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Son of a Son

He took his father's nickname and his act to Chicago. Today, Son Seals is an inspiration to jam bands and crime novelists.

By Steve Byrne
Originally published at, January 28, 1999.

One doesn't have to be a history buff to know that the root of the blues is human misery. Poverty, prison, discrimination, exploitation, and rootlessness—facets of black experiences both in the rural South and the industrial North—became the basis for the songs sung by folks trying to forget such oppression.

But the aforementioned miseries are societal. What about personal horrors? Do they fuel the blues, too? Unfortunately, when the problems belong to one person living in a world of apparent tranquility, it's more likely to produce a Charles Manson than a Muddy Waters.

That's the theory of Andrew Vachss, a former prosecuting attorney who now writes fiction and nonfiction dealing with the subject of violence against children. The abused kid today, Vachss can tell you, will be the killer and/or molester of tomorrow.

Perhaps there's no connection, but Vachss is also a big fan of the blues. His favorite, Son Seals, will be performing Saturday at Wilbert's.

"No one who hears Son Seals can say Eric Clapton is the king of the slide guitar," Vachss once said.

And Vachss is putting his career where his mouth is. He claims to have mentioned Seals in all of his gritty crime novels. His latest effort, Safe House, comes with an accompanying CD of mood music by blues artists like Seals, Howlin' Wolf, Paul Butterfield, Buddy Guy, Charlie Musselwhite, Sonny Boy Williamson, Marcia Ball, and Leadbelly. Seals's contribution to the disc is "Going Back Home," which originally appeared on his 1976 album Midnight Son.

And there's more. Seals will be reading some of Vachss' prose on public radio in April. Vachss also sent Seals poetry that Son has been setting to original music for a song to appear on a companion CD to Vachss' next novel, due out in May.

"It's certainly different for me," Seals says of his scheduled reading. "I've performed on public radio before, but always with my music. This is something new."

Seals's voice is as rough and authoritative as his guitar. Imagine an unpolished James Earl Jones, a dark voice for dark literature.

Seals was born in Osceola, Arkansas, in 1942. He was no abused child himself, nor were any of his twelve brothers and sisters. His father, also nicknamed Son, owned a juke joint in Osceola called the Dipsy Doodle. The younger Son Seals (real name Frank) was raised on the blues through Albert King, B.B. King, Williamson, Robert Nighthawk, and virtually every other blues performer in the area.

"We were lucky to live near Memphis," Seals says. "We were only fifty miles west. People didn't mind traveling out that way. There were a lot of joints—'bad houses,' some called them—in that town. It attracted a lot of Memphis performers."

Son started his musical journey on the drums. By the time he was a teenager, he was doing it in his dad's place, plus other Osceola establishments like the Blue Goose and the Harlem Club. He advanced to playing in Little Rock at places like Chez Paris before joining people like Albert King and Earl Hooker on tours in the early and middle '60s.

"Albert King, more than anyone, influenced me," Seals says. "He played at my dad's place all the time. I grew up around him."

Seals moved to Chicago in 1968 to work outside of music. That lasted three years, until he became the drummer for Hound Dog Taylor. He formed his own band a year later to play at the Expressway Lounge and in '73 released his first album for a new label, Alligator Records. Since then he's released albums like Midnight Son, Chicago Fire, Bad Axe, Living in the Danger Zone, and Nothing but the Truth, all on Alligator. Still, Seals sounds wistful about the old days of the club scene in Chicago's "black belt."

"There were a lot of clubs, and I played them all—the Checkerboard Lounge, Florence's, the Flamingo Club. I played Theresa's with Junior Wells. The Checkerboard is still there. The others are all gone."

But the blues is not. Vachss is doing his best to keep the music, and Seals, in business. The rock band Phish and its fanatical following are doing the same. Seals's "Funky Bitch" is a live standard, and an all-female Phish fan contingent calls itself the Funky Bitches.

"The music is just fine," Seals says. "It just needs to keep getting exposure, because you can't just turn on the radio and hear it. At least you can't [in Chicago]. I don't know how Cleveland is, but there's no blues on the radio here."

Seals is getting his exposure, even if it's coming from unlikely sources.


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