By Owen Cordle, Correspondent
Taken literally, the themes "jealous wife" and "deadly disease" can silence a man, as they tried to with Frank "Son" Seals. But the Chicago bluesman has proved stronger than adversity in the last four years.
His razor-sharp guitar and gruff voice are back on the scene, fortifying anyone hungry for a good story and hard-driving musical expression.
In 1997, Seals' then-wife tried to take him out with a shot to the jaw while he slept. Then in '99, doctors amputated his left leg below the knee due to diabetes. In each case, he returned to the stage in six weeks. (Seals performs Saturday night at the Cat's Cradle in Carrboro.)
Despite his troubles, there are stronger themes in Seals' life, such as "blues birthright" and "extended blues family."
Seals grew up in Osceola, Ark., his family living in the back rooms of the Dipsy Doodle, a juke joint his musician father ran. Music was always around, and young Seals learned to play drums, then guitar. In 1971, he moved to Chicago, where he found the city's South Side enjoying good times, its blues musicians rejuvenated in part by homage paid by popular rock acts at the time.
Today, Seals finds himself such a recipient at the hands of the rock group Phish, which (until their recent performing hiatus) regularly covered his "Funky Bitch," a tune he first recorded in 1978. Lead guitarist Trey Anastasio joins him for a remake on "Lettin' Go," his latest album (and first for Telarc after 25 years with Alligator Records). The album also includes two songs with lyrics by lawyer and mystery writer Andrew Vachss, a longtime Seals fan.
Seals hooked up with Phish as a result of his performance at an outdoor concert in Rockville, Ill. "These kids kept hollering for ... 'Funky Bitch,'" the bluesman said in a call from his home in Chicago. "My manager got over close enough to ask these kids what record did they hear this from, because we knew they were too young to come into a nightclub, and they said, 'We heard it from the group Phish. They do it all the time.'
"And so we got in touch with them just to let them know we appreciate them doing our music. And ... next thing you know, I was on the show with them."
The Vachss connection occurred similarly. "Andrew used to live in Chicago," Seals said. "He used to come see me play. I wasn't even aware of it. He mentioned me in one of his books, and we just happened to get hold of the book, my manager did, dropped him a thank-you note and let him know where we was at and what was happening. ... He ended up sending some lyrics, which I used ... on the record."
In a musical genre that prides itself on tradition, Seals advocates the necessity of change. "You can't do the same thing over and over and over and over and expect people to accept just that," he said. "You've got to keep it ... fresh enough to attract not only the audience that you've been carrying all these years, but try to attract a new audience at the same time.
"Phish, that's a completely different audience ... A lot of kids who didn't know who in the heck I were before I made that first appearance with them in front of 70,000 people have since came up to me everywhere we go, saying, 'I was at that Phish concert, I saw you and I've been checking your music out ever since.' With that in mind, you got to remember this kid is only 18 years old, so if you want to keep the interest of people like that, you got to stay on the ball. You got to try to make everybody happy, and I don't lie, because I like to reach out as far as I can get."
Seals has seen Chicago change a lot in 30 years. He misses his mentors and contemporaries who "went on to glory." But you can still hear blues in clubs all over the city every night of the week. The focus has shifted from South Side neighborhood bars to downtown, North Side and suburban venues.
Seals has no desire to follow in his father's footsteps and open a club despite offers through the years. He has, however, invested in the city through his real estate business, which his son manages.
The bluesman considers his childhood a blessing. He heard players and singers such as Albert King, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Robert Nighthawk rehearse and perform at the Dipsy Doodle, and at 12 he was the club's weekend house drummer. Later he toured as a drummer with Earl Hooker and King. Nighthawk, King and Hooker influenced his guitar playing, and playing both drums and guitar "helped [me] understand what was going on around [me]," he said. "Any other instrument you can play in the band ... helps serve you well to know what that instrument should sound like if you want to venture off into something else."
In Osceola, Seals also got a firm grounding in the church. ("Lettin' Go" contains a gospel reference in his song "Blues Holy Ghost.") Blues and gospel music are spiritually related, he said.
"When I was a kid going to church, I remember how excited I would be, especially when we would have the weekly revival and all the good music and the good singing and the good groups they would bring in," he recalled. "Talk about having a ball—for a kid to see and be a part of all that just blew me away. That was definitely a religious influence.
"You can name hundreds and hundreds of great pop stars and rock stars, R&B stars, blues stars that came right out of the church, from Ray Charles on up and back down. People that got started in the church brought that same feeling from the church over into whatever they do—rock, blues, jazz, whatever."
The religious influence aided Seals during his hospital stays and convalescence, too. He testifies to a faith that helped him survive: "You can give out, but there ain't no point in giving up."
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