December 13, 2006 at 1:00 am

Seger's gritty songs and soulful voice reflect Detroit

Fans dance to "Old Time Rock and Roll" as the Cobo house lights come up to showcase the crowd at a 2007 show. (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)

Detroiters have a special bond with Bob Seger. He looks like us, he lives nearby, and his big, soulful voice is the audio equivalent of a vintage GTO warming up on a cold morning.

Robert Clark Seger, born in 1945 at Henry Ford Hospital, was the son of an autoworker and, briefly, an autoworker himself. He knows what it's like to keep up with an assembly line moving a mile a minute, how it feels to come home with cut-up hands.

The lyrics of Seger songs like "Night Moves" are part of the fabric of our state, capturing what it was like to grow up here in the late '50s and early '60s. Generations have grown up with his words in their ears, defining their worlds. Many Detroit artists of his generation cite rhythm and blues or Motown as an important influence on their sound, but along with Mitch Ryder, Seger was one of the few who actually reflected the grit and soul of R&B in his music.

But as wild and rough as his best high-energy rock was -- and is -- his quieter, more reflective songs also resonate with local fans. No matter how many times classic rock radio overplays it, the last verse of "Night Moves" still evokes a late-summer nostalgia for fading youth as well as the heady promise of adulthood, all encoded in a few brief lines.

Drained but entertained

Seger's first burst of popularity was fueled by his energy onstage. The raw power of his vocals is the stuff of legend, whether he was putting it down at a teen club in 1965, the Huron Bowl in Pontiac in 1967 or Cobo Hall in 1975.

As a youngster, Seger studied the record "James Brown Live at the Apollo" like a sacred text, and he caught Brown's act at Cobo in the early '60s, soaking up lessons in performing full-out, without limits. Those lessons from the Godfather stuck. Seger got so funky singing "Bo Diddley" at Cobo one cold January night in 1977 that he split his pants. Audiences would go home from his club gigs as drenched in sweat as he was, drained but entertained.

Now Seger is back on the road, performing some songs like "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" that he hasn't sung since Jimmy Carter was president. He's revived some of the soul tunes he road-tested years ago like Otis Clay's "Tryin' To Live My Life Without You," jumping around and basking in the beer-soaked warmth of thousands. He went back to playing live to satisfy the curiosity of his children, but the pure joy of performing live appears to have kicked in again.

Out in the arenas, generations who grew up with Seger are picking up on some new songs from "Face the Promise," while younger fans are taking an intrigued look back at his past.

Playing ball down by the tracks

Seger's father, Stewart, was a medic at the Ford Rouge Plant but also the leader of his own orchestra. He taught his son how to play the bass ukulele before leaving the family when Seger was a preteen.

The family had moved from Detroit to Ann Arbor when Seger was 4. After his father left, Seger would rattle around the college town on his own, observing and daydreaming.

Young Bob was the good boy, his brother was more high-maintenance, as he tells it. He clearly absorbed a lot in his meanderings (most obviously in songs like "Mainstreet") but when he talks about it you also sense some wistfulness about being on his own so much. Seger and his wife, Nita, were determined they would spend more time with their two children than their working parents were able to spend with them.

Growing up in Ann Arbor, he played baseball in a field by the railroad tracks and hung out at the local drive-in.

A nostalgic touchstone

He liked Motown, but he was utterly seduced by the soulful sounds of WLAC-FM that rode up on the night winds from Nashville. He'd listen into the wee hours as the disc jockey "John R" Richbourg would play the funky soul of Garnet Mimms, Ann Peebles and the Stax-Volt Records stable.

"Bob Seger and his combo" played at the Pioneer High School talent show his senior year of 1963. He was shy and famously, "a little too tall, could have used a few pounds," but Seger ran with the fast crowd and he often used those teenage years as a nostalgic touchstone in his later writing. His life was an adolescent whirl of playing music, riding around in cars and going to "grassers" out in the fields by Interstate 94 and Dexter Road, where dozens, even hundreds of teenagers would gather to play music and drink beer.

But those carefree times came to an end with graduation. Like so many blue-collar Michigan boys, Seger went right from Pioneer High School into the factory, in his case GM Hydromatic. It wasn't a successful stint; after a morning's work, worried about his hands getting cut up, he went out for a big lunch and never returned.

