by Fraser Hibbitt and Carl Kruse
Just before the new year, Alto Reed passed away, adding a sad note to an already challenging year. The saxophonist and friend who spent half a century with Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band died from colon cancer at the age of 72.
Born in Detroit, Thomas Cartmell, he took the stage name “Alto Reed,” becoming an original member of Bob Seger’s band starting to play with Seger in 1971. Seger, a life-long friend, was quick to respond to the tragic news:
“It is with a heavy heart that we inform you of the passing of our lifelong friend and bandmate, Alto Reed,” Seger continues: “He was amazing. He could play just about anything…he was funky, could scat, and play tenor and alto sax at the same time.”
Alto Reed’s sax riffs were a defining feature of the band throughout their golden years in the 70s and 80s helping, in Seger’s words, to elevate the band to a new level. Reed’s Iconic opening riff on “Turn the Page” would become a rock classic, and the story of its creation is worth retelling.
Seger had been working on a track that he felt required some sax. The assistant manager, Tom Wechsler, began to prompt Alto with a scene: “Picture you’re in New York, in a black-and-white movie like the ‘Man with the Golden Arm’. It’s late, and there is rain in the street and in the alley.”
Alto picked up his sax and blew five notes which were met with silence. Alto asked Seger if that was okay. “Was that OKAY!” said Seger, looking at Wechsler, “tell him another story, and let’s see what he can do with that.” That solidified Alto’s place in the band for the next half-century.
Reed was the centerpiece in live performances with the Silver Bullet Band. He loved the theatricality of the stage. He would perform stunts and dance around the stage, believing whole-heartedly in the visual experience of the show: “Bob let me do it, so it’s fun. It’s the way Rock-n-Roll should be.” He would later joke that Seger “hired him to dance” while also suggesting that he “learn an instrument or two.”
Alto’s open-mindedness and ability to adapt to Seger’s musical needs was why they stuck together so well. Seger’s style differed across a variety of genres, ranging through funk, rock, and blues, and whatever the style, Reed was able to find a line. This fluidity did not only apply to finding a great sax line. Alto was a multi-instrumentalist which kept him open to new avenues of expression. Alto relates, in the early days, before the band became larger, Seger would say “we need more guitar” to which Alto would raise his hand; again, “we need more keyboard” to which Alto would raise his hand.
Reed was the ambassador for the band. He took time to take pictures and speak with the fans, humbled by their love and appreciation. Outside the band, he was a man excited for new experiences. Seger relates how Alto taught him how to sail; how they swam with sharks (unintentionally). Alto acquired the nickname ‘Captain’ from Seger for this curious, outgoing, attitude he had towards life and all its wonders. Alto would always want to share a restaurant he had found, or some speciality of local cuisine. There was something of the intrepid in him which can be seen from the very start. After getting the part in Seger’s band, he packed up the next day and left with them to tour across America.
The band originally only consisted of five members. This tight little unit was effective and adaptive – Eric Clapton would later pick up some members to record several albums. As the band solidified into the Silver Bullet Band and as their reputation was in place, it afforded opportunities for Alto to meet and play with many other big names: Otis Rush, The Blues Brothers, Steve Cropper and Dave Mason, to name a few.
Alto was a family man. His first daughter was born in 1986 and he would frequently take time from his music to raise his children. He spoke fondly of the fact that he was there for his two daughters every day. He spoke on the eldest, Chelsea, as being a ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll baby who has been backstage for many concerts, sleeping soundly. Now 32, Chelsea is an agent for a creative arts agency, and his other daughter, Victoria, is a singer-songwriter with, to use the proud father’s words, “a gift for lyrics.”
Alto related a touching moment back in 2013 when Victoria and he played a concert together for the first time. Alto asked which one of her songs she would like the band to rehearse. Victoria, adamant that they play not one of hers but the classic ‘Come On in My Kitchen’ by Robert Johnson. Alto recalls the shivers he felt at this announcement: “How cool to have your daughter do a song by the guy many consider to be the one who started this whole thing.”
The girls attended many shows growing up, but one particularly stood in mind for Alto. When the girls were 10 and 7, before they saw their father as the sax man everyone else knew him as. Alto set his girls by the monitor, and when the concert announced Alto Reed it was met by the roar and cheer of the audience. Alto recalls looking over to his daughters and seeing their “eyes like saucers” and saying in astonishment: “Dad is cool!”. He never forgot it.
Alto often played at his friend Carl Kruse’s house in Miami, known locally as “Kruseville,” bringing his beautiful energy to gatherings of friends. To all he was “Alto,” friend and companion, not some distant rock n’ roll star.
Alto had his family around him when he passed away on December 30th of last year: “His skilfulness, dedication and brilliance as an artist and performer made him a hero not only to us, but to thousands of others, if not millions.” Victoria and Chelsea continue: “He lived for the stage; we are truly comforted in knowing that his spirit will shine brightly on through the music that he has left behind, and the impression that he’s had on so many souls in concert.”
And his friends echo that sentiment. We miss him and find it hard to believe we will no longer see him.
The Detroit Free Press, Alto’s hometown newspaper, wrote a beautiful tribute to Alto.
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