In Praise of Bob Seger

May 5th, 2009
By Scott Westerman - Curator

May 6th, 1945. The Second World War in Europe ends as the Germans announce that they will sign surrender documents. While most eyes are focused overseas, life goes on in Detroit. At Henry Ford Hospital, Robert Seger is born. By the time he was six the family had relocated to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Seger’s father left the family when Bob was ten and the young man made his way through the Ann Arbor Public Schools, attending Tappan Junior High and graduating from what was then called Ann Arbor High School in 1963.

His classmates remember him as an athlete, one of the best runners in the State, and as a man on a mission… to make music.

As a sophomore, Bob Seger joined his first notable band, The Decibels and after graduation he he played with The Town Criers and Doug Brown and the Omens. It was with the Omens that he recorded “Ballad of the Yellow Beret”, a parody of the then popular Barry Sadler tune “Ballad of the Green Berets”. When Sadler threatened a lawsuit, the record was withdrawn, but Seger’s taste for writing and performing his signature soulful, blusy mash-up of James Brown, Little Richard, Elvis and Van Morrison was cast in stone.

He took on a manager, Ed “Punch” Andrews, and with his new group, The Last Heard, recorded “East Side Story“. The record sold a half a million copies and lead to a recording contract with Cameo Parkway. “Heavy Music” followed and even as it rocketed to the upper reaches of the WKNR Music Guide, Seger suffered his first professional setback when the Cameo label folded.

What followed were years of tenacious hard work and a cult following in the Midwest that kept the various iterations of his band traveling and gigging wherever they could find a venue. It was during this time that Seger tried his hand a producing. The group was called the Mushrooms and the experience lead to a lifelong friendship with band member Glen Frey, with whom Seger collaborated as co-author of the Eagle’s smash “Heartache Tonight“.

If you were from the Detroit area, you probably own every album Bob Seger ever recorded. You celebrated his first national hit record when “Ramblin Gamblin Man’s” heavy airplay on WKNR helped propel it to number 17 on the Billboard charts. Your collection of Bob Seger LPs included titles like “Brand New Morning” and “Smokin O.P.s”. And you knew that if he was on the concert bill, the venue would be rockin and you’d get your money’s worth.

It is said that everybody has talent and persistence is the magic quality that separates the stars from the dreamers. That Michigan blue collar work ethic would sustain Bob Seger, even as many of his peers abandoned their rock n roll dreams for “real jobs”.

In 1974, Seger launched The Silver Bullet Band. “Get Out of Denver” cracked the hot 100 that same year and in 75, we DJ’s were playing “Nutbush City Limits” as an album cut and could rely on “Katmandu” as a guaranteed catalyst to get everyone out on the dance floor.

1976 was Bob Seger’s magic year. “Live Bullet”, a double album recorded at Detroit’s Cobo Arena, became a national sensation. What followed was a decade of consistent success. “Live Bullet” went platinum as did “Night Moves”. Seger’s “Like a Rock” became the brand definition for Chevy trucks, and Tom Cruise’s karaoke rendition of “Old Time Rock and Roll” in the film Risky Business cemented the tune as one of the greatest rock records of all time.

In the years since, Seger has balanced his career passions with family life, the holy grail that we all constantly seek. He hasn’t toured as much and his rare gigs instantly sell out. It’s still hard to find his early Cameo Parkway stuff on CD; most of us have burned MP3s off of well worn 45s. But even with the scratches, we still feel like “going insane when the drums begin to pound”. We can be whipped into a frenzy by “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” and feel the raw emotion whenever “Main Street” comes on the radio.

On March 15, 2004, Kid Rock, a Seger / Andrews protege, inducted his mentor into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But the event was just an affirmation of what we already knew. For those of us in the Keener Generation, Bob Seger came into our lives like a freight train. The inimitable voice, the poetry and the music were all in perfect sync with who we were and who we were trying to become.

My most vivid Bob Seger memory happened on December 10, 1971. I was a cub reporter and sometime disk jockey at WPAG in Ann Arbor and convinced my boss to get me press credentials for the John Sinclair Freedom Rally that was held at what’s now called Crisler Arena. John Lennon and Yoko Ono were the headliners. Stevie Wonder, Phil Ochs, Steve Miller, and Commander Cody were also on the bill. But the only thing I really remember about that night was when Bob Seger took the stage.

