Detroit has always been a musical hotbed, and Bob Seger is one of its greatest rock and roll talents.
His was a long, slow climb to the top, and his overdue breakthrough – withNight Moves, in 1976 – attested to his belief in himself and rock music as a dream worth pursuing. For more than ten years Seger labored on rock’s fringe. Sustained by a rabid fan base, he cut some fine albums and performed at least 200 shows a year. As Dave Marsh wrote, “He had all the requisites of greatness: the voice, the songwriting, the performance onstage, the vision and the ambition.”
When Seger finally broke through, assuming a rightful place among such fellow travelers as the Eagles and Bruce Springsteen, it was sweet vindication for all the years spent in the shadows. Moreover, a string of multiplatinum albums - including Stranger in Town, Against the Wind, The Distance and Like a Rock - kept him on top. Only Seger’s semi-retirement to raise a family has lowered his profile in recent years. With his gruff, powerful voice, Seger could deliver rockers and ballads alike with conviction. His songs managed to capture the lives ordinary people with extraordinary passion. Seger and John Mellencamp are the great rock and roll voices of the Midwest, and Seger came first, having made records since 1966.
Robert Clark Seger was born on May 6, 1945, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His father was himself a musician (and Ford plant worker) who led a big band in the Forties. From the beginning, Seger was a born rock and roller. He didn’t go to college and only briefly held any job other than working musician. He wrote his first song and formed his first band, the Decibels, at age 15. Five years later, he cut his first singles, “East Side Story” and “Persecution Smith.” They appeared on the local Hideout label, which was co-owned by Punch Andrews, who became Seger’s lifelong manager. These and a few other singles, including the early classic “Heavy Music,” were picked up for distribution by Cameo-Parkway. “Heavy Music” was beginning to break nationally when Cameo-Parkway went out of business. Even so, it sold 60,000 copies and went to #1 in Detroit. Seger’s early singles, overlooked nearly everywhere but Detroit, remain among the most coveted collectibles of the Sixties.
Seger’s career got a boost when he signed to Capitol Records in 1968. His first single for the label was “2+2=?,” an antiwar song that didn’t chart outside Detroit. However, he scored in 1968 with “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man.” Credited to the Bob Seger System, as were his first three albums, it reached #17 and allowed Seger to tour beyond his regional base. However, “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” - one of the best songs about the rock and roll life - would be the last time he cracked the Top Forty until “Night Moves” in 1977.
During the eight years between hits, Seger lived the life of an archetypal rock and roll journeyman, cutting respectable and even exceptional albums (such as 1970’s Mongrel) while doggedly working the road. His determination sometimes gave way to self-doubt. Seger briefly considered quitting the business to go to college. He also cut “Turn the Page,” a cheerless portrait of life on the road (from Back in ’72, the second in a three-album stint on the Reprise label). In 1974, he played 267 concerts - and still his albumSeven didn’t crack the Top 200. “Beautiful Loser,” the title song of the 1975 album that found him back on Capitol, offered a proud but resigned self-assessment: “You try and you try, but you just can’t have it all.” And then stardom finally came, and this time it didn’t go away.
The groundwork was laid by Live Bullet, recorded at Detroit’s Cobo Hall. It was Seger’s first headlining show in a large arena. This fiery double album gave the world a chance to hear what fans in the Motor City had known all along: that Bob Seger was one of rock’s most potent performers. He was backed by the Silver Bullet Band - guitarist Drew Abbott, hornman Alto Reed, bassist Chris Campbell, drummer Charlie Martin and keyboardist Robyn Robbins - which he’d formed in 1974. (Organist Craig Frost and drummer Don Brewer, late of Grand Funk Railroad, would also have lengthy tenures in the Silver Bullet Band. So would drummer David Teegarden and backup singers Shaun Murphy and Laura Creamer.) Live Bullet, which stayed on the charts for over three years, is one of rock’s greatest live albums. It became Seger’s first gold record and went on to sell 4 million copies. It also cleared the way for Night Moves, the studio album that made a superstar out of rock’s hardest-working underdog.
The title track, “Night Moves” (#4), affectingly touched on universal experiences - teenage rites of passage and adult nostalgia - which helped send the album into the Top Ten.Night Moves also included the ballad “Mainstreet” (#24) and the rockers “Sunspot Baby,” “The Fire Down Below” and “Rock and Roll Never Forgets.” From here, Seger rose still higher. One of the most eagerly anticipated albums of the Seventies, Stranger in Town (1978) took eight months to make, and Seger spoke of suffering “platinum paranoia.” The album nonetheless cemented his superstar stature, yielding four big singles: “Still the Same” (#4), “Hollywood Nights” (#12), “We’ve Got Tonight” (#13) and “Old Time Rock & Roll” (#28). The last of these, used in a memorable scene from the Tom Cruise film Risky Business, was a diehard rocker’s unapologetic defense of the old-school sound.Against the Wind (1980), which was nearly two years in the making, emphasized midtempo ballads. Three of them became hits: “Fire Lake” (#6), “Against the Wind” (#5) and “You’ll Accomp’ny Me” (#14). The album itself became Seger’s first to top the charts.
The three albums released between 1976 and 1980 - Night Moves, Strangers in Town and Against the Wind - were the cornerstones of Seger’s glory years. This charmed period was capped by Nine Tonight (1981), a live album recorded in Boston and Detroit.
Having released 13 albums in as many years, Seger thereafter pursued his career at a more deliberate pace. He released just two more albums of new material in the Eighties (The Distance and Like a Rock) and two in the Nineties (The Fire Inside and It’s a Mystery). Even so, he enjoyed several of his biggest hits during these years, including a cover of Rodney Crowell’s “Shame On the Moon” (#2), from The Distance, and “Shakedown.” The latter, which appeared on the Beverly Hills Cop II soundtrack, was Seger’s one and only #1 single. Another later hit, “Like a Rock” (#12), got a second lease on life in commercials for Chevrolet trucks.
Seger’s stature as one of rock’s favorite vocalists is obvious from his two volumes of Greatest Hits, which collect 30 hits and concert staples between them. Greatest Hits, released in 1994, sold more than 6 million copies. At the time of Greatest Hits 2’s release in 2003, Bob Seger had sold 50 million albums, his career was nearing the 40-year mark, and he’d begun work on his 20th album.
Rock and roll never forgets, and neither does Bob Seger.
Bob Seger (vocals, guitar; born May 6, 1945)