The Pre-Fame Cameo Sides of a Detroit Rock ‘N’ Roll Legend
When Bob Seger broke out commercially with 1976’s Live Bullet and Night Moves, he seemed to those outside the Motor City to spring fully-formed out of nowhere. But Seger had been paying his dues with a string of albums for Capitol that dated back to 1969’s Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man, and before that, a string of singles for the Philadelphia-based Cameo label. In the wake of his 1976 breakthrough, Capitol reissued several of Seger’s earlier albums, but what remained obscure were his earlier singles. As half of the Cameo-Parkway equation, Cameo was best known for the hits of Bobby Rydell, Dee Dee Sharp and the Orlons, but by 1966, the label, briefly reinvigorated by Neil Bogart, had signed ? and the Mysterians, and a young Bob Seger.
Cameo released five Seger singles over ten months of 1966-67, but the label’s failing fortunes kept all but the last from breaking nationally. The fifth single, “Heavy Music,” scraped the bottom of the Billboard chart at #103, but it failed to represent the commotion that Seger was generating in his native Detroit. That local success begat a contract with Capitol, which provided a moment of fame with 1968’s “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” but it would be eight more years of slogging away before international fame came calling. Cameo-Parkway withered away in the shadow of American Bandstand’s relocation from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, and the labels’ catalogs went dormant for many years. Select reissues of Chubby Checker and others have been released over the past few years, and now, finally, Seger’s singles.
Seger’s first recording was a demo with his group the Decibels, but his first released record was Doug Brown and the Omens frat-rock R&B single “T.G.I.F. (That Goodness It’s Friday),” on the Punch label. The group’s second single, a Beach Boys pastiche titled “Florida Time,” was released on a subsidiary of Punch (as the Beach Bums), and backed with an anti-draft dodger parody of Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Beret.” Seger had begun writing and producing for the Hideout label, and in 1966 he recorded the gritty, socially trenchant “East Side Story” as the first single to be released under his own name. The success of the single’s local issue caught the attention of Cameo, which reissued the title later in the year. Seger’s second Cameo single, “Sock it to Me Santa,” shows off James Brown’s influence on the young Seger, suggesting the sort of rocking soul with which Mitch Ryder stormed the charts.
Seger’s third single, “Persecution Smith,” has a distinctly Dylan (or perhaps Mouse & The Traps) vibe as the lyrics lampoon half-hearted protestors. His fourth, “Vagrant Winter” has a poetic lyric and a melody that leans to psychedelia, and Seger’s last single for Cameo, “Heavy Music,” had a Detroit groove that helped fuel Seger’s breakthrough with an eight-minute workout on 1976’s Live Bullet. The B-sides include the catchy R&B of “Chain Smokin’,” the soul ballad “Very Few” and a replay of the Beach Bums’ “Florida Time.” The variety packed into the five singles is impressive, and it’s hard to imagine how Seger’s rock ‘n’ soul grooves could take so many years to catch on. Jim Allen’s liner notes, a sessionography, label reproductions and period photos round out a must-have package for Seger fans. For chronological play, program 2, 10, 8, 7, 4, 3, 5, 6, 1, 9. [©2018 Hyperbolium]