He was backed by Teegarden and VanWinkle, who were enjoying a one hit wonder experience with “God, Love and Rock and Roll“. Seger connected instantly with the crowd and barreled through a 45 minute set with the energy of a ballistic missile. Time seemed to stand still, the seconds ticking to the thunderous bass line. In that moment, the politics of the evening evaporated. Crisler became one gargantuan dance hall and even those of us in the press gallery were on our feet.

There was a ton of talent there that December night. And as the event progressed into the wee hours of the morning the general consensus was that the true highlight of the experience was Ann Arbor’s favorite son.

Over a career that spans five decades, anyone who ever saw Bob Seger perform felt exactly the same way.

Bob Seger Opens Oakland Mall - 1968
Bob Seger Opens Oakland Mall - 1968
Bob Seger in Creme Magazine
Bob Seger in Creme Magazine
Definitly No Stranger to Detroit
Definitly No Stranger to Detroit
WCSX campaign for Seger. (Diane Burkey photo.)  He made it on March 15, 2004
WCSX campaign for Seger. (Diane Burkey photo.) He made it on March 15, 2004

Bob Seger

Induction Year: 2004

Induction Category: Performer

Bob Seger (vocals, guitar; born May 6, 1945)

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 - with Night Moves, in 1977 - 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 and , 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 1969 “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 album Seven 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 Accommp’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.


May 6, 1945: Bob Seger is born in Dearborn, Michigan.

January 1966: Bob Seger’s first single, “East Side Story,” is released on the Hideout label.

July 1967: Bob Seger’s “Heavy Music,” an ode to high-energy rock and roll, tops the Detroit charts.

December 21, 1968: Bob Seger’s “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” debuts on the national charts. It will rise to #17, but Seger won’t see the Top Forty again for another eight years.

February 8, 1969: Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man, Bob Seger’s debut album - credited to the Bob Seger System - is released.

April 12, 1975: Bob Seger’s Beautiful Loser hits the charts. It will be the first of ten consecutive platinum albums for Seger.

September 4-5, 1975: Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band’s two-night stand at Detroit’s Cobo Hall is recorded. In May 1976 it will be released as Live Bullet.

November 13, 1976: Night Moves, by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, is released. The title track will peak at #4, while the album becomes Seger’s first to go Top Ten.

May 27, 1978: Stranger in Town, Bob Seger’s followup to Night Moves, is released. The album and its lead single, “Still the Same,” both peak at #4.

March 15, 1980: Against the Wind, by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, is released. It will top the albums chart for six weeks and sell over 6 million copies.

February 25, 1981: Against the Wind earns Bob Seger his first Grammy (for Best Album by a Duo or Group with Vocal) and two more Grammy nominations.

September 26, 1981: Bob Seger releases Nine Tonight, a live album cut in Detroit and Boston.

January 15, 1983: The Distance, by Bob Seger, is released. Seger’s cover of Rodney Crowell’s “Shame on the Moon” will become a #2 single.

August 1, 1987: “Shakedown,” by Bob Seger, reaches #1 - his first (and only) chart-topper.

September 14, 1991: Bob Seger releases The Fire Inside, his first album in five years.

November 12, 1994: Greatest Hits, the first best-of in Bob Seger’s career, is released. It will sell 6 million copies and remain a Top Ten catalog seller for seven years.

November 11, 1995: It’s a Mystery, Bob Seger’s first album of new material in four years, is released.

November 4, 2003: Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band’s Greatest Hits 2, is released. 

March 15, 2004: Bob Seger is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the nineteenth annual induction dinner. Kid Rock is his presenter.

Essential Songs

Night Moves
Rock and Roll Never Forgets
Like a Rock
Old Time Rock & Roll
Hollywood Nights
Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man
The Fire Down Below
Against the Wind
Turn the Page

Recommended Reading

“Bob Seger: Not a Stranger Anymore.”
Dave Marsh. Rolling Stone (June 15, 1978): 67-71.

“The Fire This Time: Bob Seger Finally Settles a Fifteen Year Score with Rock & Roll Success.”
Timothy White. Rolling Stone (May 1, 1980): 38-41.

“Bob Seger: Going the Distance”
Joanne Zangrilli. Goldmine (November 16, 1990): 8-14+.