By Jeb Wright
As one of America’s beloved songwriters, Bob Seger has transcended his place as a performer. His songs have crept into people’s lives and will remain in their hearts forever. Seger has not done it alone, however, as he has always surrounded himself with classy players who understand his musical vision. One such person is saxophonist Alto Reed.
Reed met up with Seger in the band Julia.
When Seger put together his next band, he called Alto to audition. Reed has lived a sax player’s dream, as he gets to be out in front of the horn section, dancing to every note. His contributions, from the lonely wail in “Turn the Page” to the iconic solo in “Old Time Rock & Roll” are a key part of the Seger sound. It’s no wonder Reed has a smile on his face from the time he takes the stage to the time he takes his final bow.
In the interview that follows, Reed talks openly about meeting Seger for the first time, composing the “Turn the Page” riff, as well as why the band decided to come back after taking time off to raise their children.
GM: You have been with Bob for a long, long time. You can’t imagine a Bob Seger concert without you. For a lot of fans, you’re the focal point on stage — other than Bob, of course. You give the stage show a lot of personality.
Alto Reed: That is awfully nice of you to say. I play with one of the best songwriters, singers and performers on the planet. I have always enjoyed a lot of excitement on stage from the band. I was really influenced a lot by British acts. I thought that if you are out there in the audience, then you’re not just listening to the music, as there is a visual aspect to it. What I do onstage is really a pure form of expression of how I am feeling about the songs. Bob lets me do it, so its fun. It’s the way rock ’n’ roll should be. I love it when people find out I am a musician. They ask me, “You play with Bob Seger? What do you play?” I tell them, “Well, they hired me to dance, and they suggested that I learn an instrument or two.”
GM: In the older days, you did a lot of crazy stunts. Why did you risk your life with some of those dangerous stage jumps?
AR: I can’t explain it; I just like entertaining. The theater of the rock venue has always appealed to me. I flew from harnesses in the ’70s way before anybody else did stuff like that. I was also one of the first guys to go wireless, definitely on a saxophone.
GM: How did you and Bob first meet?
AR: Bob was in between configurations of his own band, and he was playing with a group called Julia for the time being – this was for a very, very short period of time. Bob was just playing keyboards, believe it or not. The band Julia wanted me in the band, so I did some shows with them when Bob Seger was in the band. He saw my style in advance of me ever doing anything with his band, and when it came time to go out with his rock band, I went and auditioned. It was a pretty hot little band that was soon to become the band Eric Clapton used on “461 Ocean Boulevard.” It was Dick Simms, who sadly just passed away, on keyboards, Jamie Oldaker on drums, Sergio Pastoria on congas and timbales and Bob on guitar. I auditioned and they said, “You got it. Pack your bags, we leave tomorrow.”
There were no rehearsals; we just got in the station wagon and drove and played music every night. I got to do exactly what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be in a horn section. I fancied myself as a guitarist when it came to how I performed. I brought something unique to the band and to the show. With Bob, I got to do that. Night after night, I played solo after solo after solo, and I very quickly learned how to weave it in and out of his lyrics, melody and his own performance.
GM: I have to ask you about your iconic riff on “Turn the Page.”
AR: It was about two weeks after I had been playing in Bob’s band and we were just slamming it. Bob said, “We’re going to Oklahoma to Leon Russell’s studio.” We’d added a few more people to the band at that point, and J.J. Cale and Leon Russell were walking through the studio, hanging out. At one point, we were on a break, and we sat down on the couch while the rest of the band was milling about. And Bob said, “I’ve got a song that I can hear some sax on.” I was anxious to get on any track I could, so I said, “Let’s listen to it.” He put in a master tape that he brought from Detroit, and I said, “Oh man, I definitely hear sax in this.” I asked him, “What did you have in mind?” Our assistant manager, Tom Wechsler, says, “Alto, picture you’re in New York City, in a black-and-white movie like ‘The Man with a Golden Arm.’ It’s late at night, and there is rain on the street and in the alley.
You’re standing beneath a street lamp with a light mist coming down, and off in the distance you hear this plaintive wail.” I picked up the alto sax while I was sitting there, and I go, “Duh-duh … duh-da-da.” I played that opening lick and there was total silence in the control room. I thought, “Oops, maybe I shouldn’t have played that.” I looked at Bob and said, “Was that OK?” Bob looked over at Wechsler and said, “Was that OK? Tell him another story, and let’s see what he can do with that!”
