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Frank “Son” Seals was a singer who became a driving force behind a brief but stormy rejuvenation of the blues throughout the mid- to late 1970s. For three decades, he dominated the Chicago blues as no one has since.
Son Seals was born on August 13, 1942, in Osceola (Mississippi County). His father was musician Jim “Son” Seals. He acquired the nickname “Son” while a child in Osceola.
Seals came to the blues early. He grew up in a juke joint operated by his father, who had been a member of the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. Juke joint the Dipsey Doodle featured some of the greatest of all blues performers, including Albert King, Robert Nighthawk, and Sonny Boy Williamson. The Dipsey Doodle also presented touring acts, so Seals routinely heard not only rustic innovators but traveling stars. Nevertheless, he maintained that his chief inspiration was his father, who played piano, guitar, trombone, and drums and began teaching him when he was twelve.
At first, Seals joined the traveling musicians for informal jam sessions. Before long, he was touring as a drummer with Chicago, Illinois, guitarist Earl Hooker. At eighteen, he played drums on Albert King’s seminal “concert” album, Live Wire/Blues Power (1968), for the Stax label in Memphis, Tennessee.
Seals moved to Chicago in 1971 and immersed himself in the music of Hound Dog Taylor, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, and others. Taylor soon had a modest hit album with a young label known as Alligator, and Seals inherited Taylor’s weekend shows at Chicago’s Expressway Lounge.
Alligator proprietor Bruce Iglauer released Seals’s first solo album, The Son Seals Blues Band (1973), and Seals was suddenly a star. He toured extensively after that, garnering critical praise wherever he went, including notices in Rolling Stone magazine and the New York Times. But the good times did not last. Even though Seals followed his debut recording with one powerful album after another (Bad Axe, which Alligator released in 1985, won a W. C. Handy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album) and was acclaimed as a genuine blues artist—a real genius—things began to go wrong in the 1990s.
Seals was diabetic, and in 1999, his left leg was amputated below the knee because of the disease. Two years before that, his ex-wife had shot him in the face while he slept, resulting in months of reconstructive surgery. Finally, fire destroyed his motor home, and someone stole his custom-made guitar.
Seals died on December 20, 2004, in Richton Park, Illinois, from complications of diabetes. He was survived by fourteen children from his one marriage and various long-term relationships over the years.
For additional information: Emery, Mike. “Son Seals: Dues-Paying Bluesman Perseveres.” Blues Access 45 (2001). Online at http://www.bluesaccess.com/No_45/sonseals.html (accessed February 13, 2013).
Moon, D. T. “Son Seals: Intensity Is the Key.” Living Blues 153 (September/October 2000): 14–25.
Jim KeltonUniversity of Arkansas at Fayetteville
Last Updated 9/19/2013
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