Bob Seger remembers Lenawee County rootsWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
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Related story: “Thanking Bob Seger” by Michael S. Miller
Kris Kristofferson called at 1 a.m.
“Bob? This is Kris. I’m going to be in Detroit next month and I wanted to talk to you about a benefit concert I’m putting together.”
The voice on the Blissfield end of the phone shook off the rust of sleep.
“Well, this is a Bob Seeger, but I’m not the Bob Seger,” the man said.
Kristofferson apologized, saying he got the number from an operator.
“It’s a lot of fun,” being named Bob Seeger and living in Southeast Michigan, the Blissfield resident said. He said hopeful musicians send him CDs and tapes, hungry for a break, and he has fun with people’s reactions when he “calls for dinner reservations or a dentist appointment.”
Kristofferson may have dialed the wrong number, but he tapped into a strong local connection with one of Michigan’s most enduring musicians.
For more than four decades, rock singer Bob Seger has brought attention and glory to the region. From high school dances in Tecumseh to department-store openings in Detroit to concerts at Toledo’s Sports Arena to worldwide fame, Seger has never lost touch with his blue-collar roots.
He will play two concerts at Toledo’s Huntington Center, March 26 and 31, his first Toledo appearances since 1996.
In 2004, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, joining the pantheon of his heroes, including Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly.
On the eve of that ceremony, I interviewed Seger for The Daily Telegram about his Lenawee nights.
“I played so many places there,” the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter said. “Devils Lake Pavilion, Wampler’s Lake, high schools, Irish Hills, Jackson, Hillsdale College.”
Seger said his manager, Punch Andrews, has kept a file of every concert Seger has played, and that during his late ’60s time in Michigan, “We played about 250 nights a year. If anyone in Southeast Michigan liked music then, they probably saw me somewhere. You could say I was omnipresent.”
Seger’s telephone voice gave no hint of the raw, throat-tearing power behind “Old Time Rock and Roll” and “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man.” He was a mellow conversationalist, quick to let loose a hearty, deep laugh that rattled the phone line like a drum solo.
Seger said the fans in Lenawee County “were and are unbelievable. We would go back to the same spots, and see so many of the same faces; they just supported us. We were working musicians, and we made our money playing at night. We built a lot of history and good will there.”
Seger laughed at Blissfield Bob Seeger’s Kristofferson story.
“There are a lot of Bob Seegers in Michigan,” he said. “I have a cabin in Harbor Springs, and there’s a neighbor a quarter-mile down the road whose name is Bob Seeger, with the three e’s,” Seger said. “He has his name on his mailbox, so everybody walks right past my place and visits him.”
He laughed again, sweet soul music vibrating through the phone.
Like a larger-than-life behemoth from another era, Seger left large footprints in Lenawee County.
Jan Hunt of Tecumseh was treasurer of Tecumseh’s Teen Club in fall 1968 when her group hired The Bob Seger System to play the school’s winter dance.
“I wrote him a check for $1,000, which seemed huge then,” she said. “We went to the principal of the high school to get permission to have the dance in the gym.”
Hunt said people were charged $1 for the event, and even at that low price, the group made a profit on the show; almost 2,000 people attended.
“I remember, they had the huge sound equipment, and they played ‘Heavy Music’ and ‘Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,’ which were my two favorites,” she said. “He played two sets, and we all danced; his music was great dance music.”
John Rains of Tecumseh took a date to that winter dance.
“I had never heard of them before that night, and really didn’t like them that much; I thought they were too loud, but in all fairness, they were playing in a gym,” he said. Rains began to appreciate Seger after seeing him a few times at Devils Lake.
“I often think of Seger and bands like Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes when I shop at the grocery store (Tibbs IGA) that used to be the Pavilion. The stage used to be in the same area where the produce area is today,” he said. “It was pretty cool to be there in the early stages of his career and then see him have so many great songs over the years.”
Jamie McWilliams of Tecumseh was the guitarist/singer for The Contempts, a band that played between Seger’s two segments at the Tecumseh dance. The Contempts played songs by The Byrds, The Young Rascals, Creedence Clearwater Reviva and other pop bands of the era.
