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Senior Silver Bullet Band members remember the late Alto Reed

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Thursday, December 31, 2020

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Craig Frost remembers that the late Alto Reed provided some key guidance when the keyboardist joined Bob Seger's Silver Bullet Band in 1977.

"Once Bob said, 'You're in the band now,' Alto took me aside and said, 'OK, here's the do's and doníts of this band. Let me give you some advice...'," Frost recalled after Reed died on Wednesday, Dec. 30, at the age of 72 from colon cancer. "We talked for an hour, maybe couple of hours. And it was all good advice."

Silver Bullet fans might say there was no one better than saxophonist Reed -- who, along with bassist Chris Campbell, was longest-tenured member of the band -- to advise him. Or any of the nearly three dozen who have passed through the group's ranks since Seger formally christened it during 1974.

Seger noted that "I was the leader, but Alto was our rock star," and as far as fans were concerned, Reed (real name Tom Cartmell) was a kind of first among equals in the Silver Bullet Band -- a sharp-dressing, flashy showman who during the 70s swung over the audience on a rope and once flew above the crowd in a hot air balloon at the Martin International Speedway near Kalamazoo. He was also "a great ambassador to the fans," according to Seger, gregarious and accessible and a fixture at every after-show party.

Not surprisingly, the senior Silver Bullets, those who worked with Reed the longest, have plenty of fond memories, tinged with the sadness of knowing they'll never see him again, onstage or off.

"He was a real sweetheart of a guy," Campbell said by phone from his home in Florida. Reed kept his health issues private during Seger's farewell tour last year, and only Campbell and Seger knew he was terminal prior to his passing.

"He was a character, a kooky guy, but really a good soul, a good person," Campbell added. "He meant a lot to the band. And he loved to play. Whenever we'd finish a tour, Alto was ready for the next one, right away."

The Detroit-born Reed met Seger in 1971, when he was part of the band Ormandy, and started recording with Seger for 1973's "Back in '72" album -- which contained the saxophonist's career showpiece, "Turn the Page." He also worked with Campbell and Silver Bullet backup vocalist Shaun Murphy in the Borneo Band, a Detroit-Tulsa, Okla. collective whose members worked with Eric Clapton as well as Seger.

"He always wanted to play and try to better himself and do the best show he could, always," Murphy said from Nashville, where she resides. "He gave 100 percent every time. He was kind of in his own little world, but when you got to talking to him he was very, very sweet."

Murphy recalled that Reed was also "very diet conscious. In the early days, when we were driving around in a station wagon with, like, nine of us in it, we would stop at these very questionable hotels or restaurants and he would have a tuna salad or eat tuna out of a can. He was just a mad tuna salad guy."

Reed's name change -- which was suggested by Seger, inspired by the aliases used by Captain Beefheart's Magic Band members -- did raise some eyebrows among his bandmates.

"He was at us all the time -- 'Please, please, just call me Alto Reed. I changed my name!'" Campbell said. "And we were like, 'No, no, that's not your name. Your name is Tom. Tom's fine.' I told him, 'That's like me calling myself Fender Bass. You don't name yourself after your instrument. But he'd be like, 'I know, but please...'

"And he beat us down. He outlasted us until finally, 'Alright, we'll call you Alto...'"

Reed's showmanship was a point of pride, awe and sometimes fear among his bandmates. "Bob was always kind of skeptical of Alto's ideas," Murphy said with a laugh. She remembered Reed acquiring "Peter Pan" star Mary Martin's old harness and hatching the idea for the fly-overs during concerts, and a first attempt that didn't go very well.

"The crew was all set up to (ballast) him," she said, "but unbeknownst to anyone else, Alto took it upon himself to climb up on the big speakers on stage left. Nobody was prepared for the velocity of what happened when he jumped from there. It literally dragged everybody forward so fast that (Reed) fell into the crowd.

"People were grabbing at his clothes, and of course he's playing the whole time, a true professional. He said he thought he'd lost a couple of teeth 'cause people were smacking at his mouthpiece."

Reed's flying made a deep impression on Laura Creamer, who became a Silver Bullet backup singer during 1978. "He had this fearless performer aspect that was kind of an enigma to me," she said by phone from her home in Los Angeles. "I thought, 'Geez, you do that?!' Even after he stopped flying he would get up on all the big speakers, whatever he could do to help put on a show."

Frost, who was with Grand Funk Railroad before joining the Silver Bullet Band, added that Reed "was our frontman. Bob was the leader and the guy out there, but the rest of us were pretty boring. So thank God we had Alto. What he did was good."

The flamboyance continued off the stage as well. "He had this very suave thing going on," Creamer said, while Campbell remembered a band trip to one of the Detroit Autoramas where Reed stood out from the pack. "A few of us were already there, jeans and T-shirts, and here comes Alto and (ex-wife) Monica, walking towards us in these big raccoon coats," the bassist said. "He was a real dresser."

That fashion wasn't easy to maintain, either, according to Murphy. "The main complaint anybody ever had was Alto's luggage," she said with a laugh. "At some points he'd have, like, 18 pieces of luggage, and we were only allowed two. It was crazy."

In his "ambassador" role for the band, Seger said Reed "took time for every fan, any picture, anywhere. After a show, if we were all tired, he was always willing to go to the after-party and meet and greet everybody." Murphy, meanwhile, concurred that Reed "held court all the time, talking to anybody. When it was time for those afterparties, boy, he made an entrance. And people loved him."

Nevertheless, Creamer said, "he was really a gentleman. If he'd see me going to dinner by myself and he was by himself, he'd invite me over to have a chat. I don't know how many people know how smart he was. He was a really super-bright guy -- quite articulate and just smart and aware and curious."

For Campbell, one of Reed's quite kindnesses came when the keyboardist was going through a divorce some years after he joined the band. "Alto had a place over his garage, a separate apartment, and he said, 'Come stay here awhile, just kind of unwind'," said Frost, who lives near the Michigan-Ohio border. "I'll never forget things like that from Alto. He was very kind to me."

One of bassist Campbell's fondest memories, meanwhile, came during a stop on the band's American Storm Tour during the mid-80s. A promoter brought a psychic backstage for the band members' entertainment, and she told Campbell, Frost and Reed the same thing; "We were talking about how long we'd all been together, and she said the reason why is because the three of us were in a band before -- when we were minstrels!" Campbell said.

"We were just amazed, but it made sense. We were together for a long time, me and Alto -- maybe longer than we really knew."

Memorial arrangements for Reed are pending. His family has requested donations in his memory for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Detroit Harmony Fund, which provides instruments to music students in Detroit.

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