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Talent, Tenacity, Tequila & a Tale of Two Texas Teenagers

Alan Bryson By

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"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."

Recordings

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 music—although 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."

Things Change

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 1974—if 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.

Jazz Adjacent

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 history—California 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-adjacent—in 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 did—it'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 fans—they were unknown, unplugged, and unstoppable.

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