An Enduring Force
Bob Seger, like Bruce Springsteen, has had a long career that has spoken strongly to ordinary working class people in heartland America, but whose work has also resonated much more widely. In the 1960s the singer-songwriter saw some success with Bob Seger and the Last Heard and Bob Seger System, before growing his reputation with the Detroit-based Silver Bullet Band in 1973.
With over 75 million records sold, Seger is one of the biggest acts on the planet, having had 31 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 and 19 albums on the Billboard 200, and as a consequence, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. To celebrate the great man’s birthday, here are Guitars Exchange’s Top 10 Bob Seger songs:
10. Ramblin' Gamblin' Man - Ramblin' Gamblin' Man (1968)
We begin with Seger's first big hit; a classic rock number. Seger had been impacted by the Hammond organ on the Spencer Davis Group song Gimme Some Lovin' and sought to capture a similar soul-like sound. With his Gibson Firebird in hand, he teamed up with a 19-year-old Glenn Frey (later of Eagles’ fame) to produce this song; leading Frey to refer to cite Seger as "the most important individual" in his music career. Surprisingly this song charted at number 17 on the Billlboard chart despite getting very little airplay nationally; however, such was the strength of Seger’s fanbase in Detroit that it barely mattered.
9. Shakedown - Greatest Hits 2 (1987)
This is not everyone’s favourite but it merits a place on this list because it is Seger’s biggest hit; thanks in no small part to it being the lead single from the 1987 film Beverly Hills Cop II. The lyrics were originally written by Frey - who had been slated to write and sing the song but was unable to do so because of illness - so Seger stepped in and rewrote the words to represent lead actor Eddie Murphy’s character in the film. "There were a lot of lyrics about working undercover, I didn't like them, so I threw them all out. I decided to write it my way and they trusted my judgment," Seger said. His call proved right as the song earned him his first (and only) number one on the Hot 100 chart and an Academy Award nomination for best original song.
8. We've Got Tonight - Stranger In Town (1978)
This piano-based ballad, inspired by the film The Sting, is about two lonely people who don’t spark but decide to spend the night together anyway. Specifically in the film Robert Redford’s character tries his luck with a waitress, who says, "I don't even know you"; and he replies: "You know me. I'm the same as you. It's two in the morning and I don't know nobody." The song reached number 13 on the Hot 100 and made it to number 22 in the UK charts. It has been covered many times including by Ronan Keating and Kenny Rogers & Sheena Easton, of which Seeger said: "We went over to their offices, and they played it for me. I said it sounds like a hit, but to me, it sounds like the kind of thing my mom would like. It's a little bit Vegasy and heavy on the syrup, but I think Kenny did a good job. It's actually kind of soulful for those two."
7. Shame on the Moon - The Distance (1982)
The Eagles again played a role in this cowboy-type song; as it was Don Henley who originally suggested that Seger listen to a Rodney Crowell album. Seger loved this particular track, which talks about a man having a kind of existential crisis around midnight, and drafted in Frey again to sing backing vocals. Frey’s involvement helped the song shine and convinced producer Jimmy Iovine that this could be a hit. They weren’t alone, as Seger explained: “[suddenly, the] Capitol guys are saying, 'That's the single!' [laughs] Fine! Whatever it takes! So thank you, Rodney. It's a great song, and I'm beholden to the lad for writing it."
6. Still the Same - Stranger In Town (1978)
This song was inspired by folk who Seger encountered in Hollywood, where he spent a few months while recording the Stranger In Town album. He merged a number of these people together into this single character who seems to be successful at everything but in fact is rather superficial; and is not going to change. As Seger explained: "They're very charismatic, but have tremendous faults, but part of the appeal is the charisma. You overlook everything because of the charisma. That's a gift and a curse."
5. Hollywood Nights - Stranger In Town (1978)
Also inspired by his tinsel town experience, Hollywood Nights was the second single from Stranger in Town, and may have a biographical component. Seger was born in Michigan and loved recording at Muscle Shoals, but when this album was nearly finished he decided to go to Los Angeles to finish it. There, as something of an outsider, he created a story about a beautiful woman – allegedly Cheryl Tiegs who was then on the cover of Time magazine - who was "born with a face that would let her get her way"; but she breaks his heart. The memorable drum beat was created by David Teegarden, while Billy Payne of Little Feat played organ on this song, which reached Number 12 in the charts.
4. Old Time Rock and Roll - Stranger In Town (1978)
This tune had a rather lukewarm reception when it was first released but Tom Cruise helped catapult it into another league when he sang along to it in the film Risky Business. It is a tribute to the early rock 'n' roll era and was written by Muscle Shoals’ staff George Jackson and Thomas E. Jones, with Seger contributing either a lot or a little to the lyrics, depending on which story you believe. Either way, as a result, he doesn’t own any of the publishing rights to the song, which he describes as "the dumbest thing I ever did."
3. Against the Wind - Against The Wind (1980)
Despite having achieved huge success in the interim, Glenn Frey touchingly returned to sing backing vocals on Against The Wind, which reached number five on the Hot 100. In a reflective mood around his 35th birthday Seger recalls sexy dancers and pool hall sharks from his youth as he sings: ''Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then.." This particular line troubled him, however, as he said himself: "The only thing that bothered me about that phrase was the grammar. I kept asking myself, 'Is that correct grammar?' I liked the line, and everybody I played it for – like Glenn and Don [Henley] – were saying, 'That's the best line in the song,' but I couldn't shake the feeling that it wasn't right. But I slowly came around. You have to understand that songwriters can't punctuate anything they write. I work in such a narrow medium that I tend to second-guess things like that. As a matter of fact, I've seen that line in a few other songs since I came up with it, so I guess it was okay after all."
2. Night Moves - Night Moves (1976)
In some ways reminiscent of Springsteen’s work, this great track contains another nostalgia-driven lyric that harks back to a summer in 1962 when Seger was "workin' on mysteries without any clue," - but the twist in the tale is that the narrator is only dreaming and wakes up in the present. ‘Night moves’ clearly refers to sex in part, but Seger has said it also refers to the parties he used to organise in Michigan where he and his friends would dance in front of their car headlights at night. It took many months for the song to come together, but when it did it represented another step up in fame for the heartland rocker. As Capitol Records’ promoter Bruce Wendell presciently told him: "You're going to be singing this song for your entire career."
1. Turn the Page - Back in '72 (1973)
This magnificent song about life on the road takes number one spot on this list because of its emotive lyrics and rousing saxophone part, written by Silver Bullet Band saxophonist Alto Reed. Reportedly the song came to Seger when, following a gig, he walked into a petrol station in Dubuque, Iowa, and the locals stared at his long hair. Seger had been on the road for years but was still struggling financially and felt lonely, frustrated and alienated, as he says in the line: "all the same old clichés, 'is that a woman or a man?',” referencing how he felt his rockers’ long hair was disapproved of. The fact that this song has been covered by acts as diverse as Kid Rock, Waylon Jennings and Metallica, and is loved by people from all sorts of background, also speaks to its enduring power and influence.