December 22, 2004


Blues guitarist, singer Frank 'Son' Seals dies at 62 (JEFF JOHNSON, December 22, 2004, Chicago Sun-Times)

The gruff-voiced, hard-edged Chicago blues guitarist-vocalist, who looked like a grizzly bear and reminded good friends of a teddy bear with his sly, self-deprecating humor, died Monday at age 62 of complications of diabetes.

Mr. Seals' last 10 years were marked by misfortunes.

His left leg was amputated below the knee in 1999 because of diabetes. He was hospitalized frequently for the disease in the last two years, and had taken insulin since the 1970s. Two years before the amputation, he was shot in the jaw by an ex-wife as he slept, forcing months of reconstructive surgery. More recently his motor home was destroyed by fire after a show in Miami, and his custom-made guitar was stolen.

"The guy faced the most unbelievably life-shattering experiences, and you never heard him complain about it," said Dan Rabinovitz, a trumpet player in Mr. Seals' band from 1990-97 and a former Cook County assistant state's attorney now practicing law in Boston. [...]

As the youngest of Jim Seals' 13 children, Frank Seals learned about the blues firsthand at his daddy's juke joint in Osceola, Ark. He was called "Little Son" in his hometown to distinguish him from "Son," his dad. Mr. Seals began playing professionally at age 12, first on the drums and soon after on guitar. While still in his teens, he toured as a drummer with Hooker and later with King, one of his primary influences.

By the time he moved to Chicago in 1971, Mr. Seals had mastered many of King's guitar riffs. He took over Hound Dog Taylor's regular gigs at the Expressway Lounge on the South Side when Taylor's debut album for Chicago's Alligator Records took off and Taylor hit the road. [...]

Mr. Seals played guitar "like his life depended on it," said Bruce Iglauer, Alligator founder and president. "Part of it was his sheer intensity. He didn't really play the guitar, he attacked it. And that's the way he approached his vocals, too. He didn't ask you to listen, he bullied you into it."

Iglauer recalled that Mr. Seals was little-known to blues audiences when he arrived in Chicago. "When I first saw him, he was just playing little South Side joints," he said. He was one of those 50 cents or a dollar [cover charge] guys. He was playing with a borrowed guitar and amp. He recorded the first album for Alligator on a Norma, the Montgomery Ward's guitar brand, and he did the second on a Slivertone from Sears."

Mr. Seals went on to help reshape the Chicago blues, expanding on the traditional Mississippi Delta roots by incorporating hard-rock elements. His raw, "all kill, no fill" style, as Iglauer describes it, found favor with a fan base that was increasingly white and based on the North Side.

"Nobody could send a roomful of people over the edge in the midnight hour with a guitar like he could," Rabinovitz said. "When he wanted to throw down, nobody could touch him."

Live & Burning is an especially good disc.

SON SEALS, 62 (Joshua Cohen, 12/27/04, NY Press)

Son Seals, 62 The passing of a figure on the level of Frank "Son" Seals brings out the Alan Lomax in all of us. Hentoff, Goldstein, even Norman Granz of Jazz at the Philharmonic fame—we do what urban Jews do best. We emcee. We introduce. We popularize. We consecrate precious column space to that other American minority we want to understand, but rarely do. Here we go again.

In our post-electric, post-acoustic and post-electric-again blues world, an era rife with guitar heroes from the relatively traditional Buddy Guy to the softcore muzak of Eric Clapton, Son Seals stood out. His voice was hard, almost metallic—Charlie Patton with Gulf War Syndrome. His pickless guitar style—famously characterized by Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer as "all kill, no fill"—was undoubtedly the most laser-trained, no-f[']ing-around sound that America has heard from six strings since Hubert Sumlin began sucking a few decades ago. Son Seals, in the end, was the last gasp of the blues before the Jonny Lang/Stevie Ray Vaughn revival of the 80s and 90s, and the coopting of traditional black music by people like Moby, suburban-hippies Phish and the aural abortion that was Clapton Unplugged.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 22, 2004 10:18 AM

I've only got the Son Seals Blues Band CD from '93 & I love it.
Look forward to getting an Amazon gift certificate from the family, which could be used to acquire recommended "Live & Burning", assuming they also get me all the books I want.
Have a Merry Christmas.

Posted by: Mike Daley at December 22, 2004 10:59 PM