The deepest blues
Son Seals reaches down into the dim recesses of the soul, where the pure electric blues resides
Swagger, without integrity, mars music and the music business. Son Seals will never stand accused of this. His landmark 1978 album, Alive & Burnin’, still ranks as one of the most brilliant, urgent live blues albums ever recorded. Seals compares in pure, unbroken moral soundness to that other proud man in black, Johnny Cash.
Don’t expect Seals to chitchat with the audience or call for silly catch phrases like Little Milton Campbell’s “Hey, hey, the blues is all right!” Don’t even expect him to smile much. A live trip with Seals in full command has always been ferocious, rending and cathartic—as gritty as crime-fiction writer Andrew Vachss wrote of Seals in his 2001 best seller, Dead and Gone: “You could almost see the notes flow out of that black guitar,” Vachss wrote, “a liquid ribbon of honey and cream, draped over concrete and barbed wire.”
From the very start of his Chicago career, when he journeyed northward after the death of his father in Osceola, Ark., in 1971, Seals’ intense, propulsive guitar playing and smoldering voice stood out from the cadre of Chicago players. House-rockin’ slide guitarist Hound Dog Taylor remembered young Seals from a brief 1962 visit and brought him into his band, and from there came Alligator Records owner Bruce Iglauer who, beginning in 1973, recorded and guided Seals for eight albums across a nearly 25-year span.
At age 29, Seals was proceeding full bore with his own incisive writing; percussive, horn-driven rhythms; and soaring runs, unearthing the most profound emotion out of his Arkansas soul. Early on, it always felt as if his Southern gentility and respect were amplified and bound together by knowledge of Southern pain and Southern past. That’s this writer’s opinion, but I can write from a personal history: Seals was the very first blues artist I worked with in Chicago, beginning with that incendiary live album in 1978.
“Blues is the first thing I ever heard,” he recalled back then. “My father ran the Dipsy Doodle—it was a country juke joint in a cotton-field town. The music was in the front, and the craphouse—gambling and dice playing—was in the back. Because my dad was a musician, too [Jim Seals had played piano, trombone, guitar and drums with the legendary Rabbit Foot Minstrels, where both Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey trained], we had really great musicians coming to our place. I got to see Robert Nighthawk, Joe Hill Louis, Sonny Boy Williamson and of course Albert King—Albert was from Osceola, too.”
Along with Seals’ father, King had a huge influence on the son (much more so than B.B. or Freddie, the Mount Rushmore Kings). Seals learned to play drums and guitar from his dad. It is Seals that you hear on drums, on another of the greatest live blues albums ever recorded: from the Fillmore West in 1968, Albert King’s legendary Stax release Live Wire/Blues Power.
In 2000, Seals recorded Lettin’ Go. The album cover is stark and powerful: Seals is bathed in white light, sitting with his trademark Guild guitar in his lap. A slightly rolled-up left pant leg hangs motionless, witness to a leg lost to complications from diabetes. Three years prior, he was shot in the face by his then-wife. He underwent jaw reconstruction and recovered, but health problems still plague him.
So, now when you see Seals sitting onstage, with his roaring gravelly voiced singing and the intriguing way he can end deceptive cadences with a daunting chuckle and editorial uh-huh in time with the rhythm of the music—never losing his sly, ominous mood—you are faintly hearing the shades of the ghosts of the Dipsy Doodle, the legacy of Elmore James, Nighthawk, Junior Parker, King and back further to those who came before them. The triumph of Seals’ music was always palpable. The deepest blues are here in this man.