Veteran Guitarist Paying the Dues to Play the Blues
By Dave Hoekstra, Staff Reporter
Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, February 3, 2002
Chicago blues guitarist Frank "Son" Seals stares outside the front window of his south suburban home. His deep brown eyes are fixed on the first snowfall of the season. The snow is late this year, but bad timing doesn't bother Seals.
On New Year's Eve his 26-foot motor home was destroyed when it caught on fire in Jacksonville, Fla. after a show in Miami. Seals lost all his personal belongings, including clothes. A passer-by took Seals and his entourage to the airport. They made it as far as Atlanta, where they were unable to get a flight. They took a bus back to Chicago.
"I didn't get to runnin'," Seals says with a hard grin.
In 1999, Seals' left leg was amputated below the knee due to diabetes.
In January 1997, Seals' ex-wife shot him in the jaw while he was sleeping. A bullet lodged behind his right ear and it forced Seals to undergo months of reconstructive facial surgery. A 1995 automobile accident required Seals to undergo two surgeries and rehabilitative therapy on his left hand. A screw remains in the guitar player's hand.
Seals strums a replica of his "Bad Axe" Guild Starfire guitar as he talks.
His original custom-made guitar was stolen last year when he was living in Evanston.
Seals finds comfort in the gentle rhythm of the falling snow. And this is a man who deserves all the promise of spring.
"I've been broke all kinds of different ways," says Seals, the father of 10 grown children. "But the one thing I try to keep from being broken is my spirit."
At age 59, Seals is enjoying a career rebirth. Alligator Records just released a "Deluxe Edition" CD featuring highlights of Seals' eight-album tenure at the label. Seals was the third artist label founder Bruce Iglauer signed to Alligator, following the late slide guitarist Hound Dog Taylor and Big Walter Horton. Seals used to play with Taylor at the Expressway Lounge on 55th Street.
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"Lettin' Go" (Telarc) was one of the more overlooked blues gems of 2000, featuring guest appearances from organist Al Kooper and guitarist Trey Anastasio of the alternative rock band Phish. The album features liner notes and two compositions with noted attorney and novelist Andrew Vachss, who first saw Seals in the 1970s when he lived in Chicago.
Seals came up in an early 1970s Chicago blues scene that was defined by Hound Dog Taylor, J.B. Hutto and the specter of Earl Hooker, a major influence on Seals. In 1963, Seals played rhythm guitar with Hooker.
"Everyone was still there in the 1970s," Vachss says from Manhattan. "But what hit me the most about Son was how he seems to be transparent in interpreting the material. The material comes right through him to you. Its not so much that he's interpreting it as that he's transmitting it."
Seals returns to his old stomping grounds Friday night when he fronts a five-piece band at Wise Fools Pub, 2270 N. Lincoln. Seals was a regular performer at the club in the late 1970s when it was the apex of the local blues scene, featuring acts that included Koko Taylor and the Bob Riedy Blues Band.
Seals recorded his 1978 live "Live and Burning" at Wise Fools, whose intensity was compared to Albert King's "Live Wire" that was recorded a decade before (and featured Seals on drums). Seals' live reading of Elmore James' "I Can't Hold Out," with A.C. Reed on saxophone is simply explosive. The chestnut is included on Alligator's "Deluxe Edition." "I'm glad to see Wise Fools back," Seals says. "I've had a lot of good nights in that club."
But don't expect Seals to sing the blues about his bad luck.
"You just don't say, 'Well, I'm going to sit down and write 'I Lost My Leg Blues'," Seals says. "It doesn't happen like that. Of course, you write about things you feel. And you write about life experiences. But I write about ideas that pop in my head. Over the years, I'd be driving my car and an idea would hit me. Or it would come from something I saw. The minute I got home, I'd scribble it down."
Sometimes Seals had a premonition. The Seals "Deluxe Edition" compilation includes "Before the Bullets Fly," from his 1994 album "Nothing But The Truth." In his trademark rough tones Seals sings how "I've always been a gambler, takin' chances on my life."
