A Walk on the Wild Side
With Chicago's Toughest Bluesman
Son Seals: Profile & Interview
By Zak Mucha
Originally published in Gallery Magazine, January 2000
Visitors fill Seals' dressing room before the show. Introductions are made and gossip of mutual acquaintances begins while career plans and business cards are passed around. Bits of conversation peak and drift back to the floor. Seals listens and nods from beneath his black hat. When someone comes down to announce the drummer is still missing, Seals is unfazed by the news. The drummer will show.
Son Seals turns to one of the visitors, a beautiful girl, and asks what she does for a living. His voice is a baritone growl that doesn't travel farther than necessary. The girl smiles and begins chatting easily. Later, the girl would recall how charming she found Seals. "Just the way he listened," she said dreamily. It's not an isolated incident. Another woman cooed after meeting Seals, "Did you see his hands? I love the way he holds his cigarette."
When showtime is announced, Seals hooks his crutches under his arms and takes the stairs up to the main floor. Settled on a barstool at center stage with his guitar in his lap, Seals nods to the band and they take off. Now his voice booms through the club, deep and rolling. The band holds the song tightly while Seals begins picking flourishes with a sharp fluidity, building momentum and then releasing, shifting gears the way a good driver can without disrupting the ride.
Throughout the set, Seals points and encourages the horns or the piano as they take their solos or clamp down on the riff. "That's all right!" he cheers, enjoying the show as much as anyone in the audience. Son Seals should know what's "all right," since he was probably listening to the blues in the womb.
Frank "Son" Seals was born in Osceola, Arkansas in 1942. His father, after years of playing with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, settled down and bought his own club, the Dipsy Doodle. "It was connected to the house," Seals says. "You'd come through, and the first thing you hit is the gambling room. Dice and cards. . . Living there, I didn't go to bed all the time when I was supposed to." Son had to sneak through the kitchen and out to the dance floor, ducking knees and hips. "I was a little guy," he smiles, "and people'd be dancing and I'd start pulling on somebody's pant leg. I couldn't see the stage. Somebody'd grab me and pick me up on their shoulders so I could watch the show."
Bluesmen heading north to Memphis followed the circuit to the Dipsy Doodle and other Arkansas clubs that were surrounded by cotton fields 40 years ago:
Mason Hall, Rocket 88 and a joint in Birdsong where a guy named Slackbritches organized Sunday baseball games that pulled B.B. King out onto the field. The Casablanca drew all the big names—Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf—across the state line, and a man named Pigtails ran a club called the Big Apple. "That place started out not much bigger than this room," Seals recalls fondly, "but Pigtails kept building on it until it was halfway across the cotton field. It was the biggest place I ever saw."
Son Seals knew the land between the clubs. "I remember chopping cotton," he says, "when they first started off the season for $2.50 a day. You started before you could barely see daylight. You'd chop cotton from sun-up to almost sundown. Then they call you in, you get back on the truck, bring you to town and you line up and get your $2.50."
Seals had a chance to reminisce a little when he played the White House in September. "Clinton knew all about it," Seals laughs. "He knew my hometown, he named all the towns right down the highway. He was from a small town himself."
By the time Seals was 13, he was drumming regularly behind anyone who played at the Dipsy Doodle and thinking more and more of playing guitar. Seals' father taught him how to play, keeping him focused on one chord for hours when he'd have rather been riffing up and down the neck. "Until I could feel it in my sleep," says Seals. "I'd get up the next morning, grab the guitar and I'd be right on that chord."
At 18, with his own band behind him, Seals' reputation began to spread from the Chez Paris club in Little Rock. Over the next few years he was backing and touring with Earl Hooker and Albert King. "Albert King was a tough teacher," says Seals. "He was left-handed, the guitar was upside-down and with the strings in the wrong places... He'd tell me where to put my fingers: 'Get it in position, right there. Now, hit it.' Blam. That was it. Looking at him, you couldn't figure it out."
The best lesson, though, came from his father. "He said, 'If you're gonna do this, your heart better be in it. Because sometimes there ain't gonna be a lot of money.' I found that out." His father's advice held true. Even a president from Arkansas didn't exempt Seals from the executive obligation to play the White House for free. "That was good," Seals says of the gig. "But out of all those people, they don't got any money? They will pay if we're going back."
Seals left Arkansas for the South Side of Chicago in 1971. Hound Dog Taylor, having met Seals on a previous visit north, was able to pick him out of a crowd. "My brother-in-law," Seals says, "took me to a place where he was playing. He looked down into the audience"—Seals imitates Hound Dog's clipped nasal voice—"'Hey! There's that Son Seals!' He remembered me. I was surprised." An ongoing feud between Hound Dog and his guitar player, Little Phillip, gave Son his first break in Chicago. "They were always getting into it," Seals says. "Hound Dog fired him a bunch of times. So one time he got my phone number: 'Son, you gotta come play. I fired that goddamned Phillip, that son of a bitch.'"
When Hound Dog began touring behind his first album, Son Seals took over the weekend gig at the Expressway Lounge. By then, he was sharing stages with Junior Wells and James Cotton, and playing regularly at the Psychedelic Shack and the Flamingo.
On one of those nights a call was placed to Bruce Iglauer, founder of Alligator Records, from a club where Seals was playing. "I want you to listen," the caller yelled before holding the phone toward the stage. After 10 minutes Iglauer asked, "Who the hell is that?" The first album by the Son Seals Blues Band was released soon after in 1973 by Alligator Records.
After 28 years in Chicago, eight albums, and years of touring the U.S. and Europe, Seals' influence has reached past the blues, and he wears the role of a statesman without an air of nobility. Playing a little club in Rockford, Illinois, a couple years ago Seals couldn't help but notice a bunch of kids yelling for him to play "Funky Bitch."
"I was thinking, What do they know about 'Funky Bitch'? At the end of the show Seals learned these kids had heard Phish praising him. After a thank-you note was sent, Phish responded with an invitation to join them onstage. "That first time I played with them," Seals shakes his head, "there were 70,000 people."
Before ending the first set at Chicago Blues, Seals takes Elmore James' "The Sky is Crying" from a declarative statement to a challenge that holds until the last confessional line; a proud heartbreak dispelling the myth that the blues are sad.
While the band plays through the break, Seals works his way cautiously down the narrow stairway to the basement. A waiting friend crows, "Son, you're kicking ass and taking names."
"Yep," Seals consents politely as he takes a seat.
Visitors begin filling the dressing room again. Shemekia Copeland, who has been burning a path with her own blues, sits at Seals' side and they talk quietly. She smiles brightly when Son Seals leans over and whispers something no one else can hear.
Zak Mucha's first novel, The Beggars' Shore, was published by Red 71 Press in 1999.
His work has also appeared in F Magazine and the Chicago Reader.