Train to Nowhere
"Train to Nowhere" by Dave Dupree was the aptly named single released by Challenge Records on January 15, 1958. Newly founded by Gene Autrey, "The Singing Cowboy" of Hollywood fame, the Los Angeles
based label was looking to land its first hit record. The single itself was on the road to "nowhere" until something highly unlikely happeneda disc jockey in Cleveland
, Ohio listened to the flip side of a single by an unknown artist on an obscure new label. He liked what he heard and put the B-side in rotation, and by March 28, 1958 it was the #1 song on the Billboard Charts. That flip side, as you've probably guessed from the title of this piece, was "Tequila," one of the best selling instrumental singles in music historya song eventually covered by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie
, Wes Montgomery
, David Sanborn
, and Larry Carlton
"Tequila" had been hastily recorded by the session musicians who were in the studio for Dupree's "Train to Nowhere." There was no band at that point, they had simply needed to fill the other side of Dupree's disc. The idea for the song came from the saxophonist Danny Flores and it was quickly worked out in the studio. The drummer and guitarist from his trio were also part of the session. Because Flores was under contract with another label, he used the pseudonym Chuck Rio for the B-side song credits. Dave Dupree was a stage name, the actual name of the artist on "Train to Nowhere" was Dave Burgess. He was under contract with Challenge and suddenly he and his new label had a hit on their hands and needed a band to hit the road.
A touring band, the Champs, was organized around Dave Burgess on rhythm guitar, Chuck Rio on saxophone, and the original drummer from the sessions. A new bassist and lead guitarist were hired and by April the band was in the studio recording enough material for an album. After that they embarked on a bitter end tour. Weeks later, May 3, 1958, they actually played "Tequila" live on Dick Clark's Saturday Night Beechnut Show. Dick Clark displayed their Gold Record for selling a million copies, and they rocked the house. Behind the scenes things did not go well and this born-out-of-necessity band quickly imploded following angry clashes between Dave Burgess and Chuck Rio. The following month, Chuck Rio and his drummer, Gene Alden, abruptly quit the band and left the tour. In a panic Dave Burgess desperately sought a replacement saxophonist and drummer. At this point, the already unlikely story gets even more improbable when two Texas teenagers enter the picture.
Teens to the Rescue
I've never been to Rankin, Texas, hometown of Jimmy Seals, who became the Champ's saxophonist in 1958 at 16, but I have taken a virtual tour via Google maps. The landscape is barren, you pass the city limits sign with its population of 778 people and in the distance you see a few buildings lining the roadmaybe a bar & grill and a general store? Once you arrive "downtown" no such luck, there are some weathered old structures and a nondescript oilfield supply store. It was in fact the promise of work in the oil fields that initially lured Jimmy Seals' grandfather away from the Big Sandy in Tennessee to Texas in 1919.
Jimmy Seals shared this with the Los Angeles Times in an article dated Oct. 26, 1991: "When I was a kid, we didn't have a whole lot aroundwe had to send off for our clothes in the mailso we'd play music for entertainment, and Texas is a strange country. You can't really put your finger on it, but it allows you to grow up using your imagination. I think any kind of isolation causes you to want to do something. You sit there and wonder what it's like on the other side of the world."
Fred Seals brought his banjo with him from Tennessee, and when he wasn't working, making music on the front porch was about the only game in town. His son Wayland (Eugene Wayland) was six years old when the family arrived in Texas, and he quickly absorbed everything his father could teach him about music. Wayland also went to work in the oil fields, played guitar on the porch, and eventually fronted a '50s rockabilly band called Wayland Seals and the Oil Patch Boys. You can search YouTube and hear a few of their singles. Initially I listened to them as curiosities, but they are full of raw energy and capture the spirit of the area and the era. Wayland had three sons who, like himself, were taught music on the front porch by their father and his father. Following in Wayland's footsteps they took their music to the next level.