Six nights a week

Seger had already made a rough recording when he was 16 in a makeshift basement studio belonging to Max Crook, who played the musitron on Del Shannon's 1961 hit "Runaway." The song was called "The Lonely One" and it's the teenager's classic lament: Nobody understands, I'm all alone.

Deep down, he'd never thought of music as a lifelong career. "When I was 16, I said I hope I make it by the time I'm 25,' " Seger told the News in 2003. "By the time I'm 30, I will have made 50 grand and I can drive my motorcycle across Europe. Then I can go and get a real job!"

By 1964-5, Seger was already a busy, working musician at a time when bands could work six nights a week in Metro Detroit and beyond. The work was steady, but the pace was grueling, with barely a night off most weeks.

He'd joined Doug Brown and the Omens, but at the same time was furiously writing songs for himself. While he was still with Brown's band, Seger auditioned his song "East Side Story" successfully for Ed "Punch" Andrews and his partner Dave Leone, who ran the Hideout Teen Clubs. Both men liked it, and Seger cut "East Side Story," which Andrews and Leone released on Hideout Records. Back then, records were a promotional tool to hype live appearances, where the real money was.

Teenage melodrama

"East Side Story," which Hideout released several times, made enough noise locally to intrigue Cameo-Parkway, the legendary Philadelphia label that recorded Chubby Checker and other early '60s hitmakers. Cameo-Parkway signed Seger, picked up the single and released it in 1966, when it really took off and was a Top Ten hit in Detroit.

"East Side Story" is as exciting to listen to today as it was 40 years ago, with its fuzztone guitar and Seger's impassioned voice laying out the teenage melodrama. At 19, his voice was already gruff and soulful, an instrument that it took years for him to grow into: "Beneath the bare lightbulb above, she gazed into the eyes of love/Bathed in the dirty neon light she begged him, don't go out tonight"

The song told the tale of Johnny Brown, a bad boy who pulls burglaries. As with all good teenage melodrama, it ends badly. "Then came a knock upon her door/Two men she'd never seen before. 'Do you know Johnny Brown, miss? We hate to tell you this but has he a relative you know? And she cried 'No!' Shouted, shouted no"

"2 + 2 = ," was another ferocious rave-up, reflecting the anger of a draft-age young man questioning why young men were dying in Southeast Asia. The song was inspired by the death in Vietnam of one of Seger's Pioneer High School friends. Forty years later, Seger recorded another anti-war song, "No More," for his new album "Face the Promise," this time provoked by Iraq and evincing a more paternal, sorrowful anger.

A pounding beat

His longtime fans still pine to hear Seger perform "2 + 2 =," "East Side Story," or any of the early singles like "Heavy Music" live, but he's so far resisted. "That sounds like punk rock now!" Seger told The News. And the problem is?

For his fall/winter 2006 "Face the Promise" tour, he did put "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" back in the show. The energy in "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man," with its massive beat, soulful vocal and Seger's own crunchy organ line, is palpable even in a lip-synched performance he and the System did on a national TV show called "Happening." A video clip of the performance on youtube.com drew more than 30,000 hits in eight months.

The pounding beat and Seger's gut-wrenching vocals made "Heavy Music" and "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" big hits in Detroit, but he claimed later that he didn't make any money from Cameo-Parkway on the singles.

This, despite the fact that, as Dave Marsh reported in Creem, "Heavy Music" managed to sell some 66,000 copies in Metro Detroit alone. Cameo-Parkway wasn't much help, sinking as it was into bankruptcy. When the label finally went under, Seger readily accepted a release and signed with Capitol Records.

Gritty songs, a soulful voice

The next few years were daunting for Seger, with periodic success dampened by record company uncertainty -- he was on Warner/Reprise for a brief, unsatisfying stay -- and minimal record sales beyond Detroit.

Still, his local fans were loyal, and the rock press mostly admiring. Seger was often favorably compared to Creedence Clearwater Revival's John Fogerty, another rocker with a gift for storytelling and a compelling, soulful voice. But typically, Marsh and colleague Lester Bangs at Creem didn't agree on just how Seger compared to Fogerty.