That is really what I have done with Bob over the years; he tells me the story and I find the complement to it. How much more fortunate can a sax player be than me?
GM: Bob’s music goes from funk to blues to rock to bordering on hard rock to bordering on country rock. As a horn player, is seems to me adapting to all of those styles would be difficult.
AR: We just have a go at it. Bob will play a song, and I will listen to it, and I will get some ideas and play them for him. Sometimes he will say, “Change that line,” or something like that. We work on it. Sometimes he will have a very specific idea in his mind and I will play it, and sometimes it is us just working together. It happens in many ways. A crude spark hits you and ignites, and you go from there. The first one was “Turn the Page,” and after that Bob was stuck with me.
GM: I would think playing onstage with 10 or more people would be more difficult than being in a three-piece or a four-piece.
AR: It’s been a slow build to the current band. When I joined Bob, Dick Simms was playing the B3 and foot pedals, as there was no bass player. We had Bob on guitar, Jamie on drums and Sergio on timbales and congas, and Dick and me. It was really just Bob, Dick and myself, as far as the melodies go; it was a tight little unit. Clapton picked them up and used them for a dozen albums. They were a great, great band. Every night was just a spectacular rock ’n’ roll extravaganza of Bob’s songs.
It evolved from there with different players, and we finally solidified as the original Silver Bullet Band with Charlie Martin on drums, Robyn Robbins on keyboards and Drew Abbott on guitar.
The changes to that band started when Charlie, our drummer, was actually struck by a car the night before we were to start the Live Bullet tour. There was no way he could tour. Drew and Robyn went different ways about 1980 or 1981. We replaced Robyn with Craig Frost from Grand Funk. Bob, Chris, Craig and me have really been the core of the band since then. We needed other players, because we didn’t have a drummer, so Don Brewer came in, and he is phenomenal. Little by little, we went through some players until we got to this configuration. I have to mention that Shaun (Murphy) and Laura (Creamer) have been mainstays on background vocals, as well. Shaun has been a part of the band since shortly after I joined. She was the lead singer for Little Feat for quite a long time.
In the early days, Bob would think, “We need another guitar on this part,” and I would raise my hand, as if to say, “I can play this part.” He would say, “We need more keyboards on this part,” and I would raise my hand. I played percussion — the tambourine part on “Hollywood Nights” was something I came up with. David Teegarden was on drums in the studio at the time. I think it was at Bayshore Studios with Bill Szymczyk. We were cutting the song and David was doing this double hi-hat combination, and it just came to me to do this galloping tambourine part that just drives it. I never treated the tambourine as just some sort of prop. When I played it on “Traveling Man” from “Beautiful Loser,” then I made it a musical part of that. I played tambourine, I played kettle drums and timpani. Around 1976, I started using a bass sax to reinforce Chris’ bass parts, and I have played it on a lot of songs that don’t require tenor or alto sax. Throughout the night, I play a lot of different instruments. Part of the motivation for doing that was me saying, “Please, Bob, don’t hire anyone else!”
GM: “The Ultimate Greatest Hits” is a new double-CD package that, while there are other best-of Seger CDs out there, contains a few cool tunes not found on the others. I really like “Downtown Train.” I thought that was a new remake he put on there, but it is actually a song that you all recorded a long time ago.
AR: It was from back in the late 1980s; I think it goes back that far. We play a lot of the songs on that album, as you will see when you come see us play. I have to tell you that there is not a standard setlist. Bob adds and subtracts songs and keeps it all really fresh.
This is not just a band going up there and going through the motions. Before we do a tour of any proportion, we spend a couple of months in rehearsals, and we perfect it. The band, this time, was still tight from the spring tour, so it didn’t take quite that long. We work really hard, and Bob works extremely hard to make sure he puts on a great show. He must go through a half a dozen T-shirts and headbands a night. It is a real effort to make it fresh for everybody, both the audience and ourselves. There is no old ‘as is’ type of attitude in this band.
We don’t just say, “Let’s just go play the hits again.” We really play them as if it is the first time we’ve ever played them. We play with passion and energy. We do a one-hour sound check before every show, and Bob is there. This is the real deal. This is at the highest level. You don’t get a Super Bowl trophy by not being the very best, and I’ve got to tell you that this band is at that level. It really is an extraordinary performance every night from this band.