In 1983 an intrepid reporter from the Galveston Daily News drove to West Texas to interview Wayland for an article that appeared in the Sunday edition on January 1, 1984. Why? Wayland Seals is the father of two major recording artists, Jimmy Seals, half of the legendary '70s duo Seals & Crofts, and Dan Seals. Dan, under the name England Dan, was part of a moderately successful pop duo, and later under his own name he was a highly successful Country artistwith eleven #1 hit singles.
Wayland at the time of the interview was 71 years of age, and told the reporter he still loves to play his Gibson flat top guitar, but his arthritis made fretting difficult, saying, "I'm not near as slick as I used to be. But it's like riding a bicycle. You always remember how to stay on the thing, once you learn, but as you get older you just can't pedal as fast."
Jimmy and Dan's older half-brother was a real estate investor who did not pursue a career in music, but he was also musically gifted. In Wayland's words, "That oldest boy of mine, Eddie Ray, he can flat play a guitar. He's always done his own show, up in Dallas
, out in Las Vegas
or now in Nashville
. I had an old Gibson guitar with red rosewood sides and a yellow sunburst top. My daddy gave it to me in the 30s. I wore it out, had it fixed and wore it out again and had it fixed again. Then I gave it to Eddie Ray. He still has it, and he still plays it, too."
They played anything they could get their hands on. Jimmy started out on guitar at the age of four. They bought him a fiddle from the Sears & Roebuck catalogue and by the age of nine he had taught himself to play and won the Texas State Fiddle Championship. Jimmy Seals and Dash Crofts met in junior high school, and Dash became part of the Seals family music circle. Dash was the son of a Texas rancher, a dapper gentleman named Sutton Crofts. Dash, he's actually named Darrell, grew up in Cisco, Texas, a small town, but probably five times the size of Jimmy's hometown. He has a twin sister, Dot, short for Dorothy, thus they became Dash and Dot. In the 1950s Dash appeared with the Seals family on local television as recounted by Wayland:
"Back then, the youngest, Danny, used to play a big ol' bull fiddle with the rest of us. We all played on a television show one time in the '50s and people in the audience got the biggest kick out of watching Danny. He was so little that he'd have to jump clean off his feet to reach some of them low notes way up on that fiddle neck. He was only 4 or 5 years old then."
When you think of the barren isolation of their hometown, it's easy to imagine that the Seals household must have been the place to be in Rankin, Texas. That is reflected in these lines Jimmy Seals penned for the song, "29 Years from Texas": "Come a long, long way from Rankin, Texas
And the days when Dash and my daddy played
People would come from miles around
Bring the food and just stay and stay"
"And every time I think of the days gone by I can't help but feelin' a little sad
'Cause I think of all the years and miles and the tears
And I hear the voice of my granddad"
"Good country picking going down every night
Good clean living underneath the starry skies
I'm 29 years from Rankin, Texas
But I really haven't gone anywhere at all"
Eventually after guitar and the fiddle, Jimmy Seals added another important tool to his musical toolbox when he taught himself tenor saxophone. By the time he was 15 he had already recorded a single on sax, "Sneaky Pete" released by a regional label operated out of Slim Willet's garage. Willet was a radio personality in Central and West Texas, a singer, and an all around music impresario and entrepreneur. He also happened to manage a band, fronted by a pianist, that included young Dash Crofts on drums and Jimmy Seals on saxophone.
You'll recall, Dave Burgess of the Champs was desperately looking for a replacement saxophonist and drummer. He spoke to a friend who reached out to Slim Willet, who then sent him a copy of Jimmy Seals' "Sneaky Pete" single. After Burgess heard "Sneaky Pete" he let Slim Willet know he wanted Jimmy Seals and Dash Crofts to join the tour. Long story short, it clicked extremely well, they finished the tour and were then invited to join the band.
Wayland was reluctant to let his 16 year old son leave home and move to California. Based on Wayland's interview it appears Slim Willet played the Gene Autrey card, giving Wayland the impression it was the legendary star and label owner himself who wanted Jimmy in the Champs. Also of note, the following year an unknown guitarist from Arkansas joined the Champs, it was none other than Glen Campbell. He would of course go on to be a legendary session guitarist, star of his own television variety hour, movie actor, and platinum recording artist.
