An icon of the Chicago blues, Son Seals was known for his intense and innovative guitar playing and his grainy singing. Seals brought the musical traditions of Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Howlin' Wolf to a new generation of blues guitarists and fans, at a time when the music seemed to be dying out. An energetic performer, Seals took his hard electric blues on the road, revitalizing traditional Delta blues and introducing rock-influenced blues to a broad new audience. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Seals wrote most of his own material. Between 1973 and 1996 he recorded eight albums for Chicago's Alligator Records.
Grew Up with the Blues
Born on August 14, 1942, in Osceola, Arkansas, the youngest of 13 children, Frank Seals was raised with the blues. His mother played the piano and sang. His father, Jim Seals, was a blues musician who had played piano, guitar, trombone, and drums with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, a vaudeville and tent-show band in which both Ma Rainey and her protégé Bessie Smith had begun their careers. Frank Seals was nicknamed "Little Son" after his father, who then became "Ol' Man Son." Son Seals was quoted on the Alligator Records Web site: "My father taught me everything from the start. Tuning the guitar, fingering. Where I wanted to be riffing around all up and down the neck right away, he'd keep me on one chord for hours, until I could feel it in my sleep. I'd get up the next morning, grab the guitar, and I'd be right on that chord."
The Seals family lived behind Jim Seals's famous nightclub, the Dipsy Doodle, which featured blues up front and dice in the back room. There, in the sleepy town of Osceola, blues legends such as Sonny Boy Williamson and Albert King hung out and performed. King, a native of Osceola, became Son Seals's mentor. By the age of 13, Seals was playing drums with Williamson, Robert Nighthawk, and Earl Hooker. In addition to the blues, Seals loved the big band music of Count Basie and the swing bands out of Memphis, Tennessee. In an October 2001 interview with Charles Chapman, published on the Guild Guitars Web site, Seals recalled: "In all the movies back then there were always big bands in them and I just loved it. The arrangements of the horns really stood out to me and I especially liked Basie's sound. Many people do not realize that blues music has always consisted of horns." In later years Seals included prominent horn sections on his recordings.
Seals formed his first band, Son Seals and the Upsetters, in 1959, playing throughout Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi. By 1960 Son Seals was playing guitar with his band four nights a week at the Chez Paris in Little Rock, Arkansas, while spending his weekends playing drums behind blues masters at the Dipsy Doodle. In 1963, while visiting his sister in Chicago, Seals joined Earl Hooker's Roadmasters on guitar. After six months on the road, he returned to Little Rock and rebuilt his band. In 1966 Seals went on the road again as Albert King's drummer and appeared on King's Live Wire/Blues Power, recorded at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. When his father became ill, Seals returned to Osceola, playing in local clubs until his father's death in 1971.
Became a Chicago Bluesman
That year Seals moved to Chicago's South Side to be near his sister. His career took off. He jammed with Hound Dog Taylor and Howling Wolf Jr. at the Psychedelic Shack. He played with blues greats Buddy Guy, James Cotton, and Junior Wells, and led his own band on guitar. Bruce Iglauer, who had founded Alligator Records to produce Hound Dog Taylor, first heard Seals at the Flamingo Club. When Taylor's first album became a hit and he went on the road, Seals sat in for him at the South Side's Expressway Lounge. He became the third artist to sign with Alligator and Iglauer became his manager.
Seals's first album, The Son Seals Blues Band, was released in 1973 and he began a life of touring clubs, colleges, and festivals. For the next 30 years, Seals drove his beat-up van around the country, playing about a hundred one-night stands a year. His second album, Midnight Son, was a critical success and came to be regarded as a classic blues recording. Seals began making regular European tours and appeared in a national beer commercial. In 1981 he received a Grammy Award nomination as one of the performers on Blues Deluxe, recorded live at Chicagofest '80. Seals appeared in the documentary film Big City Blues and performed at the White House for President Bill Clinton.
While continuing to tour and play the Chicago clubs, Seals produced his albums with Iglauer. His nickname, "Bad Axe," became the title of his 1984 album on Alligator. However, following a dispute with Iglauer, Seals stopped recording for six years. By that time Seals was incorporating more rock and jazz influences into his music. He appeared on stage with B.B. King and Johnny Winter, as well as the popular rock group Phish.
Continued on Despite Hard Times
In January of 1997 Seals's ex-wife shot him in the jaw with a handgun. Months of reconstructive surgeries followed and his voice was never the same. Seals was hospitalized numerous times for complications of diabetes and in 1999 he lost part of his left leg, forcing him to perform from a seated position. His prized custom guitar was stolen and fire destroyed his motor home following a concert in Miami, Florida.
Despite these hardships, Seals's music reached a much larger audience beginning in 2000, when he recorded Lettin' Go with studio rock legend Al Kooper and Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio. That year Seals told Rusty Russell of Guitar Player, "In the past, I wasn't able to do all the things I wanted, but this time I was completely free. There wasn't anyone looking over my shoulder telling me what I should or shouldn't record. There's all kinds of music buried in me—rock, big band, and even country and western. You don't necessarily have to play those styles, but it's good to let different pieces of them slip in when it sounds right. After all, blues is the mother of all that music."
Seals's last performance was in California in October of 2004. He died in Chicago, where he lived with his son Rodney, on December 20, 2004, of complications from diabetes. He was 62. In his obituary in Sing Out!, Iglauer wrote: "Son was a bluesman through and through. He never tried to smooth the rough edges off his guitar sound, nor the grit from his voice. His music was all about healing."
At a Glance …
Born Frank Seals on August 14, 1942, in Osceola, AK; died December 20, 2004, in Chicago, IL; married; children: 14.
Career: Son Seals and the Upsetters, blues musician, 1959–66; drummer, Dipsy Doodle Club, Oceola, AK, 1960–71; Earl Hooker's Roadmasters, guitarist, 1963; Albert King Band, drummer 1966–68; blues singer and guitarist, Chicago, IL, and on tour, 1971–2004; Alligator Records, Chicago, IL, recording artist, 1973–84, 1991–96; Telarc, recording artist, 2000.
Awards: W. C. Handy Blues Award, 1985, 1987, 2001.
(With Albert King) Live Wire/Blues Power, Stax, 1968.
The Son Seals Blues Band, Alligator, 1973, 1993.
Midnight Son, Alligator, 1976.
Live and Burning, Alligator, 1978.
Chicago Fire, Alligator, 1980.
(With others) Blues Deluxe, Alligator, 1981, 1989.
Bad Axe, Alligator, 1984.
Living in the Danger Zone, Alligator, 1991.
Nothing but the Truth, Alligator, 1994.
Live-Spontaneous Combustion, Alligator, 1996.
(With others) Blues for a Rotten Afternoon, Telarc, 2000.
Lettin' Go, Telarc, 2000.
(With others) Telarc's Got More Blues: New Blues Recordings for 2000, Telarc, 2000.
Deluxe Edition, Alligator, 2002.
Guitar Player, September 2000, p. 33.
New York Times, December 22, 2004, p. C11.
Sing Out! Spring 2005, p. 216.
Variety, January 2005, p. 47.
"Blues' Son Sets," E! Online, www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,15576,00.html (December 19, 2005).
Chapman, Charles, "Son Seals: A Blues Legend Still Going Strong," Guild Guitars, www.guildguitars.com/resources/artist_features/son_seals.html (January 3, 2006).
"Son Seals," Alligator Records, www.alligator.com/index.cfm?section=artists&artistID=2&currTrack-Num=1&playPosition=0&vol=70&pan=0&play-State=play (December 19, 2005).
"Son Seals," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (October 26, 2005).