Son Seals

Uncompromising Chicago bluesman
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The Independent Online

Frank Seals, singer and guitarist: born Osceola, Arkansas 14 August 1942; married (14 children); died Chicago, Illinois 20 December 2004.

Son Seals was a raw and uncompromising bluesman of whom the magazine Guitar World once noted: "He carves guitar licks like a chainsaw through solid oak and sings like a grainy-voiced avenging angel." Over a 40-year career, he established himself as an influential figure on the Chicago blues scene, cutting a series of acclaimed albums and headlining festivals across the globe.

He was born Frank Seals in Osceola, Arkansas, the youngest of 13 children, and gained the nickname "Little Son" in deference to his father, Jim, who was known locally as "Ol' Man Son". Jim Seals had formerly been a professional musician, even touring with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, an outfit famed for its association with Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, but in the early 1940s he bought a popular local juke joint, the Dipsy Doodle. It was there, as Son Seals later recalled, that he received his formative musical education:

Musically, it was wonderful. There was music, music, music, every night. People would pick me up and put me on their shoulders so I could see and, being close to Memphis, I got exposed to a lot of people: people like Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Nighthawk, Earl Hooker and Albert King.

He was also exposed to the swing-oriented territory bands working out of Memphis at the time, and developed an affection for prominent horn sections that would later surface in his own recordings.

From the age of 13 he increasingly sat in with many of the stars who visited his father's club and by 18 was fronting his own band, Son Seals and the Upsetters. In 1960 he made his professional début alongside Earl Hooker and in time found himself working with the great Albert King, appearing on King's classic Stax album Live Wire/Blues Power (1968).

In 1971, following his father's death, he headed for Chicago, where he found work with Junior Wells, Buddy Guy and Hound Dog Taylor. While performing with Taylor he was signed to Alligator Records. His first album for the label, The Son Seals Blues Band (1973), revealed an original talent and he followed it, in 1977, with Midnight Son, a disc that received substantial acclaim and which led to a series of successful European tours. His subsequent albums for the label included Chicago Fire (1980), Bad Axe (1984), Living in the Danger Zone (1991), Nothin' but the Truth (1994) and Live - Spontaneous Combustion (1996). In 1981 he was nominated for a Grammy for his work on the multi-artist live album Blues Deluxe.

In January 1997, Seals's career was temporarily halted following an altercation with his wife during which she shot him in the jaw (they later divorced). On recovering he signed with the Telarc label and recorded a pair of albums for them, on one of which, Lettin' Go (2000), he was joined by members of the rock band Phish. That year, he also performed at the White House for President Bill Clinton, who had long been a fan.

In recent years, the onset of diabetes led to the amputation of Seals's left leg and he performed seated on stage. The music, though, remained as potent as ever. "If you really want to do something that's worth something, you've got to give it your all," he said. "I try to do that every time I play."

Paul Wadey