A January 19, 1976 People Magazine profile of Seals & Crofts gave this impression of how their situation changed during their time with the Champs: "Money poured in, and soon there were flashy mohair suits, fleets of two-and four-wheel vehicles, reckless races and motel-room brawls. When shirts got dirty, they were simply replaced, not washed." According to the official Seals & Crofts website they were earning between $500 to $600 a week in 1960. A 1960 dollar is worth 8.55 dollars in 2019thus Jimmy and Dash, 19 and 20 respectively, were making between $4,275 and $5,130 a week in today's money.
In 1962, Dash was drafted into the Army and returned to the Champs in 1964. By the following year the British invasion was in full swing with the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, the Who, Yardbirds a couple of dozen other groups dominating the American charts. The Champs and their management saw the writing on the wall and the band came to an official end in 1965. It's hard to imagine, but Seals & Crofts, thought to be so mellow, actually came to blows when the Champs ended. In an interview with Tony Bentivegna, who operates the Seals and Crofts website, Dash Crofts shared this about the demise of the Champs:
"We decided at the last minute we were gonna go to [tour] Japan. And he [Jimmy] waited until the last few days and said, 'Well, I've decided I'm not gonna go.' And we got in a big fight over it, and we even got into a fist fight and kind of tore up the club we worked in! And it was just one of the only fights that we ever had. And I said, 'You're betraying me, you're not going.' And so, we went on to Japan. And Jimmy and I didn't speak for awhile, 'cause we were in Japan and Jimmy was here. And when I came back, a month or so later, ah, I was called to do a recording session and I went there, and Jimmy showed up at the same session, and we were glad to see each other. We became friends all over again."
Mushrooms & Dawnbreakers
In 1962, 63, 64, and 65 Challenge Records gave Jimmy Seals, while still a member of the Champs, a chance to record some singles under his own name. It's clear he was listening to what was selling and was able to cover a wide range of styles. One single in particular "The Yesterday of Our Love," was a funky soul song that sounded like it had the potential to have been a hit in the '60s. He left no doubt he was capable of writing some funky music and putting down a funky vocal. It's a recording that will no doubt surprise those who know him only from Seals & Crofts.
In the thick of the flower power era, Jimmy and Dash were in a short lived band called the Mushrooms. Through that they developed an important relationship with a guitarist who would eventually become their producer and the electric guitarist for their Seals & Crofts recordings. That guitarist is the legendary session player Louie Shelton
Dash, Jimmy and Louie left the Mushrooms and joined a band called the Dawnbreakers. They were often booked in Las Vegas and sounded a bit like a cross between the 5th Dimension and the Mamas and the Papas. The band was managed by Marcia Day, and three of her daughters sang with the band. The Day family were members of the Bahá'í Faith. In the above mentioned People Magazine feature on Seals & Crofts, Marcia Day's role was described this way:
"The stars themselves aren't in charge. Rather, it is a matriarchy managed by Crofts' mother-in-law, an aggressive 45-year-old former actors' agent named Marcia Day. All five of her daughters are active in the operation, as are Marcia's four other sons-in-law who play backup or production roles with the duo. Not surprisingly, S&C have their own soft-ball team and 17 Day grandchildren around the offices."
Less is More
After the demise of the Dawnbreakers, Seals & Crofts, according to People Magazine, holed up in the basement of the Day HQ, then a "decrepit five-bedroom house in Hollywood," and began writing the material that launched them as a duo. Dash Crofts and Louie Shelton each married one of the Day sisters. They were attracted to the Bahá'í teachings and eventually became Bahá'ís. Some months later Jimmy also became a Bahá'í. When speaking to the LA Times in the 1991 article mentioned above, Jimmy described that time in 1966 with Marcia Day and her family.
"She and her family were Bahá'í, and they'd have these fireside gatherings at their house on Friday nights. There were street people, doctors, university teachers and everybody there. And the things they talked about, I couldn't even ask the question let alone give the answer: the difference between soul, mind and spirit, life after death. We'd discuss things sometimes until 3 in the morning."