“What I remember most,” McWilliams said, “was the drummer, Pep Perrine, who had two elbows from industrial heat ducts, with bass drum covers, and he played them with mallets. Seger was a good stage band, and put on a nice show. It was a real coup for Tecumseh.”
We’ve Got Tonite
Seger said his formative years were a series of dances, parties and concerts.
“One of my band members, Craig Frost, lived near Temperance, and we would go there to warm up for tours, so we always had a presence [near Lenawee County],” he said.
Seger’s time in those days was not spent on contemplative songwriting.
“I was more of a performer than a songwriter then,” he said. “There was no time to write songs. We were playing or driving to the next gig.”
His Southeast Michigan concert days sharpened his performance skills, Seger said.
“It was there that I learned how to read an audience and what they like,” he said. “What is valuable, when you play that much, I learned, even before the Silver Bullet Band formed, was the importance of playing a lot of nights, being there, developing a language with your players, playing as a unit.”
Turn the Page
Brenda Zimmanck and Peggy LaFollette, both of Blissfield, recount a memory that still lights them up like the high school juniors they were in 1978.
The two best friends drove to Toledo to see a Seger show at the Toledo Sports Arena.
“After the show, we hung around for a while, then went to the bathroom,” Zimmanck said. “When we came out, the doors were all locked.”
As they wandered the arena looking for help to get out, they bumped into members of the Silver Bullet Band backstage.
“They wondered what we were doing there, and we told them about getting locked in,” Zimmanck said.
“We were looking over their shoulders to see if Bob was still there, but they said he had gotten into a limo to see his mother in Detroit,” LaFollette said.
The girls talked to band members for half an hour, and Zimmanck struck up a conversation with drummer David Teegarden.
The band signed autographs on a piece of notebook paper, and on the back, Teegarden wrote down his hotel and room number. Zimmanck followed up with Teegarden for a few weeks, but said, convincingly, that he treated her in a gentlemanly manner.
“I went to see him twice while he was in Toledo,” Zimmanck said. “But all we did was talk. We talked about the band and being on the road and music, and what I wanted to do with my life.”
Before he left, Teegarden gave Zimmanck a gold chain with gold drumsticks on it. She said she wore the gift for a while, then put it in a small cedar chest with other mementos of that era.
“We still dance to his music every chance we get,” LaFollette said.
Roll Me Away
As he prepared for his entry into the Rock and Hall of Fame, where he would be inducted by Kid Rock, Seger said he was excited and relieved to be enshrined.
“All the guys I golf with are in their halls of fame, football, baseball, hockey, music, whatever,” Seger said. “They kid me about it, but after this week I can finally say I’m in.”
Seger said when he gives advice to young musicians, he often reflects on his early concert work.
“I tell them, if all you do is play in your basement, you’ll never know what you have until you get in front of people, no matter how small the crowd. Then you’ll know; then you’ll have someplace to build, you’ll build up good will by coming back,” he said. “I tell any young artist, if you are successful, go back to where it started; the audience loves it when you come back.”
The legend of ‘Fire Lake’
The Urban Legend: Bob Seger wrote the top 10 song “Fire Lake,” from the 1980 album “Against the Wind,” about Devils Lake in Lenawee County. The legend says that during the early-’80s era of the music industry’s crackdown on violence in music and “devil worshipping” bands, nervous executives at Capitol Records asked Seger to find a more radio-friendly title. The song, which romanticizes girls, gambling and “gypsy leather,” was supposedly drawn from Seger’s many visits to Devils Lake.
The Verdict: “Not true,” Seger said. “It was written about Silver Lake in Dexter, about being in the Pinckney-Hell-Dexter area.”
Seger does have a personal connection to Devils Lake.
“When I was young, my mom’s best friend had a cottage on Devils Lake, and I learned to swim there,” he said. “I’m really fond of that area.”
Seger said he still takes his motorcycle for a ride to Devils Lake every summer. How does one of Michigan’s most famous celebrities manage to ride his motorcycle through the county without being recognized?
“I wear my helmet,” he laughed with great force. “Nobody knows it’s me.”