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Bob Seger blasts through the past with "Ultimate Hits"

for Journal Register Newspapers

Posted: Monday, November 21, 2011

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CLARKSTON -- Bob Seger started 2011 thinking he'd have a new album out before it ended.

He'd been writing, recording. He had some songs he was genuinely stoked about -- material such as the Texas swing-styled "Hey Gypsy," a hard rocker called "The Sea Inside," the ballad "Hannah" with guest appearances by Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow. Seger's confident we'll hear those, but probably not until next year.

Instead he's maintained a prolific year from the vaults. While touring North America twice, Seger released new, expanded editions of his two live albums, 1976's "Live Bullet" and 1981's "Nine Tonight," and he brought out previously unreleased covers of Tom Waits' "Downtown Train" and Little Richard's "Hey Hey Hey Hey (Back to Birmingham)." Both of those appear on "Ultimate Hits: Rock and Roll Never Forgets," a 26-track, two-CD set that comes out Monday, Nov. 21.

"I said, 'Well, I'm not gonna get the (new) album done," Seger, 66, says while sitting in the kitchen of the secluded, wooded "writing house" he keeps in northern Oakland County. "But I figured I could put 'Hey Hey...' on there. I could put 'Downtown Train on it.' I've got six new ones, and I've got 48 old (songs) to choose from."

But his Birmingham-based manager Punch Andrews convinced Seger that it would be better to go with the "Ultimate Hits" set. "I wasn't really that happy about it at first," Seger admits, "but I started thinking about my record company (Capitol), which I've been with since '68, and this is something they've wanted for three years. So I can give them this and then finish the (new) album next year and not have to put anything old on it."

As its title indicates, "Ultimate Hits" is chock full of Seger favorites such as "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man," "Night Moves," "Hollywood Nights," "Old Time Rock and Roll," "Against the Wind" and "Turn the Page," as well as the "Live Bullet" medley of "Travelin' Man" and "Beautiful Loser" and "Little Drummer Boy" from the first "A Very Special Christmas" Special Olympics benefit album. It's certainly one-stop shopping for the Seger fan, and the man who sings that rock 'n' roll never forgets took us through a bit of memory lane in discussing the new collection...

Fifteen of the 26 songs hail from 1975-82, which is not a coincidence: "We had that huge time in the 70s, and in that era I wrote a lot of these songs. I didn't have a whole lot of time to write; I was leading the band and we were playing a lot more (shows) than we are now. And I was recording, which took more time than it does now because I was like (Bruce) Springsteen. I was a crazy man. I'd go in there and want to live in the studio and get it exactly right, and I didn't know what I was doing! So it took me a long time. So from '75 to '81, '82, I just worked like a crazy man. I was just writing one (song) after another. I don't know what was going through my mind. I was just...busy."

Radio was his friend back then...and has remained so: "What's amazing is how much airplay we've got down through the years. It's just...wow. I mean, I've never really gone away, and even the Beatles have gone away for stretches of time. But we never seem to go off the radio. I'm very grateful for that."

[b]The "Hey Hey Hey Hey (Back to Birmingham)" story:[/b] "That's from the same session as (Chuck Berry's) 'C'est La Vie (You Never Can Tell),' the same session as the Fats Domino song, 'Blue Monday,' that we did for the movie 'Road House.' We cut them all in the same session, and (the song) just languished -- just like (Tom Waits') 'Downtown Train.' We cut that one in the same (session) as '16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six,' 'Blind Love' and 'New Coat of Paint.' they were all cut on that same session. I re-discovered ('Hey Hey...') a couple years back. We remixed it and remastered it and we changed a little bit of it, and we said, 'This would be a cool song, like 'C'est la Vie,' to put on greatest hits collection."

If a couple of the songs sound different, that's because...well, they are: "I did two edits. We've been doing 'The Fire Down Below' without the guitar solo in the second bridge for a long time. And we've been doing 'We've Got Tonight' without the last two choruses. So I edited those two because I think they're shorter and they're punchier and they're more to the point the way we've been doing them. So I tweaked 'em a little bit. I figure this is how we do them live; if you want the old version, buy the original (album) and then you get the longer one. But those are the only two I tweaked. And I"m sure they'll be available on download in the original versions, but I prefer these versions.

The "Night Moves" story: "We went with three other songs to (producer) Jack Richardson, up in Toronto. I recorded 'My World is Empty Without You,' the Supremes song, in kind of a JOe Cockerish way, and it's never seen the light of day...We did a couple more, and then at two in the morning we were listening back to some of the things, and Drew (Abbott) and Alto (Reed) had gone home, and I said, 'Y'know, I've got one more song...' So we cut 'Night Moves' just with me, Charlie (Martin) and Chris (Campbell) -- acoustic (guitar), bass and drums -- and I said, 'OK, that sounds pretty good. Let's go home,' and Jack says, 'No! You're not going home. Go back to the hotel. We're gonna finish this tomorrow.' So we did...and I remember driving home the next day. I took it to the office and Punch sent it to Capitol, and our head promotion guy called back and said, 'That's a career record. You're gonna be playing that as long as you want.' and it was a huge hit, y'know? One of the few songs I felt was a can't-miss. You don't know that very often, but I felt it on that."

You'll hear him sing some of these songs in a higher register than he can muster anymore: "I remember when I lived across from Joni Mitchell in 1987 in California when I was making a record out there. I happened to rent a place right across from her, and I talked to her a lot. ONe day she was loading up some of the paintings that she'd sold out on the street. I said, 'Y'know what, Joni. Do you ever get your high notes back?' She said, 'Do you smoke?' and I said, 'Yes.' Then she said, 'So do I, and, no, you don't get your high notes back.' Alas, that's just part of age and smoking."

The influences came from all over the place: "I had a big Eagles influence back then. I think you can hear that. I loved heavy metal; you can hear a little of that in 'Her Strut.' I loved 'Dr. John;' you can hear that in 'Horizontal Bop.' And I loved Chuck Berry, which is what I grew up on, and Fats Domino and Little Richard. Those are the guys I really grew up on, and I think all that is in there.

The "Hollywood Nights" story: "I was driving in Hollywood, and I started singing 'Hollywood nights, Hollywood hills, above all the lights, Hollywood nights.' And, of course, I had seen the cover of Cheryl Tiegs on Time magazine, in the red bathing suit. I just went for a drive and tried to imagine someone from the Midwest meeting someone like that out there -- and they [i]all[/i] look like that out there, not as good as Cheryl Tiegs but a lot of them look like that -- and he's just way in over his head. And that was me in '76 in Los Angeles, working on 'Stranger in Town.'

The "Living Inside My Heart" story: Seger recorded the song for the film "About Last Night..." in 1986, and it appears on a Wal-Mart special edition of "Ultimate Hits." "I go to the supermarket all the time and people say, 'I played that song at my wedding. When can I get it?' and I'd say, 'You can't. It's on the 'About Last Night...' soundtrack, and that's it. So we finally got that out there on an album."

He's happy to be on iTunes, but... "It hasn't really changed anything for me, because I've never owned an iPod, I don't download. My wife bought me an iPad and I never even picked it up; I gave it to my son. I'm old school; I go out and buy CDs, because I just think the sound of a CD is better than the sound of an MP3, and even over that I prefer the sound of vinyl. My son and his friends are really into vinyl; they go down to my basement and break into my records all the time."

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