Saxophonist and 'showman' Alto Reed of Bob Seger's Silver Bullet Band has died

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Detroit musician Alto Reed, best known as the saxophone player in Bob Seger's band, died Wednesday at age 72 after battling stage four colon cancer.

His musicality and woodwind chops are forever part of rock and roll history with his contributions to songs such as "Old Time Rock and Roll" and "Turn the Page." The saxophonist also is remembered for the electric showmanship he brought to the Silver Bullet Band's live concerts, most notably, "Live Bullet" at Cobo Hall in 1975.

Saxophonist Alto Reed performs.

"Alto has been a part of our musical family, on and off stage, for nearly 50 years," said Seger in a statement issued Wednesday. " I first starting playing with Alto in 1971. He was amazing — he could play just about anything … he was funky, could scat and play tenor sax and alto sax at the same time."

In his tribute, Seger said in the band, "Alto was the rock star."

"We worked with Alto often and when we booked our first headline arena gigs at Cobo Hall, we asked him to be a part of those shows," Seger said. "No doubt his iconic performance on 'Turn The Page' helped lift us to another level. He has been with us on that stage virtually every show, ever since.

"And whether it was 'Turn The Page,' 'Mainstreet,' or 'Old Time Rock and Roll,' audiences roared every time he played his part."

According to those that knew him, Reed was as engaging off stage as he was when he was in the spotlight. 

“I know the word is sometimes overused, but he certainly was iconic, a true showman,” said John Rutherford, trombonist of the Motor City Horns, which joined Seger’s band about 15 years ago. Rutherford said when they came into the group, Reed was welcoming and encouraging. 

He said Reed would often have a big entourage backstage and would introduce famous folks to his bandmates, like fellow rocker Alice Cooper or Detroit sports figures. He made sure to give his time to the fans, too. 

“He was always at the meet-and-greets afterwards, he would always take pictures and talk to them and engage with them,” Rutherford said. “He certainly had a legion of fans. 

“I think Bob used the word ‘ambassador,’ and I think that’s a great way to describe what he did. He brought people together and was always very welcoming and very excited to talk about the band. I don’t think it got old for him."

"He was a layered man with many interests and it came through in the interesting conversations I had with him over the years," said Silver Bullet Band background singer Barbara Payton. "He is deeply loved by his Silver Bullet family and will be missed greatly."

A family statement released along with Seger's said Reed died "under the light of the full moon and surrounded by family at our home." 

"We are truly comforted in knowing that his spirit will shine brightly on through the music that he has left behind, and the impression that he’s had on so many souls in concert," his daughters said in the statement. 

Alto Reed's sax solos thrilled the crowd on hits like "Roll Me Away" and "Turn the Page."

While best known for his long tenure with Seger — performing on 14 albums and fueling live shows with on-stage stunts — the sax great (born Thomas Neal Cartmell), easily recognizable with his long hair in a ponytail and sunglasses, also played with Foghat, Grand Funk Railroad and other classic rock and blues acts.

He recorded the scores for two films by fellow Michiganian Jeff Daniels, "Escanaba in Da Moonlight" and "Super Sucker." 

“Alto knew how lucky he was. Not to be a rock star, though he enjoyed everything that came with that exalted status, but lucky to have found true happiness in music," said Daniels in a statement to The Detroit News. "He loved that saxophone. And that saxophone loved him back.” 

"Alto was such a great showman, flying out over the audience with his saxophone, rolling out that massive bass saxophone," said longtime Detroit News music writer and former Creem writer and editor Susan Whitall, who saw Reed perform dozens of times.

"He always drew the eye, and was such a great spark in the Silver Bullet Band. As Tom, in his personal life, he was smart and funny." 

A 1980s concert review in The Detroit News by Jim McFarlin called Reed "the best rock saxman in the business."

"Reed was at his duck-walking, leg-kicking peak again, dancing atop the acoustic piano through ‘Katmandu’ and managing to slip from the stage to reappear among the balcony crowd for a rousing solo,” McFarlin wrote of the Cobo show, part of a six-concert stretch that saw tickets go “faster than free beer.”  

In addition to being part of Detroit music history, Reed — a 1966 graduate of Lake Shore High School in St. Clair Shores who graduate with a bachelor's degree in advertising from Michigan State University in 1971 — was also a fan of his hometown's sports teams. Splitting his time between Michigan and Florida, he performed a memorial national anthem before a 2011 Detroit Tigers playoff game against the Texas Rangers at Comerica Park and before the Lions' Thanksgiving Day game in 2012, and was frequently spotted at Red Wings games. 

Reed last performed in concert in June 2019, during Seger's six-show farewell run at DTE Energy Music Theatre. He did some virtual performances early in COVID-19.

Memorial plans for the musician are pending. In lieu of flowers, daughters Chelsea Reed Radler and Victoria Reed ask that donations be made in his name to the Detroit Symphony's Detroit Harmony Fund.

In addition to his daughters and their partners, Reed is survived by grandson Harry Radler, sister Nancy Neuman (husband Dave), partner Christiana Van Ryn, stepdaughter Sophia Van Ryn and ex-wife of 21 years Monica Reed.

"We also encourage friends and fans who loved him to honor his life through regular screenings and other early prevention methods for colon cancer," his daughters said.

Twitter: @melodybaetens