While we were busy turning the page on a gruesome year, the music world took one last bullet this week from the passing of a man with a huge stage presence and a gigantic saxophone, who had the most low-key, ingenious rock name ever: Alto Reed. Born Thomas Cartmell, Reed was an original member of Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band, a swashbuckling figure to Seger’s side for nearly 50 years, now gone at age 72. Whether blowing two saxes at once or duck-walking across the stage Chuck Berry-style during his extended solos, like The Big Man to The Boss, Alto’s highlight moments brought already ferocious Seger shows to a fervor.
“I first started playing with Alto in 1971,” Seger wrote in his published tribute. “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. Audiences roared every time he played his part. In our band, Alto was the rock star.” Those trademark Alto Reed saxophone parts occurred perhaps most memorably on songs such as ‘Mainstreet,’ ‘Horizontal Bop,’ and Seger’s career-altering version of ‘Turn The Page’ from 1976’s “Live Bullet” album. “No doubt,” Seger declared, “his iconic performance on ‘Turn The Page’ helped lift us to another level.”
And yes, most definitely on this one, too: ‘Old Time Rock and Roll.’ Forget about Tom Cruise sliding across the floor in his tighty-whities in “Risky Business,” and how much classic rock radio has played it to death since then, this is still a no-joke, balls-out rocker, as evidenced here on the less-remembered 1981 Seger live collection “Nine Tonight.” Following some fire-breathing guitar soloing from fellow long-time Silver Bullet Band member, Drew Abbott, Reed first appears at 1:50 punctuating the 3rd and 4th verses and 2nd chorus. Then, at 2:33, Seger shrieks out his name – “Alto!!” – and Reed takes over, honking his way to some heavy-duty horn hysteria. There’s another chorus, the breakdown chorus, and thereafter it’s Abbott and Alto trading yet more intense solos – Abbott’s buzzing guitar at 3:54, then Alto’s Clarence-like blasts beginning at 4:24 to bring us up still one last degree and then all the way home. Like “Live Bullet,” “Nine Tonight” was recorded live in Seger and the band’s hometown of Detroit, Michigan, in Cobo Hall, home of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s Detroit Pistons; when Alto winds up his raucous, brassy display in this rendition it feels like Bob Lanier just threw down a dunk off an alley-oop from Dave Bing.
“I loved him like a brother,” Seger continued in his statement. “I may have been the leader, but he was the audience favorite, hands down.” Closing out the truly brutal lineup of 2020 music world losses that included (chronologically) Neil Peart, Kenny Rogers, Bill Withers, Adam Schlesinger, John Prine, Little Richard, Betty Wright, Charlie Daniels, Peter Green, Justin Townes Earle, Toots Hibbert, Helen Reddy, Eddie Van Halen, Johnny Nash, Spencer Davis, Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver, Charley Pride, and Leslie West, Alto Reed is yet another treasure lost. But his signature sound, captivating persona, and masterful moniker will long be remembered. Rock and Roll, as its been said, never forgets.
Do yourself a favor and crank this one up.
A bit of Alto’s antics (hang in for the first 25 seconds until the moron doing the video realizes he’s filming The Horizontal Bop horizontally).