Son Seals: 1942 to 2004
Frank “Son” Seals, who died on December 20 from complications due to diabetes, was one of the most significant blues artists to emerge from Chicago in the post-’60s era.
Seals was born in Osceola, Arkansas, on August 14, 1942. His father, Jim Seals, who had performed and traveled with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, operated the Dipsy Doodle Club, a juke adjacent to the family’s home. Young Frank virtually grew up in the club, listening to the blues-rich jukebox and reveling in performances by the likes of Robert Nighthawk, Sonny Boy Williamson and Joe Hill Louis, as well as local favorites such as drummer/guitarist Albert Nelson.
It was probably inevitable, given his childhood environment, that Son would become a musician. He started out on drums but he also worked hard to master the guitar, and before long he was leading his own band, the Upsetters. He eventually put in time with blues artists such as Earl Hooker and his old Osceola compatriot Nelson, who by then was going by the name Albert King. (Seals is the percussionist on King’s Live Wire Blues Power LP, recorded at the Fillmore West in 1968.) In the early ’70s, after his father died, Seals moved to Chicago and began to work in clubs on the city’s south side.
The story has often been told of how a Windy City hipster named Wes Race telephoned Alligator Records’ Bruce Iglauer late one night from the Flamingo Club and excitedly held the phone up so Iglauer could hear the incendiary music emanating from the bandstand. “That’s Son Seals,” Race shouted, and Iglauer knew he’d found a new artist for his fledgling label.
Seals’ 1973 debut, The Son Seals Blues Band, was a critical success; the follow-up, 1976’s Midnight Son, catapulted him into international recognition. He remained with Alligator — with a few side jaunts to various other labels for one-off projects and anthologies — for the rest of his life. In 2002, Alligator released Deluxe Edition, a retrospective that captured some of his career highlights.
Seals’ playing was emotionally intense yet impeccably honed. His extended lines and tightly-wound note clusters showed the influence of Albert King, but he also included chordal and harmonic ideas borrowed from contemporary soul, as well as a flair for pyrotechnic flamboyance that echoed Jimi Hendrix and his legion of blues-rock acolytes. In his prime, Seals was one of the most riveting live performers in blues, firing off phrase after searing phrase as he groaned and growled a spontaneous sotto voce counterpoint below. When he sang, that barely-submerged vocal aggressiveness exploded into an all-out roar.
Seals took pride in his songwriting, but he was also a master interpreter. His version of Sam Taylor’s “Mother Blues” (captured on his 1998 live recording Spontaneous Combustion) remains the definitive version of that modern-day blues anthem.
Although he endured myriad health setbacks in his later years, Seals soldiered on until almost the end. His last performances were in California in October 2004; he was very thin by this time, and his voice had lost some of its bite, but his musical imagination and passion for blues expression were undiminished.
The funeral was December 26 at Alonzo Davis Funeral Home in the suburb of Chicago Heights, where he had lived for many years. Later, in vintage blues style, sorrow and joy melded together at the repast as blues artists, including Carlos Johnson and Sharon Lewis, performed bittersweet odes to survival (“As The Years Go Passing By”, “Mother Blues”) in tribute to a gifted bluesman whose dedication never flagged, whose recorded output is among the most important in all of modern blues, and whose musical legacy lives on in the work of several generations of guitarists for whom he was both a respected elder statesman and a beloved colleague.