Marsh wrote in Creem that Seger was "as good, in his own genre as Fogerty or Robbie Robertson or Carole King in theirs"

Writing in Phonograph Record in 1978, with the benefit of more hindsight ("Live Bullet" and "Night Moves" being smash hits), Bangs wrote: "Seger beats Fogerty by a mile because he knows he's still a kid in the thick of it, so he doesn't have to worry about the authenticity of his folk visions. He didn't have to conjure a bayou because he grew up in the bull's eye heart of the frying pan "

Three big hits

The big breakthrough year was 1976. Seger had been plugging along, gathering the Silver Bullet Band one by one, until by Sept. 4 and 5 at Cobo Hall, he was able to deliver a blistering live set with the exact sort of band that could match his energy, and the material.

In the remaining months of 1975 and into 1976 it was a slow but steady national breakthrough, with the success of "Beautiful Loser" followed by "Live Bullet" and then "Night Moves."

To show just how dramatic a change it was, Seger performed at the shabby Rock and Roll Farm one week in 1976, and by June, he was headlining Pontiac Stadium.

Looking back, it all seems preordained. But in reality, it was much harder than it looked.

"Want to know the truth? Everybody passed on 'Beautiful Loser,' " Seger told WABX air ace Jerry Lubin in a 1978 interview. "Capitol was the only label that wanted it."

When "Beautiful Loser" was sent around to the record companies, the wild rave-up "Katmandu" wasn't on it. After Seger cut "Katmandu" and added it to the tape, suddenly he and Punch were getting bites from the same labels that had passed on it. That made Seger ponder.

"I started to think, Capitol wanted it even without 'Katmandu' so I said I think I'll just go with them again," Seger said, "They believed, and nobody else did. I do want to do ballads; I don't want to be locked into doing just rock and roll again. I want to be able to broaden out."

It helped that his old friend and former backup singer, Royal Oak's Glenn Frey had encouraged Seger that "Beautiful Loser" was the right direction.

More grateful than proud

After his mid-'70s burst into the national scene, the years flew by for Seger. He'd had several marriages and a longtime relationship breakup, not helped by the relentless touring he'd undertaken both in the lean years, and in his post-"Night Moves" success.

By the '90s, when Seger remarried and his children were born, occasional touring had slowed down to virtually none at all, as he savored his much-delayed parenthood.

Ironically it was his children Cole and Samantha's eagerness to see him onstage, as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction two years ago that made Seger realize he wanted to go out and prove himself all over again.

When he talks about his lengthy music career, Seger seems more grateful than proud.

The 1960's music scene in Detroit made national noise, with Seger just one of many hot acts performing and cutting records. Whether it was Motown or the rock scene, Detroit couldn't have been hotter. And yet, of all the players in the fertile local rock scene, Seger was one of the few to hit it big nationally.

One reason is the dogged blue-collar work ethic that always defined him. While others were trashing dressing rooms and getting strung out on drugs, Seger was showing up for the job, giving it his all, then going home, a self-described "boring" guy.

Seger also credits his longtime manager, Punch Andrews, with giving him a financial security that eluded the others.

"It was mostly bad management for them," Seger said, of his '60s peers. "Even with Mitch Ryder -- bad management. I just got lucky. As I told Kid Rock, go with Punch, you've got a wealth of experience. People have tried to get Punch to manage them; J. Geils Band, Diana Ross. He said no"

As he tours the country behind his "Face the Promise" CD, everybody agrees there's something different going on with Seger this time around. Insiders point to an increased energy level, even over his tour of 10 years ago.

Music writers who usually scorn populist rockers, especially veterans from the Midwest, are raving in print about Seger's shows, applauding his gruff, steeped-in soul vocals and earthy songcraft. It's clear that Seger is happy with his family life, and now he's got the time to go rock out yet again, "sweet 16 turned 61."

He's made the Silver Bullet band learn innumerable songs both new and old, so he can mix up the setlist every night and have fun.

It's a long way from the days of the fatherless "Lonely One," wandering around Ann Arbor and wondering if he would have any life outside the factory. Bob Seger's career has proved to be as enduring and authentic as his voice, with the emotional impact of his music. His return to form with the new album and tour serves as an inspiration to his battered hometown.

You can reach Susan Whitall at (313) 222-2156 or swhitall@detnews.com">swhitall@detnews.com.