GM: You were off the road a long time, and I didn’t think Bob would ever do a huge tour again. What lit that fire down below and got Seger back out there?
AR: In the early days, we had this cycle of about three years; this is up to about 1986. Bob would spend a year writing an album, we would spend a year to record it and assemble an album, and then we would go out and play it live for a year. During that time, especially for Bob, who was in the studio writing, you were away from home. None of us had kids at the time; Bob was the last in line to have children. He wanted to be there for his kids.
It forced me to be there for my two daughters, the first of which was born during the tour in 1986. She was a rock ’n’ roll baby; she was backstage at quite a few shows and slept through it all. I was there every day for my two daughters, Chelsea and Victoria, while they were growing up. Chelsea is now 25 and is an agent-in-training for a creative arts agency.
She is well on her way to becoming a full-blown agent. She did an unheard-of thing for an agent in training when she packaged an entire TV show together and sold it. She really gets it. She’s a brilliant girl with the knowledge of the industry, having grown up in it with me. Her literary skills are fantastic. Part of that was from my being a stay-at-home dad and being there for them. My other daughter, Victoria, you will be hearing about in the next couple of years. She is a singer-songwriter with the gift of lyric. You can’t teach lyric. You can teach how to play an instrument and how to write music, but you can’t teach lyric.
That is the same gift that Bob has, and I am thrilled that she has that gift, as well. She has performed with me. The first time she played with me was with my all-star band that I play with when Bob is not on the road. We did a big show for the Detroit-Windsor Fireworks a couple of summers ago. I asked her to come and sing with the band. She came to sing with us, and we had not done any rehearsals, and I said, “Which song of yours do you want to sing?” She said, “No, no no. I’m not going to do one of my songs. I want to sing ‘Come On in My Kitchen.” Here is, at the time, a 20-year-old young singer and she wants to do a song by Robert Johnson. My hair was standing up on end. How cool to have your daughter do a song by the guy many consider to be the one that started this whole thing.
Now, this all gets back to answering the question of “Why?” I was told that when Bob had his children that he wanted to be there. His son graduated last year from high school and his daughter is graduating this year. His son wants to be a writer, and his daughter is a brilliant singer. Bob was able to do what I did with my kids back in 1986, when my kids were 10 and 7. They came out to a show to see daddy. Their friends and family said, “Wait until you see your daddy up there onstage.” They were like, “Oh … we love daddy, too,” like it was not a big deal. Back then, we still had gear on the side of the stage, so I set them up by my monitor and put them on this little road case. They made the announcement, and the audience just roared, and I looked over and their eyes were as big as saucers. They were like, “Dad is cool!” I will never forget it; it was in Atlanta, Ga. I was as elated and teary-eyed as I could possibly get without losing it and forgetting what the hell I was there for. I prayed that Bob would know that experience.
It happened for Bob in 2006. They were pretty young then, but they have come of age on this tour. They have been able to see their dad do what very few people can do at the level that Bob does it. It really completed something for me as part of this band and family.
I have heard that Samantha, his daughter, was a huge reason why he did the spring tour.
A longtime deejay in Detroit, Dick Purtan, was retiring — this was around 2010 — and he asked Bob to do an interview. Bob went to the interview, and Samantha went with him. Dick got Bob to say that he would go out on the road again. He said, “Maybe we will do a fall tour.” On the way home, if the story is correct, Samantha said, “Dad, you’ve got to do that tour now. You’ve told the whole world.” Bob couldn’t let her down. Bob came back in full stride. We did 27 shows on the spring tour, and it went so well he decided to go back out and do a fall tour.
Bob has been writing a lot. He has a backlog of many songs. I think he needed to get back onstage in front of the audience, if only for his kids, and certainly for himself. Bob is in amazing shape and amazing voice, and he has an amazing attitude. Bob blows me away.
GM: Did you play with the Blues Brothers?
AR: I did, but not with John Belushi. I played with Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi at the Hard Rock in Hollywood, and it was so cool.
GM: Were Donald “Duck” Dunn and Steve Cropper in the band?
AR: They were in the band, along with a lot of other great session players. It was the real deal. There was brilliant musicianship on all of those songs, and I got to play and see them while they were in character. It was a great experience. I’ve really been fortunate to do a lot of cool things, and that was certainly one of them.