"It was the only thing I'd heard that made sense to me, so I responded to it. That began to spawn some ideas to write songs that might help people to understand, or help ones who maybe couldn't feel anything or were cynical or cold. Lyrically, I think music can convey things that are hard sometimes for people to say to each other. But through a song, through someone else's eyes, they can see it and it's not so much a confrontation."
When Marcia Day heard them she recognized they clearly had something special, and became the duo's manager. Their spiritual awakening gave their music and lyrics meaning, purpose, and heartfelt intensity. In a January 1971 interview with Stereo Review Magazine by Deborah Landau, Dash put it this way:
"Our awareness of our lives has changed, and therefore our music too. You start out writing songs like 'the leaves are green and the sky is blue and I love you and you love me' -very simple lyrics -but you grow into a much broader awareness of life, of love, and of unity. It's really great to be able to say something real in your music."
The big sound of the Dawnbreakers hadn't fit what they wanted to convey. Dash and Jimmy opted for intimacy and recognized that sometimes less is more, and the mandolin became Dash's primary instrument. Louie Shelton
, his friend, producer, and brother-in-law at that time, shared this with me here on AllAboutJazz in an interview:
"Imagine, Dash's brother had a mandolin hanging on the wall at his place, so Dash pulled it down and learned how to play it, and that became the Seals & Crofts sound! At first it was totally acoustic, just the two guys and later they added a bass. So it was initially very sparse, but also very complex."
People who only know them from their radio hits aren't aware of the intricate guitar mandolin duets Jimmy and Dash playedthey were, in their own way, somewhat reminiscent of what the Allman Brothers were doing with dual lead guitars at that time of course Seals & Crofts were acoustic and more structured, but also more complex. It's all the more remarkable when you consider they had been touring for eight years as a saxophonist and drummer.
How Good Were They?
Many people who saw Seals & Crofts in concert during their early years, from 1969 though 1973, became ardent life-long fans. They were a tremendous live act. Two seasoned professionals who were unique in style, sound, and approach. They exuded sincerity and authenticity and somehow managed to create a cone of intimacy into which the audience was drawn. Dash Crofts (a fitting name, but Flash Crofts would have been perfect) was engaging, extroverted, and a flamboyant dresser, and Jimmy Seals was quiet and cerebral. Once a disc jockey jokingly asked Jimmy, "So you're Dash's dad, right?" Jimmy and Dash exploded in laughter. They complemented each other in terms of music, voices, temperament, chemistry, and personality. As is often the case with popular music partnerships, they had a synergy that somehow rendered the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
As a testament to how good Seals & Crofts were live, think of them playing venues like the Fillmore as an opening act for high energy bands like Chicago and Procol Harum. Young people can be vicious when it comes to substitute teachers and opening acts. Imagine walking out on stage as an opening act in front a rock crowd with two chairs, a mandolin, an acoustic guitar with nylon strings, and a bassist. Wimps could not survive something like that. Not only did Seals & Crofts survive, they thrived, and consistently won over audiences. They tenaciously kept at it and built a fan base, impressed critics, and caught the attention of bookers. They actually opened for Delaney and Bonnie and Friends with Eric Clapton at the Fillmore East two night in a row on February 6th and 7th 1970. It must have gone well because six month later they again opened for Delaney and Bonnie and Friends in New York's Central Park. The New York Times reported on Aug 7th, 1970:
"Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, a joyous soulrock gospel ensemble, played a long concert Wednesday evening at Wollman Rink in Central Park... The group was joined for the evening by Herbie Mann
on flute, and Duane Allman
, who was outstanding on slide guitar. On the bill, too, was a fine folk and bluegrass performance by Seals & Crofts."
(Interesting factoid: Delaney Bramlett, Dash Crofts, and Jimmy Seals were once bandmates. After relocating to Los Angeles to break into the music business, Delaney Bramlett did a brief stint as a guitarist with the Champs before landing a gig in the house band on the television music show "Shindig!" It would be interesting to know if that played a role in Seals & Crofts opening for them.)
