Bob Seger performs in March 2011 in Toledo, Ohio. (Scott Legato, Getty Images )
Bob Seger remembers the first time he played the Whisky a Go Go. It was the late '60s and he'd invited his father, who'd deserted the family in Michigan in 1955 when Seger was 10, to the Sunset Strip show. "I'd seen him earlier in the afternoon, and I was a little disappointed that he didn't come," says Seger, calling from his Detroit-area home. "Unfortunately, then the tour moved on and, in the next two months he died, which was sad."
It took several more years and a few more stops at the Whisky before Seger, who plays Staples Center on Wednesday, catapulted to stardom on the back of 1976's one-two punch of Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band's "'Live' Bullet" and his seventh studio album, "Night Moves." The latter's title track ignited an 11-year winning streak, with Seger rolling out hits with the precision of an automotive factory assembly line. The string ended with Seger's lone pop No. 1, 1987's "Shakedown" from "Beverly Hills Cop II."
But the radio hits slowed after "Shakedown," as did the music: Seger has released a scant three new studio albums in 20 years. Though he remains a staple at classic rock radio and his band's 1994 "Greatest Hits" is second only to Bob Marley's "Legend" as the top-selling "best of" collection in the SoundScan era, his legacy looked as if it might stop with a generation that came of age when Ronald Reagan was president.
Yet today, his name seems to be coming up more and more among a wide swath of artists. Kid Rock names Seger as a huge influence; Garth Brooks pays tribute to him in his Las Vegas one-man show. And then there's the Civil Wars' John Paul White.
"What I admire most about him as a songwriter is I always believed everything he said," says White. White cut his teeth in cover bands in his native Alabama, where the job description included playing plenty of Seger tunes since Seger recorded some of his biggest hits with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. "The problem was no one could sing it; no one has the range he has," White says. "It's just great rock and roll.... [The songs are] all about that groove and that story."
Frequently set to a muscular, churning groove and bolstered by his gravelly vocals, Seger's biggest hits have told stories of a desperately quiet yearning to escape, whether geographically, in "Roll Me Away" or "Katmandu," or in the bittersweet memory of a long-gone lover in "Turn the Page," "Night Moves" or "Hollywood Nights."
Seger is aware he has new admirers. In fact, there's a bit of a mutual fan club blooming: Seger recently revealed that his favorite song of 2011 is the Civil Wars' "Barton Hollow," which White says "freaked me out."
Upon hearing this, Seger mischievously adds, "If you really want to freak him out, tell him that we go on stage to 'Barton Hollow,'" before erupting into the first of many deep, booming laughs during the conversation that threaten to give way to a coughing fit for the longtime smoker but never do.
Seger lived in Los Angeles while recording 1986's "Like a Rock," but he never took to the celebrity lifestyle. He couldn't even bring himself to greet Tom Cruise at a charity skating event after his "Old Time Rock and Roll" and a tighty-whitie-wearing Cruise combined to create pop culture history in 1983's "Risky Business." "I thought I should go up and say hi, and then I said, 'He's not going to know who I am,'" Seger recalls, laughing. "I'm a little braver these days."
Though hardly reclusive, Seger has largely spent his life in Michigan tucked away from public view and his fellow artists. Still, at Seger's Madison Square Garden show on Dec. 1, he and longtime buddy Bruce Springsteen shared the stage for the first time in more than 30 years. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is longtime pals with the Eagles, having befriended a still-teenage Glenn Frey in Detroit more than 45 years ago. Yet despite co-writing the Eagles' hit "Heartache Tonight" and stepping in to record "Shakedown" when Frey got sick, he says he's shared a stage with Frey and Don Henley only once.
Seger speaks with tremendous admiration of Springsteen's ability to share a beer with his fans and stay humble ("I admire everything about Bruce," he says) but fears the potential for such adulation would affect him negatively. "I'm probably more isolated, I gotta be honest," he says. "I worry about too much praise because it will go to my head and I won't be objective about my own stuff."
Moreover, Seger, who flies home after almost every gig, is perfectly content to avoid the road and the studio for long stretches of time. After the tour in support of 1995's "It's a Mystery," he disappeared for 11 years to raise his children, Cole, now 19, and Samantha, 16.