The Real Early Seger

(Pictured: young Bob Seger.)

We are continually frustrated around here by Bob Seger’s refusal to reissue much of anything he recorded before 1975’s Beautiful Loser. Six of his first seven albums—everything except for 1972’s Smokin’ O.P.’s—are out of print, and some of it has never been released on CD. There was an album called Early Seger: Volume 1 back in 2009, but it was a disappointment: it had one cut from Back in ’72, two from Smokin’ O.P.’s, and three from Seven, but some had been modified with new overdubs in 2009, and several previously unreleased cuts were from the mid 80s, which is hardly “early.”

Clearly Seger feels that after 1975, he was a better musician doing better songs. But we creative types are often not the best judges of our own work. I can’t tell you how often I’ve written stuff I don’t like, only to be told no, this is good, don’t be so hard on yourself. No doubt people have said that very thing to Bob Seger.

There’s an argument that many of the early Seger albums are uneven, yes. But the title track from Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man is an all-timer and its 45 B-side, “Tales of Lucy Blue,” is pretty good, too;  “2 + 2 = ?” is a rockin’ artifact of an angry time. Noah is an album Seger has explicitly disavowed; around the time it was recorded he was replaced in his own band for a while by a singer named Tom Neme, under shadowy circumstances. But “Noah” sounds like a hit single that should have been and an all-time classic that never was, and “Death Row” blazes.

Mongrel, released in 1970, is the final album under the name of the Bob Seger System, and it contains two ragers: “Lucifer” and a seven-minute version of “River Deep Mountain High” that kicks every ass in the neighborhood. The 1971 album Brand New Morning is another one Seger has promised to keep in the vault until time shall be no more; done to fulfill a contractual obligation, it’s just him with guitar and piano. (Predictably, it’s actually pretty good; hear the whole thing here.) Smokin’ O.P.’s likely remains in print because it contains two concert staples, “Let It Rock” and “Heavy Music,” the latter going back to Bob Seger and the Last Heard in 1967.

In 1973, Seger put together a new band for Back in ’72. It was the first to feature his longtime sax player Alto Reed, then still known by his given name, Tommy Cartmell. It also included guitarist Bill Mueller, percussionist Sergio Pastora, keyboard player Dick Sims, drummer Jamie Oldaker, and singers Shaun Murphy and Marcy Levy. The group was known as the Borneo Band. They aren’t the only musicians on Back in ’72; Seger is also backed by the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section as well as a couple of Funk Brothers, among others. It’s the album with the original “Turn the Page” and “Rosalie,” Seger’s ode to Detroit radio legend Rosalie Trombley.

The Borneo Band didn’t last long. The story goes that Seger fired them “for being unreliable,” whatever that might have meant. (Sims, Oldaker, and Levy later joined Eric Clapton’s band.) Seger formed the Silver Bullet Band after that, and their first album was the last of his now-rare early albums, Seven, in 1974.

Early in 1973, Seger and the Borneo Band played in a recording studio in Cleveland, most likely for a radio show. There’s a bootleg of the session, known as The Cleveland Connection. It’s loose and rockin’ and pretty damn good. Six of its 10 songs were never recorded by Seger anywhere else. Highlights include “Higher and Higher,” Van Morrison’s “Saint Dominic’s Preview,” and a 13-minute jam on “Turn on Your Love Light.” The Cleveland Connection is available at the bootleg site ROIO, along with some other live Seger material from the 70s and 80s as part of a series called Transmission Impossible. Find them here.

Plausibly Related: Seger ranks #91 on Vulture’s best-to-worst rankings of all 214 artists in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I don’t find much to argue with on Bill Wyman’s list. I wouldn’t rank the Ramones in the Top 10, but at least it wasn’t the Velvet Underground, and I always presume that Nirvana will rank too high for my taste on lists like this. It has lots of apples-to-oranges comparisons among vastly different genres and styles, but credit Wyman for getting #214 right, and for accurately describing Sammy Hagar’s proper place in the Hall. The article also provides a lot of insight into how the Hall works, and why. Spend time with it this weekend and you won’t be sorry.

4 responses

  1. Bob Seger and Steve Miller always link together in my brain. Both recorded for Capitol at one point or another, both had a hit early on followed by a dry spell for a few years before becoming hitmaking machines, and both have early catalogs that are well worth revisiting.

    Thankfully you can get Miller’s early stuff pretty easily nowadays. I really don’t get why Seger is so deadset on not reissuing his earlier material. What I’ve heard is not bad at all. I heard “Lucifer” on an old aircheck a few weeks ago, and that definitely needs to be put in rotation on rock radio nowadays.

  2. It’s ironic that virtually every musician complains about not having rights to their albums, and yet they’re often the worst persons at managing their catalog when they do have the rights. From Dave Clark keeping Dave Clark Five albums out of print until he gets the perfect deal (which hasn’t come and probably never will) to Frank Zappa making his 60s albums available only in remixed and rerecorded versions, they usually are their worst enemies.

  3. my interest in Seger has flagged though the “Live Bullet” 8-track was behind many a good time in high school, funny how much faster the car went during either “Katmandu” or “Get Out of Denver.”

    I bought “Seven” a few years back as I noticed “Long Song Comin'” featured Dave Doran on guitar. My friend in Chicago befriended Dave, dropping in on one of his gigs at a dive country bar and then starting a many year friendship. I was able to go and meet and hear Dave during his tenure at this place and it was akin to seeing prime Clapton fronting a very average country band. Guitar fans out there should check out Dave’s work with Barefoot Jerry, notably “Two Mile Pike,” again with jaw-dropping fretwork.

  4. What’s not to like about some early Bob Seger music? Bright, tight, and rockin’. Everything you’d want in a hit song. “Looking Back” has always been a favorite, along with “Get Out of Denver.”

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