How Good Were They? A Fan's Perspective
Here's a note posted on the concert experiences section of the Seals & Crofts website that captures what they were like from a fan's perspective:
"I went to the Fillmore to see Procol Harum many times, always in the front row balcony. While I can't remember the exact date, I'm sure it was the Saturday show. I remember these two scruffy looking scamps take the stage with two chairs, a guitar and a mandolin. They seemed out of place and expectations were low. Well, that changed FAST. The voices, the harmonies, the pickin' (especially Dash on the mandolin). I became an instant fan. I saw them again at another Fillmore show I think, but that first time ever remains a highlight of my concert-going life. Down Home
remains one of my all time favorite albums."
For artists who were closer to them stylistically, they were formidable, here's another account from the Seals & Crofts website:
"We had heard of both Seals & Crofts and Kris Kristofferson but had little knowledge of their music. "The Celebrity" is a small theater in the round with a rotating stage, so every seat is a great one. Seals and Crofts opened for Kris Kristofferson. It was just the two of them, plus Bobby Litchtig on bass. They blew us away, especially Dash on mandolin and Seals on sax! When Kristofferson came out with his band, the first thing he said to the crowd, referring to the S&C performance, was: 'I feel like Flipper following Moby Dick.'"
How Good Were They? A Critic's Perspective
Such praise wasn't limited to fans. Here's a New York Times review from Nov. 15, 1971 (prior to their first big hit "Summer Breeze") that documents the duo's performance:
"Program of Songs By Seals & Crofts Expands Its Range" By Don Beckmannov "It has taken them a while, but Jim Seals and Dash Crofts Seals & Croftsare finally hitting their stride... the duo gradually has built its repertory and expanded its instrumentation. At Philharmonic Hall Friday night they played a program that ranged from jazz to blue grass on an array of instruments that included guitar, mandolin, piano, violin and alto saxophone."
"The singing of Seals & Crofts is equally distinctive. Dash Crofts, who generally carries the higher parts, has a penetrating edge to his ringing tenor voice that is surely one of the most easily identifiable sounds in pop music. And the harmonies are unusually complex, with the two voices mingling and crossing in what is, at times, quite respectable twopart counterpoint."
"Surging beneath their music like a powerful undertow is a strong jazz impulse. A tune like "Ridin' Thumb," [a Seals & Crofts composition covered by Ray Charles
and King Curtis
] with its riff like vamping and extended solos, swings with a subtle rhythmic intensity rare in rock. Even Jim Seals"s hoedown fiddle playing has the bite of a musician who hears his music in the articulations of jazz." "'Year of Sunday,' an extended work that describes the duos worldview religious beliefs, was a bit knotty for listeners who were principally concerned with clapping their hands and bouncing around the aisles; but it was a stunning musical accomplishment. It was a fine example of their attempt to build a truly diverse repertory."
Fast forward five years to 1974. In each of their first five years the duo released an album of original music. In broad strokes, these first five recordings were solid and stand the test of time very well. By their third album they had signed with Warner Brothers, and Louie Shelton was made producer. As a result, the production quality was then commensurate with the musicalthough the cover art for their first Warner Brothers album belongs in the what-in-the world-were-they-thinking category. Their fourth and fifth albums, Summer Breeze
1972 and Diamond Girl
1973 are masterpieces of popular music. Producer Louie Shelton's was able to thread the needle by remaining true to the sound and feel for which the artists were known, while using his knowledge and connections to bring their music to life and achieve commercial success.
For example, they recorded "Hummingbird" with strings, arranged by the legendary Marty Paich
, yet they were able to convincingly perform that hit single on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on Feb. 6, 1973 in the guitar, mandolin, bass formation.
Louie Shelton also had a great ear. In his interview
here on All About Jazz he shared this, "For an album to be successful, you had to have singles on the radio. That's what was missing on their first album, not that they didn't have them, but for some reason the singles didn't make it. It's funny, they had "Summer Breeze" and had played it for the guy who produced their first album. He didn't like the song. So when we were getting ready to start what became the Summer Breeze
album, Jimmy said, 'Well, I don't really have any songs, I've got this one, but nobody likes it.' So he starts playing "Summer Breeze," and I about flipped. I said, "Are you crazy? That's a hit song." It was the same with "Diamond Girl."
