produces the album with Bob Seger, Punch Andrews and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.  Glenn Frey also lends backing vocals to the folky ‘Against The Wind’ (US no. 5), the sailing title track.  “It seems like only yesterday / But it was long ago,” warbles Seger, continuing to trade in nostalgia.  ‘You’ll Accomp’ny Me’ (US no. 14) is a self-assured sing-along.

The live album, ‘Nine Tonight’ (1981) (US no. 3), includes ‘Tryin’ To Live My Life Without You’ (US no. 5).

Some see ‘The Distance’ (1982) (US no. 5, UK no. 45) as Bob Seger’s ‘personal masterpiece’.  Jimmy Iovine produces this set and The Silver Bullet Band is now minus guitarist Drew Abbott and drummer Dave Teegarden.  Craig Frost is now on hand as keyboards player.  A cover version of the Rodney Crowell song ‘Shame On The Moon’ (US no. 2) is the album’s biggest hit.  The meditative ‘Roll Me Away’ (US no. 27) builds in intensity as it progresses.  ‘Making Thunderbirds’ seems to mourn the faltering automobile manufacturing industry even as it exhibits ‘scorching rock ‘n’ roll.’

Bob Seger’s relationship with Jan Dinsdale ends in 1983.  Although they never married, the couple were together for eleven years.

David Cole co-produces ‘Like A Rock’ (1986) (US no. 3, UK no. 35) with Bob Seger and Punch Andrews.  This album is home to ‘American Storm’ (US no. 13, UK no. 78) and the title track, ‘Like A Rock’ (US no. 12), which is another reflection on lost youth.

In 1986 Bob Seger marries actress Annette Sinclair.

The soundtrack to the movie ‘Beverly Hills Cop II’ (1987) is the unlikely source of Bob Seger’s most commercially successful hit.  The rattling ‘Shakedown’ (US no. 1, UK no. 88) has lyrics penned by Seger, but the music is co-written by Harold Faltermeyer and Keith Forsey.

Bob Seger’s brief marriage to Annette Sinclair comes to an end in 1988.

Muscle Shoals keyboardist Barry Beckett shares a production credit with Bob Seger and Punch Andrews on ‘The Fire Inside’ (1991) (US no. 7, UK no. 54).  The title track, ‘The Fire Inside’, is a pacey shuffle.

In 1991 Bob Seger marries Juanita ‘Nita’ Dorricott.  The couple have two children: a son named Cole (born 1992) and a daughter, Samantha (born 16 April 1995).

After the self-produced ‘It’s A Mystery’ (1995) (US no. 27), Bob Seger takes an eleven year break to raise his children.

‘Face The Promise’ (2006) (US no. 4), another self-produced effort, ends Bob Seger’s self-imposed exile.

Nostalgia can be a self-indulgent exercise, a way of deluding oneself about the imagined superior merits of the past.  For Bob Seger, it was something deeper.  Nostalgia was a way of accessing truthfulness in his songwriting and singing, for he was not singing about the past in general, but his own youth in particular.  Cutting his first record when he was 16, Seger’s teenage years were inextricably linked to his music career.  He was 23 before his first album was released, 29 before his work achieved a real breakthrough, 34 when he attained a no. 1 album, and 42 before he scored his only no. 1 single.  With a career spanning such a lengthy period, he had a right to be nostalgic.  Bob Seger’s best work was in the period 1975 to 1978.  His timeless voice and classic songwriting echoed back to earlier years and lingers into the future.  Bob Seger’s nostalgia conquered time.  Bob Seger ‘crafted a distinctively American sound.’  He ‘was the man who made rock ‘n’ roll a blue collar profession.’

Sources:

  1. ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 152, 208
  2. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 66, 162, 311
  3. Internet movie database imdb.com as at 3 March 2014
  4. ‘Rock Stars’ by Timothy White (Columbus Books, 1984) p. 214, 218, 219
  5. Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 23 December 2013
  6. NEW FM (?) – Bob Seger radio interview in Miami Beach (July 1979)
  7. WUTR-TV – Bob Seger television interview in Utica, New York (December 1976)
  8. wikipedia.org as at 23 December 2013
  9. allmusic.com, ‘Bob Seger’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 26 March 2014
  10. whosdatedwho.com as at 4 March 2014
  11. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 190, 191, 205
  12. ‘Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band – Greatest Hits’ – Sleeve notes by Bob Seger (Capitol Records Inc., 1994) p. 2, 4, 8, 10, 12

Song lyrics copyright Gear Publishing Co. (ASCAP)

Last revised 19 March 2014

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s