By Patrick Goldstein
Bob Seger is a regional rock & roll legend. Since his first recording, "East Side Story" in 1964, most of his singles have been hits in the Midwest and South, and his local appearances have been consistent sellouts. At a recent Wings concert he was mobbed by well-wishers and had to beat a hasty retreat backstage before the show. He's on the road constantly these days, fronting his Silver Bullet Band (Drew Abbott, guitar; Robin Robbins, organ; Chris Campbell, bass; Charlie Martin, drums). Last month he headlined a show in front of 70,000 for a promised minimum of $100,000. In Michigan, of course. Outside of the heartland, he just doesn't seem to he cutting it.
Seger's lack of national prominence is viewed as something of a mystery. His manager, Ed "Punch" Andrews, cites lack of support from record companies that Seger was formerly associated with, as well as Andrews' own ill-considered decision to release Seger's string of Warners albums on his own label, Palladium, instead of on Warner Bros. Records itself. "Warners was too big a company for us," Seger now says, "and we got lost in the shuffle. They never gave us a national push. Having our own label hurt, too, because they had too many labels as it was. We just never got top priority."
Others lay the blame on Seger's management. "They just seem to reflect his attitudes," a local publicist says. "They've got to convince him to tour the coasts more often if he really wants to break nationally."
Like Detroit contemporaries Mitch Ryder and Ted Nugent, Seger has been more influenced by imported soul crooners like Van Morrison and Eric Burdon than by Motown. Otherwise, there's little derivative about Seger. His personal vision is indelibly stamped on his music, especially on recent works like "Beautiful Loser," from the album of the same name.
"The song was a long time coining," he says, taking a break from mixing his new album in Detroit's Pampa Recording Studio. "The original concept came from Leonard Cohen's line, 'He's reaching for the sky just to surrender -- you know, people who set their goals so low that they'll never be disappointed.
"It took over a year to put it together. I wrote five different 'Beautiful Loser's before I settled on one for the record. There was a ballad, a blues, I couldn't find the right tone. So I played it for Glenn Frey, an old friend, to get some advice. He was the first person to ever hear it. And he loved it, so I stuck with the song until it all got pieced together."
The Eagles singer/guitarist is probably Seger's most successful protege. Their association goes back over a decade. "Glenn and I used to drop acid together in the Sixties," Seger recalls, "and do stuff like go see Planet of the Apes totally ripped. He sort of idolized me 'cause he was just a kid -- maybe 18 -- and I was all of 23, with a string of local hits.
"Frey sings in the chorus of 'Ramblin' Gamblin' Man' and I produced his first record. The group was called the Mushrooms. I was always kinda the heavy guy while Frey liked the Byrds and Beau Brummels, all that sweet stuff and harmonies that the Eagles do now. I was always telling him to 'heavy up, but I guess he's done okay."
Seger and Frey emerged from Detroit's punk-rock renaissance. And like Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes, Terry Knight and the Pack (prototype for Grand Funk), Suzi Quatro, ? and the Mysterians ("96 Tears") and the MC-5, they learned their licks on the Michigan teen-club circuit. "It was a unique situation Seger explains. "We didn't play bars -- there was no booze, just cokes, teenagers and a couple dollars admission. There were probably 30 or 40 of these joints around the state, places like the Mt. Holly Ski Lodge, the Riviera, clubs in Saginaw and Caseville, and we played 'em all. No one ever got paid more than a couple hundred bucks unless they were headliners; it was $500 tops."
The band, originally known as the Last Heard, begrudgingly recorded Bob's songs after being convinced by Punch Andrews -- who, at that time, not only managed the band but also owned a trio of teen clubs called the Hideout. The curly-haired impresario is still Seger's manager, coproducer and confidante.
"Back then, Pampa was in the basement of a bowling alley," says Andrews. "We had to keep people off the 12th lane because that went right over the center of the studio and just destroyed the bass -- it would vibrate and ruin the session."
Seger seems genuinely surprised by his new record's success. Live albums may he in vogue, but Live Bullet's release was hardly geared toward exploiting the trend. "I was really opposed to a live album," the singer says, "but frankly, I just couldn't finish the new record. We were supposed to deliver a new product in January, but by April I still wasn't ready. We just couldn't wait any longer or we'd lose all the momentum from Beautiful Loser. We weren't even getting gigs 'cause we were so cold."
Most bands record a slew of live dates before culling the best cuts for the album. Seger just taped a pair of Cobo Hall shows last fall. It was a calculated risk. "Another of my snap decisions," he cracks. "It only happened two nights beforehand. We decided not to play to the tapes but to the audience -- and it worked.
"At the time, I figured it would buy us a few months, and when the record came off the charts -- boom -- we'd release the studio record. Of course, that's not necessary anymore 'cause it's a hit in its own right.
"At this point we're sitting pretty good," he adds, on the eve of his biggest gig, at Pontiac Stadium. "We'll be Number 41 with a bullet in Billboard next week," he reports with enthusiasm. "We're hot and we're going right into the summer. We're gonna be making quite a bit of money" His $100,000 minimum at Pontiac compares with $3500-$5000 that the band usually makes as an opening act these days.
And how will it feel playing for 70,000 people? "I don't know," he says, all innocence. "I've never been to one of those shows."
(July 29, 1976)