"Back before computers, Jimmy would make notes about songs and put them in the bottom of his guitar case. He might have a verse, or a chorus or whatever. Anyway, when were starting the Diamond Girl
album Jimmy said he didn't have anything except this, and starts playing the beginning of "Diamond Girl." I only heard two lines of it, but I told him to finish it, it was a great song. That's the way a lot of that stuff happened." Louie Shelton continued: "Initially Seals & Crofts had been considered kind of folky, but when I heard "Summer Breeze" I thought we could pump it up a bit. A&M was known for a softer sound, so I went to the Sound Factory studio where we had recorded the Jackson Five and a lot of Motown artists, and I used Dave Hassinger as the engineer because he got more of a punchy sound. That factor alone brought a lot to the record, plus I brought along session players that I knew well and had worked with, including Marty as an arranger."
In 1974 the Unborn Child
album marked a turning point in a couple of ways. The two young fathers with babies at home ignored warnings from their label and released a pro-life single "Unborn Child." It was a courageous move, but also a career threatening risk that resulted in the alienation of many fans, some bitter protests at their concerts, and boycotts of their music. In 1991 Jimmy Seals, when speaking to the LA Times with the advantage of hindsight, recognized that it might not have been the wisest of decisions:
"'Unborn Child,' Seals said, "was really just asking a question: What about the child? We were trying to say, 'This is an important issue,' that life is precious and that we don't know enough about these things yet to make a judgment."
"It was our ignorance that we didn't know that kind of thing was seething and boiling as a social issue. On one hand we had people sending us thousands of roses, but on the other people were literally throwing rocks at us. If we'd known it was going to cause such disunity, we might have thought twice about doing it. At the time it overshadowed all the other things we were trying to say in our music."
In fairness to their decision, before it was released they played the song in concert and the reaction wasn't hostile. For example, in 1973 they had hosted an episode of a very popular late night concert show on network television. Towards the end of the show they previewed "Unborn Child" and got a good reception, and the audience clapped enthusiastically when Dash announced they would probably title their next album Unborn Child
. Nonetheless, although the album landed at 14 in the charts, the single peaked at #66. The other single, "King of Nothing," languished at #60. It was an upbeat catchy tune with a style and horn arrangement that would have been a good fit for a singer like B.J. Thomas who sang, "Raindrop Keep Falling on my Head," but seemed out of place on a Seals & Crofts album.
They had stepped on their primary message of unity, and the resulting controversy and protests caused radio station programmers to avoid their music. They remained successful, but the arch of their career never quite recovered. In the ensuing years, with the exception of a Greatest Hits album, none of their six albums for Warner Brothers made it to the Top Twenty in the charts. They did manage one more Top Ten hit, "Get Closer" and two Top Twenty singles, "I'll Play for You," and a disco song "You're the Love." Despite the mass appeal of these singles, given the fact that their sincerity and authenticity had been their calling card, one could argue these singles cast a bit of a shadow on their image and legacy. Even so, despite the inconsistency in the style and caliber of some of their music after 1974, there were some excellent songs on their albums post 1974if you are interested in digging a little deeper, check the credits below this article for playlists. Lest I give you a false impression, their concerts (and backing musicians) were always excellent and they continued to draw five figure crowds throughout the 70s.
There were a number of successful popular musical groups in the early '70s who were "Jazz Adjacent." The Allman Brothers Band, Santana, Focus, Steely Dan, and Earth, Wind & Fire come to mind, and there are other examples. To varying degrees, these jazz adjacent groups drew upon jazz and incorporated elements of it in their music. I've referred to such groups here on All About Jazz as gateway bands who expanded their fans' musical awareness and opened them up to jazz.
