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Saturday, Apr. 30, 2016

Osceola's favorite Son a Chicago blues legend

Thursday, January 6, 2005

If getting shot in the face by a loved one, suffering a stroke and heart attack, along with losing a leg to amputation, sounds like good subject material for a blues song, it is.

However, it's also just a part of the misfortunes that Osceola bluesman Son Seals had to battle the last several years of his life, befitting of a musician who sported a license plate bearing "BAD AXE" on his car.

Seals passed away at age 62 in his adopted hometown of Chicago Dec. 20 due to complications from diabetes.

Seals is survived by a sister, Katherine Sims, and 14 children.

Born in 1942 as Frank Seals in the northeast Arkansas town of Osceola, Seals was christened "Son," just as his father, Jim, had been called. The elder Seals then became known as Ol' Son, and young Frank assumed the "Son" handle.

As the owner/operator of Osceola's hottest juke joint, a spot called the Dipsy Doodle, Ol' Son exposed his child to some of the Delta's most prominent bluesmen, including Earl Hooker, Robert Nighthawk and Albert King, all of whom Son Seals would later spend time with on the bandstand as a youngster captured by the sounds of the blues.

Tutored by his father on guitar and drums, Seals was, by the time he was 13 years old drumming behind the legendary Nighthawk, as well as any group in need of a good stickman. That's Seals sitting behind the drum throne on Albert King's incredible 1966 release "Live Wire/Blues Power" recorded at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, proving that he was as adept at keeping rhythm as he was at cutting loose with a blazing solo on the six-string, as his time in the Windy City would attest.

Tossing aside his drum sticks when he turned 18, Seals concentrated on the guitar and moved north to Chicago in 1971 where his combination of a Muddy Waters-like tone, coupled with the loose, burning-style Hound Dog Taylor was known for, proved to be an instant hit in blues clubs all across the Windy City.

Gigging around town with blues legends like Junior Wells, Seals finally found a permanent home at the Expressway Lounge, where he took over houseband duties for Hound Dog Taylor, who had recently signed to the then-new Alligator Records label, and was set to tour the country.

Seals's gigs at the Expressway caught the eye of Alligator founder Bruce Iglauer who inked him to a record deal in 1972.

Released in 1973, The Son Seals Blues Band was the first of eight releases Seals recorded for Alligator, before moving on to Telarc for a pair of CDs late in his career.

Along with his slashing guitar tone, Seals developed a soulful vocal sound that was instantly recognized as his own.

The Academy of Arts and Recording Science also took note, as Seals was nominated for a Grammy award for his performance on the album "Blues Deluxe," a compilation of various blues artists that hit the streets in 1981.

Although he didn't take a Grammy back to Chicago with him, Seals did rack up W.C. Handy awards in 1985, 1987 and 2001.

The end of the 90s saw Seals' hard living ways catching up with him, as song titles such as "Buzzard Luck" and "Your Love Is Like A Cancer" started to play themselves out in real life.

Seals' then-wife shot him in the eye socket with a small-caliber gun before throwing him and his belongings out on the street. This in addition to his already-failing health and heart problems saw Seals forced to regroup as the new millennium rolled in.

As if that wasn't enough, diabetes, the disease that finally claimed his life, resulted in Seals' having part of his left leg amputated in late 1999.

Undeterred, Seals bounced back with the great Lettin' Go CD on Telarc in 2000, an album that found homes not only in the stereos of blues' lovers, but a younger crowd as well, thanks to the guest appearance of Phish's Trey Anastasio, one of the leaders of the fast-growing jam band scene.

Phish had taken to playing a Seals classic, having to do with a funky female dog, and Anastasio simply wanted to repay the Chicago bluesman for the inspiration he had provided. On the CD Seals in turn paid homage to his birth place with a rocking tune titled "Osceola Rock," proving he had not forgotten where it all began.

As bad health, including a stroke, dogged him through his final years, forcing him off the road and out of the recording studio, Seals' impact on the Chicago blues scene remained strong, as his fiery style of guitar slinging lives on in a new generation of axemen such as Lurrie Bell and Ronnie Baker Brooks. A legacy that will surely grow as time moves forward.

And that's quite an accomplishment for a budding legend who was raised in the music-in-front, dice-game-in-back environment of a little juke joint in the small Arkansas town of Osceola.

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