Fortunate Son

As any lover of the blues realizes, one of the music's principal themes is love gone bad. It's a subject with which Chicago-based bluesman Son Seals is extremely familiar. After all, he was shot in the face on January 5 of this year, and the alleged gunwoman was his estranged wife, Johnnie.

Precisely what happened on that day remains in question, and Seals is not ready to go public with any answers; under orders from his attorney, he declines to comment about the incident. Likewise, articles about the matter from the Chicago Tribune fail to clear up the confusion. They quote representatives from the Seals camp as claiming that the guitarist was shot as he slept. By contrast, initial police reports suggest that the shooting took place in the midst of an argument. And a lawyer representing Johnnie Seals insists that Son drew a gun after his wife confronted him about an alleged affair and was shot accidentally as she attempted to wrestle the weapon from him. Further muddying the waters are inaccuracies in the Tribune pieces; two of them list Seals's age as 61, even though he turned 54 in August.

Right now, Seals says he's in good health, even though the slug that struck him remains lodged below his right ear. "I'm fine," he insists. "Thank God, I'm great. I suffered a broken jaw, but it healed well. It could have been much worse." As proof of his recovery, he notes that he was playing for audiences again by the beginning of March, less than two months after his wounding.

This eagerness to return to the stage reflects Seals's proud nature. He'd much rather be known for his innovative blues compositions, the burly, honey-toned smoothness of his vocals and his masterful guitar work than for his role in what could turn out to be a great American soap opera.

A native of Osceola, Arkansas, Seals grew up listening to famous blues players at the Dipsy Doodle, a juke joint owned by his father, a onetime member of the legendary Rabbit Foot Minstrels who played piano, drums, guitar and trombone. According to Seals, whose speaking voice blends James Earl Jones's seriousness with John Wayne's bravado, these influences were keys to his creative development. "I was listening to the blues long before I was even old enough to think about trying to play," he notes. "Then, maybe around the age of nine or ten, I got to the point where I was trying to beat around on some drums whenever somebody left some on the bandstand." He received his first drum set when he was thirteen, and within three years, he says, "I was playing a little guitar, too--trying to do my own thing. I even had put together a little group. As far back as I can remember, I loved the music.

"The first few times I got up and played before people, I wanted to do it so bad that I didn't even think about being scared," he goes on. "That comes later. Somewhere along the line it hits you--maybe when you first get up in front of a huge crowd of people and you look out and think, 'What the hell am I doing here?' But you get over that real quick, especially if the crowd is with you, enjoying what you're doing. I didn't ever dwell on whether I had talent or not. I wanted to play and I tried to learn--and little by little, I learned. Later on, when I started getting paid a little bit, I thought something must be happening. But it's kind of hard to honestly pinpoint whether you've got talent or not. I guess that's for other people to say."

And say it they did. Seals began drumming for blues legend Robert Nighthawk when he was barely in his teens. By 1963 he'd signed up for a stint with Earl Hooker's Roadmasters, and he took over the drum chair for Albert King three years later. He also dabbled in music other than the blues. "I've played just about everything you can name," he reveals. "I've played in a country-and-Western band and played popular music. You name it, I've done it--and I'm glad I did. I've touched all the bases, if you will, at one time or another. But that wasn't me, per se. I did it just to play, just to work, get experience and whatnot. But the blues is what I love to play. That's me."

Following his father's death in 1971, Seals decided to devote himself to the blues full-time. He moved to Chicago and after two years in the city became the third artist to sign with the fledgling Alligator label. His debut long-player, The Son Seals Blues Band, issued in 1973, immediately established him as one of the freshest voices in contemporary blues, and the four additional albums and innumerable tours he completed during the next decade did nothing to alter that impression. Beginning in 1984, he took an extended hiatus from recording, reportedly because of a disagreement with Alligator founder Bruce Iglauer, but his return, 1991's Living in the Danger Zone, found him still operating at a very high level. He succeeded this offering with 1994's Nothing but the Truth and 1996's stunning live recording, Live--Spontaneous Combustion, featuring his seven-member Chicago Fire Band. The latter was especially prized by blues boosters outside of Chicago; since his comeback, Seals has cut back on his once-grinding tour agenda. That may be changing to some degree, though. "We're booked up well past the end of the year and even have scheduled next year's festivals," he allows. "I'm thinking about my next project, and I'd like to go into the studio for that by the end of this year. But we're so busy right now that it might have to wait until early next year."

Seals concedes that maintaining this pace is not as easy as it used to be. "It's a job, like any other job. Now, it may be a little bit harder when you're on the road traveling and all, but you just get used to it, because it's your job. How do you do it? I don't know. You just get up, you eat and get yourself ready and go do your job. Don't matter what you are or how old you get to feeling. That's how you have to do it."

For many of us, taking a bullet in the head might make our jobs seem somewhat insignificant. But that's not the case with Seals, who feels that his songs are his legacy. "I would hope that people would find them interesting enough to keep coming out to listen to them, now and long after I'm gone. But if you don't listen to me, then listen to somebody playing this music. Keep it going. Because, you know, the blues is the roots of all of it. If the blues dies, it's all over."

The 1997 Boulder Blues Festival, with Son Seals & the Chicago Fire Band and Mem Shannon & the Membership. 8 p.m. Thursday, September 18, Fox Theater, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $14.70, 786-7030. Son Seals. 9 p.m. Sunday, September 21, Brendan's, 1624 Market Street, $5, 595-0609.


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