At times Seals & Crofts were definitely jazz adjacent, but I can understand readers who only know them from the radio smirking at this statement. Let's return to 1974, specifically to Ontario, California to what was then one of the biggest and financially most successful music festivals in historyCalifornia Jam. The crowd present was estimated to be between 300,000 and 400,000. Additionally, the audio was simulcast on FM radio in Los Angeles, and the video was shown on ABC's late night "In Concert" series a few months later. In the video below you will see what I mean about Seals & Crofts being jazz-adjacentin front of 400,000 rock fans. That is followed by a concert two days later in Seattle
, Washington playing another jazz piece to a rock audience.
Before those clips you can experience a bit of sweet irony. Jimmy Seals, a self taught saxophonist, was not allowed to play in his high school band because he couldn't read music. That very same Jimmy Seals appeared on stage with the legendary Dizzy Gillespie. This happened in 1971 at a Bahá'í Conference in the Caribbean. Dizzy Gillespie and Mike Longo
, his decades long band mate and collaborator, were also Bahá'ís. Interestingly, their spiritual awakening mirrored Seals and Crofts.'
In his autobiography To Be or Not to Bop
Dizzy wrote: "When I encountered the Baha'i Faith, it all went along with what I had always believed. I believed in the oneness of mankind. I believed we all come from the same source, that no race of people is inherently superior to any other. I became more spiritually aware, and when you're spiritually aware, that will be reflected in what you do...What is more appropriate than a musician being in tune with nature and with our Creator? The best example is the way that they perform; how do they come up with things that have never been played before? Where did they get it? They have to have some kind of divine inspiration."
Seals & Crofts' lyrics were at times remarkably sophisticated for a pop duo. Here, for example, are the lyrics of the song "Ledges" from the 1974 Unborn Child
album. They read them aloud as a poem on the 1973 late night television concert series mentioned previously. They explained to the audience that they liked the poem, but doubted they would ever be able to put it to music. They didit's is included in the jazz-adjacent playlist in the credits. "Do not scoff at love's bitter edges, for they in themselves bear witness
To an age of bygone fancy, where tear-stained forests rushed into their evening to pout
For they were without the grass they love to touch, they love to touch"
"Glistening in the sun, rainbow betrothed to the sky.
On mystic wings I have soared past ledges
And in myself I bear witness, to an age of bygone fancy
Where burn-out stars hid their faces in shame.
And planets turned their backs and were unholy
And without reason and love"
Calling it Quits
MTV launched the "Unplugged" series in 1989 after a decade of big hair, synthesizers, drum machines, and heavy guitar effects. Twenty years after Seals & Crofts released their first album, the public embraced the purity and authenticity of unplugged music. In 1992 Eric Clapton revived his career with an appearance on "Unplugged," and the accompanying album sold an amazing 26 million copies.
Seals & Crofts' early appeal to audiences had been based upon the "human touch" that made "Unplugged" so popular. There was, however, one very important difference. In 1969 they weren't established stars performing their hits on acoustic instruments to adoring fansthey were unknown, unplugged, and unstoppable.
Their final album for Warner Brothers in 1980 was a far cry from their early years. They seemed to be struggling to find their way in the changing musical landscape. It's telling that their final album was the first and only one without a single writing contribution from Dash Crofts. Jimmy Seals wrote two songs, and collaborated with keyboardist Brian Whitcomb on six songs.
I'm not the first to note that the lyrics to a song they covered, "If and Any Day" by Michael Sembello, Marietta Waters, unintentionally fit their situation: "Tell me how did I lose my way? Isn't there a door that leads to yesterday? Oh, how did I lose my way? Isn't there a door that opens into another day?"
The production and performances were not the problem, rather the material and arrangements, with a couple of exceptions, simply didn't fit them. Nonetheless, a few of the songs had potential and with a bit of grit and funk could have worked well for artists like James Ingram and Michael McDonald
. For jazz fans there was a noteworthy highlight on their final album, Chick Corea
and Stanley Clarke
came in for the track "Stars" which you can find in the jazz-adjacent playlist below. Looking back, Jimmy Seals shared this with the LA Times:
"Around 1980 we were still drawing 10,000 to 12,000 people at concerts. But we could see, with this change coming where everybody wanted dance music, that those days were numbered. We just decided that it was a good time, after a long run at it, to lie back and not totally commit ourselves to that kind of thing because we were like (fish) out of water."