Son Seals knows he was fortunate he wasn't killed in the 1997 shooting.
"I was lucky," Seals says. "Even though the slug went in my face, it did not hurt my tongue or anything. It went straight through [his face]. I didn't know what happened. I was asleep. When I woke up, I knew I could still talk. But I was mad as hell." Seals says his ex-wife is "somewhere in Chicago." He groans, "She got off with three years probation."
Sometimes a bad experience can take a turn for the better. On first listen, Seals' "Funky Bitch" doesn't exactly create a Hallmark moment. Seals initially covered "Funky Bitch" on his "Live and Burning" record.
But a few years ago Seals was appearing at an outdoor festival in Rockford. Lots of young white kids were screaming for 'Funky Bitch' " Seals recalls, "I'm looking at these kids. I know they're too young to have been in a club. At that time my then-manager got close enough to talk to them. He asked them how they knew that tune. They said Phish does that song."
His manager tracked down Phish and sent the band a thank you note. The Seals camp didn't expect to hear anything from Phish, but the band quickly responded by inviting Seals to join the jam band for several gigs. "I couldn't make the first show at Madison Square Garden," Seals says. "It was 1999 and I was in the hospital for half the year. But they did another show at an outdoor festival outside of Syracuse. There were 70,000 people there. I've never played for that large a crowd. There were people as far as I could see. Then they came here and I played with them in Rosemont. We later did the Radio City Music Hall."
Seals and Phish covered four or five Seals songs at the concerts. Seals also re-recorded "Funky Bitch" for "Lettin' Go," with Anastasio in tow. Seals' adventurous chord changes and fast, jazzy guitar tones endeared him to the Phish flock.
The "Lettin' Go" project celebrates all of Seals creative reach, especially in "Rock n' Roll Tonight," which contrary to its title is a driving country-gospel shuffle. "Sometimes people get the wrong idea about blues players," Seals says. "They think we can only do one thing. I grew up in the country. People came out to have a good time. You have to give them something to dance to. They don't want to be cryin' in their beer all night long. Shake your tail. Mix it up a little bit.
"When I was growing up, we'd play in country-western bars. I played drums and guitar in country-western bands. Even today, I have no problem doing country-western. Believe it or not, Johnny Cash is one of my favorite artists. I saw Gene Autry and Roy Rogers movies in theaters. I would try to copy them."
Seals was born in Osceola, Ark., about 50 miles outside Memphis, Tenn. His father, Jim Seals, had played slide trombone, piano, guitar, drums and danced with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, whose alumni include Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. Jim was also proprietor of the Dipsy Doodle Club—a 175-seat juke joint in with blues in the front and dice in the back. The Seals family also lived behind the Osceola club.
Vachss submits that Seals gains his inner strength from his father.
"Son's relationship with his father seems to have sustained him well past his father's presence on this earth," Vachss says. "I think he calls himself 'Son' for a real good reason. He could call himself 'Frank Jr.' I know when he talks about his Dad something comes over him. And I know he sees himself as a child of the music. To be true to that music: Surrender is not an option. You can be all kinds of things to be a blues man.
"But you can't be a person who gives up."
Touring with a prosthesis is a challenge for Seals. Last month he returned from a swing through the East Coast with Koko Taylor that took him to Washington, D.C., Providence, R.I., and his debut at B.B. King's nightclub in New York City. "You can't do everything you did," he says. "Sometimes you can, it just takes you a little longer. Airports are OK, because I use a wheelchair." Seals is aware that Cubs great Ron Santo and country legend Waylon Jennings have recently undergone similar amputations. He advises them to be patient. "You have to retrain yourself," Seals says. "I do a lot better now than I did at the beginning."
Considering everything Seals has had to endure, at this moment it is the loss of his guitar that seems to bother him the most. For him, it is as close as another limb. "It messes you up," Seals says in gruff tones. "Somebody come along and take something from you like that. It's hard to explain, man. There ain't nothing I would have took for it, moneywise." He keeps on playing his guitar as he talks.
He keeps on playing the blues.
© 2002 The Sun-Times Company. All rights reserved.