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Alto Reed, showman saxophonist in Bob Seger's Silver Bullet Band, dies at 72
During his 45-year tenure in Bob Seger's Silver Bullet Band, Alto Reed became one of rock 'n' roll's premiere players and a show-stealing performer who provided a wealth of memorable moments -- beyond just his iconic, haunting 1973 track "Turn the Page" that became his signature.
Reed (real name Thomas Neal Cartmell) died on Wednesday morning, at the age of 72, after battling stage four colon cancer.
"I was the leader, but he was our rock star," Seger, who'd traveled to visit Reed earlier this month after learning of his situation, said on Wednesday. "I loved him like a brother. He was bold, and worldly; I learned so much from the guy. He was just generous, wonderful, creative -- enormously creative."
Actor and fellow musician Jeff Daniels, who worked with Reed on scores for two of his movies, added that, "He never tired of picking up that sax. He's the prime example of someone lucky enough to find something he loved passionately, music, and then spend the rest of his life getting better at it and enjoying it."
In a statement, Reed's daughters Chelsea Reed Radler and Victoria Reed, said that, "Our hearts are deeply broken by this enormous loss, but also filled with gratitude as we reflect on his legacy and how incredibly lucky we've been to get to call such a special guy dad."
The Silver Bullet Band, with whom he recorded 14 studio and two live albums, was Reed's main gig but hardly his only musical outlet. His credits over the years included working with Grand Funk Railroad, Ted Nugent, Little Feat, Foghat, Dave Mason, Spencer Davis, the Blues Brothers, George Thorogood, Robin Gibb, the Motor City Horns and more. Four years after playing for Seger's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Reed was back at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel with the Ventures, playing on their "Hawaii Five-O" theme during their induction.
On his own, meanwhile, Reed -- who resided in both the Detroit metro are and in Florida -- co-led the Reed & Dickinson Band with Steve Dickinson, releasing the album "Tonight We Ride." He also released a solo album, "Cool Breeze," during 1997 that allowed him to explore R&B and jazz elements.
"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."
Raised in Detroit and later Saint Clair Shores, Reed began playing music at an early age, inspired by a school teacher. Coming from the band Ormandy he started working with Seger in 1971, sitting in on sessions for the 1973 album "Back in '72" and was part of the original Silver Bullet Band lineup formed during 1974 -- and was the only mainstay, other than bassist Chris Campbell, throughout its history.
It was Seger who gave Reed his stage name as well, inspired by the aliases used by Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. "I said, 'Before you tell me I'm out of my mind...,' think about it,' and a couple days later he called me and said, 'I'm gonna be Alto Reed,'" Seger recalled.
With the Silver Bullet Band, Reed he was Seger's visual foil, playing a variety of saxophones, swinging from ropes, sprinting between elevated platforms at either side of the stage, blowing through two saxophones at the same time, playing maracas and timpani behind the drummer during "Come to Poppa" and duck-walking and leg-kicking vamping across the stage during his extended solos on "Horizontal Bop."
"Alto was a showman -- he liked to show off in every aspect," recalls former Seger road manager Tom Weschler. "He had the wildest clothes. He had the greatest moves on stage, and on top of that he had the talent to back it up. He could play saxophone as well as anybody."
Of all the Seger material, Reed's spotlight moment came with "Turn the Page" from "Back in '72" but popularized on "Live Bullet." He recalled that the haunting solo, recorded in Tulsa, Okla., was inspired by road manager Weschler. "We were recording and trying to figure out what we wanted it to sound like," Reed said. "(Weschler) was there and he said to me, 'You know, Alto, picture a black and white movie, The Man With The Golden Arm, late at night, rain on the street in the alley, you're standing beneath a streetlamp, there's a light mist coming down. What does that sound like? You hear a plaintive wail in the distance. What does that sound like?”' -- and out came that part. It was a magical moment."
Throughout his Silver Bullet Band tenure Reed continued to make music on his own. He composed the score for the 2001 film adaptation of Jeff Daniels' play "Escanaba in Da Moonlight" and for Daniels' 2002 film "Super Sucker" and led his own band for shows around the country and in Canada. During May of 2012 he was inducted into the Canadian Blues Hall of Fame in Windsor, Ontario. Reed was also a frequent go-to for sporting events, playing the national anthem for all of Detroit's professional sports teams.
When in Hawaii, meanwhile, Reed performed with Dave Mason, Steven Tyler, Pat Simmons & Michael McDonald, Fergie, Lynda Carter, Alice Cooper & Band, at the December 31, 2016 New Year's Eve for the Shep Gordon Maui Food Bank Gala. He also played with Mick Fleetwood at Mick's Lahaina Club and in March 2017 as a Special Guest with Willie K. at the Willie K. Bluesfest also on Maui.
Reed is survived by his children, Chelsea Reed Radler and Jon Radler and Victoria Reed and Erik Deutsch, as well as his grandson, Harry Radler, and his sister, Nancy Neumann and her husband Dave. He also leaves behind his partner Christiana Van Ryn, his stepdaughter Sophia Van Ryn and his ex-wife of 21 years, Monica Reed. Memorial plans are pending.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations in Reed's name to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Detroit Harmony Fund, which provides instruments to music students in Detroit.
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