“I may have been the leader, but he was our rock star,” says Bob Seger of his longtime bandmate
There are certain riffs which are as indelibly inscribed in the annals of pop music as the melodies for which they were composed.
Eric Clapton’s searing solo in the Beatles’ original version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” certainly earned that distinction. So too, the cowbell that kicked off the Stones “Honky Tonk Woman” was, in its own way, as vital as any other element in nailing an instant identification. Likewise, the frantic strum of Peter Townsend’s guitar that heralded the arrival of “Pinball Wizard” all but ensured there was a resonance and response. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any of Bruce Springsteen’s early efforts without the presence of Clarence Clemons.
That same tact proved successful when Alto Reed recorded the mournful sax solo which set the scene for Bob Seger’s visceral portrait of a journeyman’s road-weary existence in the seminal anthem “Turn the Page.” Legend has it Reed was encouraged to imagine himself in New York City, standing under a streetlamp at 3 a.m, as a light mist was falling. “You’re all by yourself,” the band’s road manager suggested. “Show me what that sounds like.”
VIDEO: Jamel AKA Jamal reacts to “Turn The Page”
Reed instantly captured that image, showing he was more than capable of coloring the tone and texture of a song and then transforming the narrative into a stunning display of visceral emotion. From that point on, beginning with the release of Seger’s early iconic effort, Back in ’72, through to all the great Seger albums that followed — Beautiful Loser, Night Moves, Stranger In Town, Against The Wind, The Distance, The Fire Inside, and, most recently, 2017’s I Knew You When— he inevitably became the most essential player in Seger’s signature Silver Bullet Band, one whose tenure was the most enduring other than Seger himself and erstwhile bassist Chris Campbell. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the unabashed shout-out of “Old Time Rock and Roll” or the heady emotional impact of “Mainstreet” without the presence of Reed’s brassy flourishes.
Reed, who was born Thomas Neal Cartmell, was allegedly given his enduring nickname by Seger himself, and indeed, it came to personify both the man and his music. While he was certainly a consummate sideman, he never allowed that role to subvert him to the shadows. He happily took center-stage during his solos, cheered on by an audience primed with expectation. He’d frequently fly over the proceedings suspended by wires, or bound across the stage in a stunning display of flash, pizzazz and showmanship that was an easy match for any superstar.
Consequently, there seemed to be a strange irony in the fact that Reed died Wednesday, December 30 on the eve of the most celebratory holiday in the calendar, New Years Eve. Seger himself acknowledged that fact when he noted that Reed often left him to play a secondary role in support of Reed’s onstage antics.
“Alto Reed has been a part of our musical family, on and off stage, for nearly 50 years,” Seger remarked. “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. No doubt his iconic performance on ‘Turn The Page’ helped lift us to another level.”
VIDEO: Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band Live at the Capital Centre in Landover, MD 1980
Reed’s musical excursions weren’t limited to his work with the Silver Bullet Band, although that role will likely define him going forward. He fronted two other outfits — the Blues Entourage and The Reed & Dickinson Band — mentored and produced a band called Barooga Bandit and performed with a varied list of other artists that included Grand Funk Railroad, Little Feat, Foghat, Spencer Davis, Otis Rush, Dave Mason, Steven Tyler, members of the Doobie Bros. Alice Cooper, Fergie, Mick Fleetwood, the Blues Brothers, George Thorogood, Robin Gibb and the Ventures. His fondness for the blues found him playing a number of Canadian blues festivals and eventually led him to get inducted into the Canadian Blues Hall of Fame.
Sadly, it’s time to turn a page once more. Reed’s passing in the waning days of 2020 marks the closing chapter of a horrible year, but also far more importantly, a career capped forever by riffs that soared into the stratosphere. His was an aural image that he himself ultimately inscribed.