Farewell to a Star of a Sideman, Saxophonist Alto Reed

Alto Reed was the perennial sideman, Bob Seger’s ever-ready sidekick and the most visible mainstay within the Silver Bullet Band, the outfit that accompanied the Detroit rocker throughout most of a 50-plus year career. His indelible sax solos on Seger’s signature songs “Old Time Rock and Roll” and “Mainstreet,” as well as his stirring set-up for the undeniably anthemic “Turn the Page,” are forever embossed in the annals of classic rock radio.

Reed — real name Thomas Neal Cartmell — died yesterday, Wednesday, December 30, as the result of colon cancer. Along with his unshakable onstage persona, he played not only alto and tenor saxophone, but occasional guitar and percussion as well. Born and raised in Detroit, he began performing music at an early age, and, after connecting with Seger in 1971, became part of the original Silver Bullet Band lineup and eventually the group’s only ongoing mainstay, aside from bassist Chris Campbell. He contributed to every Seger album over the span of some 42 years — a discography that includes the seminal standbys Back In 72, Seger 7, and Beautiful Loser, the inevitable breakthroughs Live Bullet, Night Moves, Stranger In Town, and Against The Wind, and ultimately, such classics as Nine Tonight, The Distance, The Fire Inside, and the band’s most recent effort, Ride Out.

Like Clarence Clemons in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Reed was an ideal foil, a status Seger confirmed when sharing his sentiments about his longtime friend. “Alto Reed has been a part of our musical family, on and off stage, for nearly 50 years,” he said on hearing of Reed’s passing. “I first starting playing with Alto in 1971. He was amazing. He could play just about anything…he was funky, could scat, and play tenor sax and alto sax at the same time. We worked with Alto often, and when we booked our first headline arena gigs at Cobo Hall, we asked him to be a part of those shows.  No doubt his iconic performance on ‘Turn The Page’ helped lift us to another level. He has been with us on that stage virtually every show, ever since.  And whether it was ‘Turn The Page,’ ‘Mainstreet,’ or ‘Old Time Rock And Roll,’ audiences roared every time he played his part.”

Indeed, his stage presence always added an electrifying element to every Seger performance, which sometimes threatened to upstage the star himself. Still, Seger never seemed to mind.

He’d swing across the stage on a rope, sprint from one platform to another, or duck-walk, vamp and strut across the expanse during his extended solos.

“I loved him like a brother,” Seger continued. “I may have been the leader, but he was our rock star. He was the audience favorite, hands down. He was bold, and worldly. I learned so much from the guy. And he was a great ambassador to the fans. He took time for everybody, any picture, anywhere. I can’t say enough good things about him.”

Aside from his day job with the Silver Bullet Band, Reed pursued other interests as well. He played a prominent role in creating the soundtracks for a pair of films starring Jeff Daniels, fronted his own outfits (the Blues Entourage and The Reed & Dickinson Band), produced an album ironically titled Come Softly by a band dubbed Barooga Bandit, which her helped get signed to Capitol Records, and appeared on any number of albums by such bands and artists as Grand Funk Railroad, Little Feat, Foghat, Spencer Davis, Otis Rush, The Blues Brothers, George Thorogood, and Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees. He also played with the Ventures when they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, four years after he and the Silver Bullet Band received their honors in 2004.

Born in Detroit, Reed was also a regular performer at various Canadian blues festivals, leading to his induction into the Canadian Blues Hall of Fame in Windsor, Ontario. Obviously cherishing his role as a rock star, he took part in various fundraisers, appearing onstage with such notables as Dave Mason, Steven Tyler, members of the Doobie Bros. Alice Cooper, Fergie, and Mick Fleetwood.

“I like all kinds of music — I love all music, really,” Reed once said. “But what I love most is performing. Being on the stage is where it really happens for me. I feel the energy of the crowd and the other musicians, I feed off of it, and that just changes everything I’m playing.”

As indeed, his presence changed everything for audiences as well. Adios Alto. You’ll never be forgotten.

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