Magazine Feature

Bob Seger on His Wildest Tour Memories, Pal Bruce Springsteen and Why He Likes Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush

Bob Seger
Photo by Tom Hill/WireImage

Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band in Concert on August 29, 1976 at the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia.

Bob Seger says he ­committed to the rock'n'roll life at the age of 16. "All my friends in high school were envious that I knew exactly what I wanted to do, because at that age, a lot of young guys are thinking, 'What am I going to become?' " he tells Billboard. Seger, 70, never looked back, and in 2016, the Lincoln Park, Mich., native will mark his 50th year in the music business with I Knew You When, an album of unreleased songs that he has updated, and, in his words, a "bucket-list tour" of places he always has wanted to play, ­including the New Orleans Jazz Fest and the Hollywood Bowl. The Billboard Touring Conference & Awards also will honor him on Nov. 19 when it presents Seger with the Legend of Live Award.

After debuting on the Billboard Hot 100 with "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" in 1969, Seger spent the next seven years struggling to expand his rabid regional following (built through the kind of constant touring chronicled by his road-weary anthem "Turn the Page." That changed with his landmark 1976 concert recording Live Bullet, the first of 13 RIAA-certified platinum or multiplatinum LPs he has released. His 1977 follow-up, Night Moves, took him even higher, becoming the first of his eight consecutive top 10 albums on the Billboard 200, while its title track is one of 19 top 30 singles he has scored on the Hot 100.

Tom Weschler
(L-R) Edward “Punch” Andrews and Bob Seger in Ann Arbor in 1970

Despite the success of his recorded work, Seger, who lives in Orchard Lake Village, Mich. ("a great place to ride my motorcycles"), with his wife, Juanita, says playing live "is probably the thing I do best," adding, "The question I get the most is not 'When's your next record coming out?' but 'When's your next tour?' " The father of two -- daughter Samantha Char, 20, and son Christopher Cole, 23 -- spoke to Billboard about his difficult but rewarding journey to stardom, his politics and his best road memories.

How hard was it to become part of the Detroit rock scene when you were coming of age?  

Everybody liked the way I sang from the time I was 15 or 16 years old, so I had no problem getting people to play with me. We’d play fraternity parties in Ann Arbor where the University of Michigan is, we’d play lake resort bars. It was kind of depressing because people wanted to hear really old songs. They’d request “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” which I liked, but they’d also request “Misty” and things like that that we didn’t have a clue how to play. But we played ‘em! In the beginning, it was just a matter of making money and playing music.  

Do you remember your first live show?

I was a junior [in high school]. It was the senior prom, and I remember playing “Hound Dog,” “Peggy Sue,” our ballad was “Summertime,” and then, even at that age, we had two songs that I had written.

You wrote your first song, "The Lonely One" at the age of 16. It's a pretty bleak tune. Where was your head at then?

At that point my dad had left, and my brother, my mom and me were supporting ourselves with menial jobs. I was selling clothes, going to school half a day and ­delivering pizzas at night. And then I had a little band that played weekends at ­fraternity parties. My brother was working at Kroger and A&P, and my mom cleaned houses. It was a tough time, and we didn't see each other much. I was a shy kid.

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When you formed the Bob Seger System in 1968, you turned down Motown to sign with Capitol.  Why? 

That is true. They actually offered us twice as much as Capitol. Our friends, Rare Earth, they had a big hit [on Motown] with a cover of the Temptations’ “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” so we wondered how much they’d push two Detroit groups. Plus, the idea that the Beatles and Beach Boys were on Capitol, it’s a California label -- we thought “we’ll go with them instead.”

You signed with Capitol in 1968, left in 1971 and came back. Why?

I was there for two years, and I think my manager got really angry with them. Warner Bros. offered us [a deal], and we did three albums there. Capitol ended up buying them all back. The next three albums [we did for Capitol] were Beautiful Loser [1975], Live Bullet [1976] and Night Moves [1976]. They're all platinum now. We reeled off 13 in a row there, all platinum, and I'm the longest-­tenured artist in Capitol Records history.

Why has your relationship with your manager, Edward "Punch" Andrews, lasted so long?

I've got to tell you -- I'm lucky. We've been doing this for 50 years ­starting next year. Kid Rock came to me when he had Devil Without a Cause out and said, "I want to ask your ­manager to manage me. Would you be OK with that?" I said, "Absolutely." I said, "He's very ­opinionated, and he's also extremely honest, which is tremendous ­currency in this business. You'll always get your money."

Did you ever have an argument that threatened your relationship?

I wouldn't say so. We had plenty of arguments, but mostly musical. Punch's tastes are very '50s. He's four years older than me, and whenever we did a '50s-style song he was over the moon. He loved "Old Time Rock & Roll." He didn't quite understand "Turn the Page," but then he became a huge fan when he saw how it went over. (Laughs.)

Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images
Bob Seger promoting his song "Making Thunderbirds" for a "People" Magazine feature in Central Park, New York City on, December 13, 1982.

“Turn The Page” is the definitive song about the alienation and the loneliness that comes with being on the road. How autobiographical is the song?

I wrote it in 1970 when we weren’t doing very well. I played with this band called Teegarden & Van Winkle for about 10 months. We were up in Eau Claire, Wis., and got harassed by a bunch of people who didn’t like long-haired people. I wrote the song in a hotel room the next day. It was finally recorded in 1972.

How did your life change when "Night Moves" hit?

We went from station wagons to jets. It was pretty heady, but I always was a worker-bee kind of guy. I've done three things for the last 50 years: I've taken three to five months to write songs; three or four months to make an album; and four to six months to tour. It was like that through the '70s and '80s. When I had my kids in the '90s I tailed off for about nine years because I wanted to be a good father.

