December 13, 2006 at 1:00 am

March 10, 1977

A long climb to the top

I've got something I've been wanting to say for about eight years now:

Bob Seger is no longer Detroit rock 'n' roll's best-kept-secret.

He's a full-fledged national pop star!

There. It looks good. Feels good. And it's finally true.

I've been cautiously waiting to write this column for the past few months, ever since Seger's "Night Moves" started sneaking its way up the national music charts. And now that the single tanks a healthy No. 4 and the album a formidable No. 8, it looks like Seger's finally climbed to the top of the pop summit and is looking squarely into the hurricane eye of the fickle national pop culture.

Marketability catches up to talent

But hasn't it been a long hard climb?

Seger, now 31, has spent the past 12 years scratching out infield hits and sacrifice flies in the minor leagues of popdom. He's been making his night moves in the crummy bars out West and warming up other acts' audiences at concerts in the East. He's broken his backside making 13 quality albums; he's suffered through numerous broken recording contracts and it's all resulted in broken hearts. His album releases rose moderately on the charts and ultimately floundered. He finally became what is known in the music business as a "regional pop star." He was salable in Detroit, parts of the Southland and a few other places but he was unable to crack the top prize -- the national scene.

With "Night Moves," Seger's marketability has finally caught up with his talent and incredible perseverance.

And I'd like to dwell on that perseverance via a few personal recollections:

I first met Seger in January 1969. He was one of seven or eight local "high-energy" acts that were loosely tossed together on an all-day festival bill at the Toledo Sports Arena. The hall was a dingy ice skating rink, and the promoter -- a maintenance man from Detroit -- was fly-by-night. The festival was already a financial disaster by the time Seger and his band, the System, drove into town to perform.

The promoter, in a desperate move to cut his costs, tried to get Seger to turn around and go back so he wouldn't have to pay him. Seger, by rights, should have been livid. But that's never been his style. In fact, Seger's gentle shaggy dog affability may have been one of the factors that held his career back. Seger firmly but politely told the promoter that the show must go on.

Ups and downs

I didn't see him again until January 1973. By then he had amassed a reasonable following in Detroit and certain sections of the Midwest and South via "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" and "Heavy Music." But he also had been dropped off the active artist rolls of Capitol Records. He had, however, managed to sign with Warner Bros.

His first Warner album, "Back in '72," was released along with record company promises that this would be the vehicle for cracking the national market. Seger was optimistic. To ensure the album's success, he thought, he even pandered to a powerful local radio programmer by writing a song about her on the album.

He introduced "Back in '72" at Detroit's Masonic Auditorium where was was sharing a bill with an act that was trying to cash in on the amp craze created by Bette Midler. It was called Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks and ABC-TV had promised both Hicks and Seger that the network would film the show for its "In Concert" program.

Theatricality by now had replaced the unpretentious "hippie" show format and Seger had appropriately decked himself out for ABC's camera with a black tuxedo, surrounded himself with three flashy female singers and introduced a new band that was tighter and fuller than he has ever had before.

As the cameras rolled, Seger was at his artistic best. But for some mysterious reason only the Hicks portion of the concert ever made it to national television. And Seger was foiled again.

By the end of '73 Seger looked like he was washing out. The album had flopped, and there was talk of his being dropped by Warner Bros. Seger came back to Detroit, but this time at a sleazy bar in Wayne called the Rock 'n' Roll Farm. The Farm had all the color of a warehouse. The stage was too small and the tables were crammed too close together. Seger was down to being a local cult figure at best.

But in '75 Seger resurfaced. He was back with Capitol and a new album, "Beautiful Loser," and became the next great white hope. Besides the title song, which was a haunting and beautiful ballad, there was "Katmandu," a pile-driving rocker which borrowed heavily from Chuck Berry. It started to get national attention but it fell off ice it achieved mid-chart range.

One afternoon that summer Seger and I were playing on a softball team when he mused that the single and the album had stiffed because Capitol was preoccupied with promoting another album that had been released at the same time as "Loser." It was Paul McCartney's "Venus and Mars."

Headlining at Cobo

However, "Loser" did regenerate enough local interest to land Seger two headline dates at Cobo Arena. There, with still another band --the current Silver Bullet -- he played to capacity crowds and recorded the album "Live Bullet."

When Bullet was released in the spring of last year I interviewed Seger at his office in Birmingham. He was hopeful, but his pessimism was beginning to show. For the first time he discussed possible alternatives to a recording career.

"I'll always be in the music business," he said. "I love it too much to do anything else. If the day comes when nobody want sto hear me play, I'll probably become a disc jockey."

We talked for three hours that afternoon and the overriding subject was his uncanny ability to cope with frustration.

"Right now, I'm numb," he said about "Live Bullet"'s sales possibilities. "I used to be a basket case every time we turned out an album. Now, I'm just numb."

The next morning I got a call at the office. It was Seger and he was acting like an excited basket case.

"Hey, guess what?" he shouted over the phone. "I'm booked into Pontiac Stadium! Me! At Pontiac!"

Meanwhile, "Bullet" was beginning to gain some momentum on the charts. I cautiously wrote my column saying that Seger was still "aspiring" since the album wasn't breaking wide open. Two weeks later the album took a huge jump in the charts and Seger referred to my skepticism in Creem Magazine interview saying, "That (column) may have been true two weeks ago but it's horse-- now."

But the horse-- turned out to be Seger's comment in Creem because a few weeks later the album started sagging.

Pontiac was turning point

The big turning point appears to be the Pontiac appearance. When he played the Silverdome in June 1976, he outdrew both Jethro Tull and Eltom John's stands that summer in the big arena. It was his crowning triumph although he admitted later that he wasn't pleased with the performance. But most importantly, it showed the Capitol Records moguls that Seger was a potentially powerful marketing force. Capitol let loose with the financing when "Night Moves" was released 17 weeks ago. The album is certainly not Seger's best, but it's the one that made him an "overnight sensation" to the rest of the country.

And now -- barring a possible failure to follow-up "Night Moves with another best seller -- Seger is no longer Detroit's best-kept secret.