"I was completely out of good material. What I had was so bad that we said: 'Why spend the money to go in and (record) this, knowing that nobody's going to like it, and we're not pleased with it?' If it isn't something you respond to yourself, you can't get that excited about doing it for others."
Louie Shelton shared this in our 2010 All About Jazz interview:
"It was so interesting when I was living in Nashville, some of the universities across America would contact me and say, "We're getting our spring entertainment together, and the students voted to have Seals & Crofts perform, and we have a budget of $30,000, $60,000 or whatever, are they available?" Unfortunately, I'd have to write them back and explain that, yes they're available, but they aren't performing together anymore."
Dash Crofts explained their decision to Tony Bentivegna in a year 2000 interview for the Seals & Crofts website:
"I know we could be making a lot of money and we could be touring and all that but, you know, when you get to a point where you think you said everything you want to say, then it's like beating a dead horse. It's fun, yeah, we loved everything, we love to write and perform and record, but sometimes silence is better than other things. We stopped when we were pretty much in the flow, you know, rather than having to struggle and go back, and do this and that. We just decided that this would be a good time to stop traveling. I mean, we traveled for 30 years! We traveled with The Champs. We did The Dawnbreakers, The Mushrooms. We did Seals and Crofts."
Given their lack of new material, their uncertainty about trends in the 80s, and their decision to pack it in, in retrospect it would have been great for them to have gone out with a bang. Had they not already released a live album in 1976, there would have been a possibility that would have left the door open to occasional tours. Imagine if they had filmed and recorded a couple of farewell concerts in top quality at a packed theater with great acoustics and lighting. Three distinct sets, the first set featuring rock songs with energy, which they certainly had. Followed by a break with an acoustic second set, initially as a trio with the rest of the band on acoustic instruments gradually joining them. Finally, a jazz-adjacent third set heavy on instrumentalsas an encore, fiddle music. That would have been a worthy sendoff for these two remarkable performers and songwriters.
As it is, 2019 marks the 50 year anniversary of their first album, and you're invited to rediscover and celebrate their music.
Seals & Crofts Playlists
- YouTube Seals & Crofts Jazz-Adjacent Playlist
- YouTubeSeals & Crofts Beyond the Hits, 15 Essential Songs
- YouTubeSeals & Crofts After 197410 Definite Keepers
Credits & Sources
- Seals & Crofts website an invaluable source of information about all things relating to Seals & Crofts, the site also has a detailed history of the Champs, and an interview with Dash Crofts.
- Photo: Original base photo by Mark Neal from Pexels.com, free use stock image. Collage and effects A .Bryson
- www.thompsonian.info/sealcrof.html Thompsonian Seals & Crofts page excellent collection of resource links relating to Seals & Crofts.
- Grayflannelsuit this blog has a thoughtful guide to the music of Seals & Crofts.
- Los Angeles Times 1991 interview with Jim Seals
- All About Jazz, Louie Shelton: In Session, January 27, 2010 Quoted above, but the interview contains additional information about Seals & Crofts and Glen Campbell.
- Website of the guitarist Marty Walsh whose first guitar solo on a major recording was the song "Thunderfoot" on the Seals & Crofts album Sudan Village. He has worked as a guitarist with other groups such as Super Tramp and is currently an assistant professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. On his website he shares behind the scenes photos and insights from touring with Seals & Crofts and reveals the surprising origin of the name "Thunderfoot."
- Huelyn Duvall's first hand account of the "Tequila" recording session
- New York Times Aug 7, 1970 article on the Delaney & Bonnie concert in Central Park.
- New York Times Program of Songs By Seals & Crofts Expands Its Range, by Don Beckmannov Nov. 15, 1971.
- People Magazine article about Seals & Crofts from 1976
- Dan Seals profile page
- Bahá'í World News Service Hearing "the Divinity in the music": Dizzy Gillespie remembered at 100
- Website of the Bahá'ís of the United States source used for information about the Bahá'í Faith.