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Published: Sunday, 3/20/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Bob Seger’s a star, but he’s a good guy too

BY ROD LOCKWOOD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Bob Seger performs at the Speedway Jam in Toledo Ohio, July 16, 1983. Bob Seger performs at the Speedway Jam in Toledo Ohio, July 16, 1983.
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Consider this about Bob Seger. You can spend as much time as you want digging around in his background online, talking to people about his shows, and reading articles about him, and there's one thing you never turn up:

Bob Seger acting like a jerk. Here's a story from Ken Settle that suc-cinctly sums up how Seger's demean-or goes a long way toward burnishing his reputation as a no-nonsense heartland rocker.

Settle, a Detroit-area music photographer, was an 11-year-old fan back in the early '70s, and with a little grunt work he got a hold of Seger's phone number. Then a regional star who wasn't recognized much outside the Detroit-Ohio area, Seger took the call and listened to the kid's request that the musician give him his blessing to start a fan club.

Settle laughed when he remembered Seger's response: "He said, 'Well, I'm not really comfortable with the idea of fan clubs. They don't have fan clubs for auto workers, do they?'"

That attitude, along with an impressive track record of writing songs that seem to sum up the concerns of working men and women, helps explain Seger's popularity in this area. His concerts at Huntington Center Saturday and March 31 sold out in minutes, which isn't surprising given that all his shows in this area have sold out since the mid-'70s.

An additional 250 tickets to the upcoming Toledo concerts were released Wednesday.

After a decade of playing grungy bars in southeast Michigan and northwest Ohio, Seger became a bona fide star in 1976 with the release of the "Night Moves" album. But for folks who saw him come of age grinding it out with hundreds of shows a year, recording albums that contained some great songs like "Katmandu," "Beautiful Loser," "Turn the Page," "Old Time Rock and Roll," and "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man," he's always seemed like one of them.

"I think his lyrics really speak to the common man, so to speak, and the frustrations that they go through," Settle said. "I think his view of these things, because he came from that background, allows him to write from a much more genuine place than other writers."

Seger has long been compared to Bruce Springsteen and there are definite parallels in their music and early careers. Both started playing when they were just teenagers and both were the ultimate grinders, playing live constantly while stubbornly insisting on writing their own songs no matter how well they did commercially.

Growing up in Ann Arbor, Seger, now 65, was part of a fertile Detroit-area music scene that included Iggy and the Stooges, Ted Nugent, the MC5, Grand Funk Railroad, Mitch Ryder, and countless other bands that put a premium on high-octane shows. Transitioning from a rhythm guitarist to front-man, Seger's first album was "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" in 1968.

He released an album a year for the next seven years (for an excellent series of reviews of those works check out Stephen Thomas Erlewine's work at www.allmusic.com), culminating in the polished, Muscle Shoals-influenced breakthrough of "Beautiful Loser" in 1975. Seger evolved from a bar-band hard rocker into a full-fledged singer/songwriter over that period, but not before playing hundreds of shows in this area and Detroit, scoring regional hits, and building a reputation as an exceptional live performer with the Silver Bullet Band.

"It was interesting because in some ways for the people that were going to see him it was like seeing the Beatles because they were such fans," said Settle, who photographed him frequently in the Detroit area and said it wasn't unusual to find Seger sitting at the bar where he was playing. "It was a unique combination of somebody who was really well-regarded, yet accessible."

John Rockwood, a Toledo area rock journalist and photographer, said he met Seger about a half dozen times and also photographed him. (One of Rockwood's pictures is used on a Seger concert T-shirt available at bobseger.com.) He described him as a "down-to-earth guy, really nice guy. He was local, gritty, bluesy."

Selling millions

The rest of the country discovered Seger in 1976 with the combination of "Live Bullet" and "Night Moves," each of which sold 5 million copies. The double-live album effectively served as a career retrospective, turning people on to songs like "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man," "Heavy Music," and "U.M.C." that previously were not on the rock radio radar. It also captured the quintessential ode to the road ballad, "Turn the Page."

From that point on, Seger rode out the '70s and early '80s as a star in the same commercial stratosphere as acts like the Eagles and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, selling millions of albums on the strength of radio hits that included "Against the Wind," "Feel Like a Number," "You'll Accompany Me," and "Fire Lake."

Despite the success, his image never varied. He wasn't the subject of any scandals and it wasn't his style to deliver long rambling interviews to magazines like Rolling Stone. His relatively low-key image was a harbinger of things to come.

"I'm really a private person," he told a reporter in 1978. "I can't do a million radio interviews and record store appearances. Well, wait. I tried a record store appearance once, and it was just terrible. I'm just kind of shy that way."

But he was still massively popular, especially in Toledo. More than 40,000 fans signed petitions in 1982 to get Seger to play at the Speedway Jam, which he honored the next year, showing up on a blistering hot day wearing a pair of short shorts, long tube socks, and a Hawaiian shirt in a look that screams, "I am not a rock star."

Still the same

As the '80s wore on, Seger, a noted perfectionist, recorded less and less and toured even more infrequently. He took a couple of years off after the release of "Like a Rock" in 1986 to take care of his ailing mother, who passed away. From that point on, he has only released three albums -- "The Fire Inside" (1991), "It's A Mystery" (1995), and "Face the Promise" (2006) -- and rarely toured.

His last show in Toledo was in 1996 and he skipped the city on the "Face the Promise" tour a few years ago. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.

During his absence, he raised a pair of sons who are now in their teens, raced yachts in Michigan, and was spotted frequently at Detroit Tigers or Pistons games, his trademark beard now gray. It's a testament to the staying power of his music that his popularity has never waned among his core audience of people who came of age in the '70s and '80s.

When Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played Detroit in 2009, Springsteen launched into a raucous, garage band version of "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" that caused the Palace of Auburn Hills to erupt and raised more than a few goose bumps as the Boss paid one of his peers the ultimate tribute.

And earlier this year at Kid Rock's show in Toledo, "Turn the Page" came on the house PA shortly before Rock took the stage and the place exploded in cheers.

Seger's stubborn refusal to follow any trends has served him well.

The shows at the Huntington Center Saturday and March 31 start at 7:30 p.m. The $72 tickets are sold out but 250 tickets priced at $225 to $250 were released last week, available at Ticketmaster outlets, www.ticketmaster.com, the Huntington Center box office, 500 Jefferson Ave., and by calling 800-745-3000.

Contact Rod Lockwood at rlockwood@theblade.com or 419-724-6159.



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