How did you spend those nine years off the road?

Oh, I was busy! (Laughs.) My ­daughter was a cheerleader, my son was in the marching band, and there were a lot of activities before that. It was ­something that I thought I should be there for, and it was really fun. Now, last night my son turned 23, my ­daughter's 20. She just came back from an electronic music festival in Chicago. They love music.

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What are your wildest memories of touring?

One of my favorite bookings was when we were booked as the opener for [Franki Valli and] the Four Seasons in Indiana. This was an older crowd, and we came out rockin’ hellaciously. They had no clue what to think of us. We used to have a thing we’d do back then: If we were playing for a crowd that had no idea who we were,  we wouldn’t stop. I’d just yell the song title, “one, two three, boom,” right into the next one, so we couldn’t even hear that there was no applause. (Laughs).  I came off stage depressed, and Frankie came back and apologized. He said, “You guys were really good. This is just a pop crowd, not a rock crowd.”

What are some of the crazy things that your fans would do? 

We saw a lot of nudes, a lot of underwear. People would hand joints up, try to get us to smoke them -- "We're busy!" I remember there was this biker guy who really wanted [saxophonist] Alto Reed to smoke this joint, and he finally ended up doing it. He thought the  guy was going to jump up there and hit him. The things I remember really fondly were the sit-ins. I sat in with Bruce Springsteen in 1980 and sang "Thunder Road" in Ann Arbor [Mich.]. I was real proud of that. Then he sat in with me at Madison Square Garden in 2012. My band was over the moon.

You and Bruce are longtime friends.

Yeah. We don't talk a whole lot now -- he's always busy and I'm always busy. I've always had tremendous respect for Bruce. I've seen a lot of his shows, taken my family to a lot of them. When my son was young and learning the saxophone, [late E Street Band ­saxophonist] Clarence [Clemons] signed his horn case. Roy Bittan played piano on a couple of my albums, which I was really happy about. He played on a song called “The Fire Inside” and just killed it.

A lot of successful artists become less productive as they age. Does it become harder to write songs?  

Well, it never gets easier. It takes huge chunks of time, and you’ve got to commit to an enormous amount of staring out the window waiting for the lyric to come. The music comes fairly easily, because I’ve been doing this for so long. But coming up with the right lyric is much more difficult -- to write something that’s unique in its own way, and universal. There’s one song on Ride Out [called] “You Take Me In,” which is one of my favorites. That’s about my wife. So it’s not always about world events or whatever. The music takes me where the lyric goes. Sometimes I start with a title, I did that with “Beautiful Loser” and “Night Moves.” But I didn’t know “Mainstreet” was gonna be “Mainstreet” until I sang it. It happens so many different and mysterious ways, it’s difficult to quantify.

The ‘70s was a unique era in music and the heyday of arena rock. Is there anything about the music business that you miss from that period?

The industry is infinitely smaller today. I think we’re up against video games. They’re now the $5 billion industry and we’re like the $2 billion industry. We’re up against other media and it’s much more difficult with all the free music downloads. They just closed the Power Station in New York about a month ago, I did the backgrounds for “Like A Rock” at the Power Station, I did “Shame on the Moon” there. It’s sad to see. 

Have you been ­following the ­presidential ­campaigns?

Oh, yeah, pretty close. It's hard to make a ­prediction, but I have a gut feeling Donald Trump is going to drop out. Hillary's my ­favorite, though I really like a lot of the stuff Bernie Sanders says. I hope maybe he'll be her vice ­president. There are a lot of things on the Republican side, like climate [change] denial, that I'm not big on.

Politically, are you closer to Ted Nugent or Michael Moore?

Down the middle. (Laughs.) Of the Republicans, Jeb Bush is my ­favorite. I think he's the ­smartest of the Bush brothers. W. was very likable, and Jeb is not so much, but I actually think he'd be a pretty good president.

Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall Of Fame
Bob Seger attends the Songwriters Hall of Fame 43rd Annual induction and awards at The New York Marriott Marquis on June 14, 2012 in New York City. 

Your peers criticized you when "Like a Rock" was used to score a Chevy TV campaign. Today, ­artists pursue these tie-ins. Do you feel vindicated?

"Like a Rock" only hit [No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100], and when Chevy came to me and said they wanted that song, I said OK because I wanted people to hear that song. It was ­enormously successful. They used it for about 10 years. I didn't really want to do it that long, but they kept coming to me and saying, "This has [Michael] Jordan-esque appeal in our market testing." We saved a lot of jobs at GM.

"Like a Rock" saved GM jobs?

They'd lost a lot of money the year before that campaign, and the Chevy truck division was in the black the whole 10 years [that the "Like a Rock" campaign ran]. I wouldn't play the song for a long time. But now we play it.

If you were mayor of Detroit, what would you do to fix it?

There's a terrible misperception about Detroit. My daughter's boyfriend wants to get a place down there, and he can't find one. They're all gone. All the young people are moving in. It's quite a renaissance story.

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Are there any new artists that you're into?

I love the way Jason Isbell sings. My daughter tells me Lana Del Rey likes me. I certainly like her.

You often refer to yourself as ­"fortunate." Why?

I went to [former Detroit Tigers] Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker's last baseball game together in the early '90s, and [then-manager] Sparky Anderson said, "Bob, I want your job. Nobody hates you." Guys like the Eagles, Billy Joel and myself, we are fortunate. People never hate us.

An edited version of this story originally appeared in the Nov.  21 issue of Billboard.