By Mark Guarino
The resurgence of interest in the Detroit music scene due to the success of Eminem, Kid Rock and the White Stripes has meant one thing to Bob Seger: relief.
“I thought it was kind of great to take the spotlight off of me and give it to Eminem, give it to Kid Rock and Jack White and all those people,” he said from his home in Oakland County outside Detroit. “People have been complaining I haven’t been doing enough.”
Seger put Detroit on the map in the ‘70s through a litany of Top 40 hits and one car commercial — his song “Like a Rock” is credited for preventing General Motors from going under in the early ‘90s. While his peers have spent the last decade embarking on greatest hits tours, Seger maintained a relatively low profile. He has been semi-retired since the mid-‘90s to raise his son and daughter, ages 11 and 8, while enjoying a relatively placid home life that’s includes playing golf and racing sailboats.
All that is about to change. On Monday, March 15, Seger will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside Prince, Traffic, George Harrison, Jackson Browne, ZZ Top and others. Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm announced the ceremony date will be “Bob Seger Day” in his home state and Seger, 58, is hinting he might regroup the Silver Bullet Band for a tour late this year after the release of a new album, his first in nine years.
There are also signs of rediscovery among a new generation. While his songs have been favorites of country stars for years (Brooks & Dunn and Garth Brooks are fans), it wasn’t until recently that rockers like Kid Rock and Metallica have recognized Seger as a forefather to their blue collar rock and have had hits covering his songs. Kid Rock, who helped campaign for Seger’s induction, will induct Seger into the rock hall this month.
“It’s very thrilling to be in the same place as all my heroes — Little Richard, James Brown, Dylan, the Beatles and Stones,” he said. “That’s just great.”
If Seger was starting out in today’s climate of instant stardom, he wouldn’t have gone far. He toiled in various Detroit area bands for over ten years before reaching real success with his 1976 breakthrough album, “Night Moves” (Capitol). Before then he was mostly a Midwest favorite with one hit to his name — “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” in 1969. Although the song made the national Top 20 charts, he went back to college discouraged with the music industry. When he started back up, a succession of failed singles followed, except this time, Seger made a point of making his name as a live performer. His raucous live shows, a mixture of straightforward rock with the stirring uplift of soul music, helped catapult his double live album “Live Bullet” (Capitol) into the Top 40.
“Night Moves” was influenced by the long-winding street dramas of Bruce Springteen’s “Born To Run” (Columbia) album released one year earlier. It prompted Seger to start thinking about his childhood growing up in Ann Arbor. The title song came from a teenage ritual called “grassers” where “cars would circle in a field and the headlights would shine and a guy would have … a 45 record player in the car and we’d play and we’d dance until someone would complain and then we’d move somewhere else,” he said, laughing.
“Mainstreet,” another hit from the album, came from his memories walking around Ann Arbor late at night when he was only 10 years old. “I was given a tremendous free rein. My parents moved there because of the proximity of the university and all the culture. It was a very safe town. Students were into blues and folk and you’d be walking by the coffeehouses on Main Street near the border between (the black and white neighborhoods) and they’d have girls dancing the windows and blues bands playing,” he said. “(That song’s) one of my favorites, actually. You can sing it with conviction down through the years and it never wears out.”
The album became “the narrative of my growing up,” he said. “It’s my story. When ‘Night Moves’ hit, my record company said ‘okay, that’s a career record.’ I said, ‘what’s that mean?’ They said, ‘for the rest of your career, if you’re known for nothing else, you’ll be known for this.’ Just them saying that and the people’s reaction to it … it boosted my confidence as a writer. I thought ‘I think I can go a little farther, go a little deeper’ with the subject matter.”
Seger’s songbook is often lumped alongside Springsteen’s for its blue-collar romanticism. But Seger’s songs, most ballads, are more accessible and have more grandeur. They are the songs you want to hear on a jukebox at your corner bar on a late Saturday night.
“There is a beauty in the simplicity of a simple life as opposed to a big city rushing life,” he said. “If I’m writing something about a city it doesn’t ring as true because I’m not as dialed into that thing.”
What also separates Seger from Springsteen is his emphasis on soul music — a factor growing up around Detroit where the Motown hit-making factory was in full swing. “For me personally, R&B has always been a powerful force,” he said. Seger spent a childhood listening to Southern singers like Solomon Burke, Bobby Blue Bland and Wilson Pickett and ended up patterning his voice after their’s. “I always liked the gruff singers where as the smoother guys like Marvin Gaye and the Supremes, I kind of looked at more as pop,” he said.
He did, however, school himself in the pop songcraft of the Motown writing-producing team Holland-Dozier-Holland. “They were right up there with Lennon and McCartney as far as I’m concerned in terms of structure and chords and intimacy,” he said.
Among all the rock bands Detroit churned out in the late ‘60s to mid-‘70s — the MC5, the Rationals, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Iggy and the Stooges — Seger was the one who broke through on the biggest scale, earning nearly 20 consecutive Top 40 singles. During the lean years before “Night Moves,” he said most of the Detroit bands knew each other knew each other well from playing shows together for years.
“I never thought it as a competition, I liked those bands and I liked playing with them,” he said. “We were really fortunate because there were a lot of teen clubs that didn’t have to charge money so there were a lot of places to play. That really helped because we found out what people liked and we had to be original and not be like one another.”
He also credits sticking by Ed “Punch” Andrews, his manager for 35 years. “A lot of those bands they didn’t have strong management or they switched mangers all the time,” he said. “We had a stable relationship. I let him do all the business decisions and he let me make all the creative decisions and we never crossed paths.”
“New album, tour, new album, tour,” has been Seger’s way of life for over 30 years, a work ethic he said he learned by coming up as a musician in the Midwest. “A lot of bands in big cities want to be stars right now,” he said. “Midwesterners are more level. It comes from the whole factory thing where you have to get a job so you can afford to play weekends. You are playing to people who work for a living so you better reach them because they’re not going to be very patient. You have to appeal to farmers, you have to appeal to shop workers, maybe you have to appeal to professional people, but there’s such a mix in the Midwest.”
A new album has been slowly progressing for years but picked up speed late last year after Seger went to shows by the Eagles and Springsteen. “That just spiked me, seeing people my age doing it,” he said. “It got me off and I started writing again.”
Two new songs appear on a second volume of hits recently released. If he tours, it’ll be long after summer when he has plans to race once again in the annual Port Huron to Mackinac Yacht Race, which he has already won twice.
Asked if he comes across his songs, like everyone else in the U.S., on a daily basis — at the grocery store, the mall, scanning through the car radio, Seger laughed, replying “all the time.”
“And of course I hear about how they affect people,” he said. “If I’m going around the country doing this or that and they find out it’s me, they all have a favorite. I’ve got so much out there, there’s always something that touched somebody. I had to score with them at least somewhere down the line.”