December 13, 2006 at 1:00 am

Jan. 7, 1973

Singer Bob Seger: Big time a beat away

When Bob Seger goes on tour he travels in a camper bus, which after only 15,000 miles already has blown an engine and two mufflers.

The vehicle somehow epitomizes the 25-year-old Detroiter's career, which always seems to be breaking down.

No one ever drove out the Edsel Ford freeway tuned to WABX or WRIF without a Seger song blasting from the radio. It's heavy music, a now popular term that Seger originally defined in his song of the same name.

It grips the listener with its gut force energy and hurls him into a suspended state of rock 'n' roll bliss.

His lyrics are often blunt, always primal.

"Ya hit the street/ya feel 'em starin'/ya know they hate ya/you can feel their eyes a glarin'/because you're different/because you're free/because you're everything deep down they wish they could be," Seger screams in the first verse of "Lookin' Back" as he makes a poignant anti-conservatism statement. In later verses he decries the apathy in liberal circles.

There have been 11 other singles by Bob Seger and five albums since 1964. Some of them never got out of Detroit.

"Heavy Music," "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" and "Lookin' Back" were big here and in upstate New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, Houston and Boston. These cities are the Seger markets.

"Gamblin' Man" climbed to a respectable No. 17 on the Billboard charts. It might have gone higher had it been aired on New York City radio, which is "22 percent of the selling market."

Seger's talent is commercially worthless unless it's in the right radio exposure. So far, he hasn't gotten it.

As a result Seger tours in a broken-down camper on a 17-day tour of small Texas towns while the Stones are traveling in a jet across America.

Battles with record companies

"It's almost like he's a new artist out of here," says Seger's manager Punch Andrews from his office in a reconverted house near Birmingham's central business district, the headquarters of the Palladium company.

At the moment Seger is Palladium's only commodity. Andrews recently locked up a distribution deal with Warner-Reprise for Seger's next album, the third such switch in the singer's seemingly endless battles with record companies.

The first encounter was with the Cameo-Parkway label in 1966. The company folded, leaving "Heavy Music" and others by Seger in limbo.

From Cameo-Parkway, he went to Capitol, and at first everything seemed to be going well. His "2 + 2" reached No. 66 on the charts and "Gamblin' Man" scored later. But Capitol then cooled off, Andrews says. "The company was more interested in working their Beatle releases."

'Brand New Morning'

Frustrated, Seger struck out in a new direction, an acoustic album called "Brand New Morning."

"I was disgusted with doing rock 'n' roll albums and never getting anyplace," Seger says. "The band (the System) split up, so I thought I'd do something on my own."

It wasn't intended to be a permanent move. "I thought it would help me in finding another band," Seger says.

"New Morning" didn't sell and neither did "Lookin' Back," his next single. After that, Seger and Capitol parted.

He then teamed with Teegarden and VanWinkle and put out an album on the local Palladium label that was to be distributed by Andrews called "Smokin' O.P.s."

"O.P.s" landed on the charts but the independent distribution kept it grom reaching a good number of markets.

Andrews eventually sold the distribution rights on "O.P.s" to Warner-Reprise, a powerhouse among record companies. "When Warner-Reprise picked up the contract the record was taken off the market for eight weeks," Andrews says. "So during that time there was nothing to promote and the record fizzled out."

Now Seger is preparing another album under the Warner-Reprise banner. It will be released in February and the company has promised full cooperation in promotion.

Seger's satisfaction perhaps is knowing that he is one of the few local artists who survived the high energy era of the late 1960's.

Most of the groups who made up the raucous and wild "Detroit sound" have become obscure. According to Seger, the Detroit sound was doomed from the beginning because of a lack of musicianship.

"It could have been a national trend that lasted for a year maybe but the truth is that the players were just playing loud and hard."

The "Detroit sound," with the exceptions of Alice Cooper and Grand Funk, never really spread far out of Detroit. But there, it was the most popular kind of music for several years.

"This is an industrial city," Seger says. "There's not much sensitivity in Detroit as far as art is concerned.

"In order to reach the people you had to blow them back. Places like the Grande, Eastown and Palladium, you could do that. They loved the Stooges loud, the MC5 loud, Ted (Nugent of the Amboy Dukes) loud, and me loud.

"If you went someplace like Chicago, which was more into the blues and could appreciate subtleties in blues and hit them with that volume they'd reject it. Or Cleveland, which was more black-oriented and more into soul music, which is more sophisticated, and hit them with that loud stuff they'd go, 'No, man, turn it down.'

"But in Detroit, all they ever had was sugar Motown and they were tired of it. They wanted something mean and nasty, something that would beat them over the head."