I suppose I should be writing about the upcoming Alligator releases, but I feel compelled to write about my friend Son Seals. As you must know, Son died just before Christmas at the age of 62. He had been battling with the effects of diabetes for years, had lost a leg, been on dialysis, and finally his body just overcame his will, and gave up fighting.
When he was a teenager back in Osceola, Arkansas, Son worked as the projectionist at the local movie theater. He told me he loved the old westerns, and especially liked a cowboy actor named Bob Steele. He told me that even though Bob was a little guy, he’d never walk away from a fight. And when Bob fought, his hat never came off. I think that Son modeled himself after those old movie cowboys. He was a man of few words, and he walked through life with a tough exterior, a “don’t mess with me” attitude. Plus, he loved cowboy hats! Lots of people imagined he was kind of dangerous, but underneath that hard, quiet veneer was a man of great intelligence, strong friendship and dry humor. And he was a man who knew the real purpose of the blues —to heal troubled souls.
He was the son of a bluesman —his beloved father, Jim Seals. The elder Seals played with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and ran a tiny living room juke joint, The Dipsy Doodle Club. It was there that his youngest son was indoctrinated into the blues. Son was a true child of the juke joint. He learned to play cards and dice as soon as his head was high enough to see over the edge of the table. By 13, he was a professional drummer, backing Robert Nighthawk and others in his dad’s club. By 18, he was leading his own band as a guitarist, gigging from Osceola to Little Rock. He returned to the drums to back his mentor, Albert King, before coming to Chicago in 1970 and falling in with Hound Dog Taylor’s crowd of friends and musicians. It was at one of Hound Dog’s hangouts, the Expressway Lounge, that I first heard Son. He was skinny in those days, with polyester pants that didn’t reach his shoes, playing on a borrowed guitar and amp with a pickup band. But there was a gritty urgency to his music. He was playing and singing like his life depended on it. I was floored; this was a bluesman I had to record. Son became Alligator’s third-ever artist. Besides recording him, I became his manager and booking agent. I was often on the road with Son, and we spent lots of personal time together, talking about life, politics, family, music, and what it means to be a man in this world.
Son not only talked about what it meant to be a man, he acted on it. Back in 1978, when we were together in that train wreck in Norway, he risked his life, standing chest-deep in icy water to help lift out injured people who had no other way out of the train car. He put his life on the line for total strangers without hesitation (including a woman who had refused to sit in the same compartment as a group of black musicians) because that’s what it meant to be a man.
Like his image, Son’s blues had a lot of edge, a lot of anger. But the anger in his music was there to reach inside of his listeners, to wrench their anger out of them and to get rid of it. Sometimes, after pouring out half a dozen sweaty songs back to back without a break, he’d bring the music down to a slow Jimmy Reed groove and instruct his fans where to clap, glaring at them until everyone was locked into the groove. Then he’d laugh and say, “that’s good for you” before launching into a gritty vocal or searing guitar solo. That was why Son made music…because it was good for you.
I’ve often said that if I could be a bluesman, I would be Son Seals. The music and the man reached the deepest parts of my soul, as they reached the souls of so many of you. He will not be replaced.