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Rocking the blues

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FRANK 'SON' SEALS
  • FRANK 'SON' SEALS
Frank “Son” Seals was born Aug. 14, 1942, in a house behind a long-running Osceola juke joint called the Dipsy-Doodle. It was owned by his father, Jim Seals, who was known around Mississippi County as “Son.” Frank, the youngest of 13 children, was called “Little Son.” Jim Seals was a veteran of the medicine show circuit and played piano, guitar, drums and trombone, and managed a West Memphis blues club in the 1930s before opening the Dipsy-Doodle. The younger Seals got his start in music before he was a teen-ager, playing drums at the Dipsy-Doodle. But Frank didn’t stay at his dad’s club long. In a few years, Seals was touring with the likes of slide guitar great Earl Hooker and Albert King, also considered a hometown hero in Osceola. King’s guitar playing in part inspired Son Seals to take up the instrument himself. By age 18, Seals was fronting his own band, playing guitar and singing. He performed at Little Rock’s Chez Paris club four nights a week off and on for four years. When his father became sick, Seals returned to Mississippi County to help the family and played at Osceola’s Blue Goose and Harlem clubs. After his father’s death in 1971, Seals moved to Chicago to further pursue music — and his melding of searing hard rock and blues guitar. It worked. As theatrical as it may sound, Seals got his first record deal after a club-goer called a local label owner and held the phone toward the stage as Seals performed at the Flamingo Club on Chicago’s South Side. His debut album on Chicago’s Alligator Records came out in 1973. The New York Times’ Robert Palmer, a Little Rock native, called Seals “the most exciting young blues guitarist and singer in years” in a 1977 piece. The hard blues sound of Son Seals endeared him to a rock audience as well. But even with his crossover appeal, the Mississippi County native was rightfully touted as a carrier of the blues torch steeped in authenticity. He solidified his reputation through the end of the century. In 1981, Son Seals was nominated for a Grammy Award. He appeared in a TV commercial for Olympia Beer. He won Handy awards in 1985, 1987 and 2001, and performed at the White House for President Bill Clinton. Seals also performed several times with the jam band Phish, which covered his song “Funky Bitch.” Seals’ car license plate even read BAD AXE. But Seals faced personal hardship as well: In 1997, as he slept, Seals was shot in the jaw by an ex-wife. Two years later, part of Seals’ left leg was amputated due to complications of diabetes. Besides their shared nickname “Son,” and both being musicians, Jim and Frank Seals also both liked large families. Frank left 14 children when he died in Chicago on Dec. 20, 2004, at age 62. Frank “Son” Seals continued performing until weeks before his death. As a latter- day bluesman, the influence of “Son” Seals will resonate louder than even his intense guitar sound. listening • “The Son Seals Blues Band,” 1973 • “Bad Axe”; includes “Funky Bitch,” 1984 • “Lettin’ Go”; includes new version of “Funky Bitch,” 2000

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