Hard times

For Son Seals, moments on stage offer a respite from his troubles

Chicago Tribune

June 15, 1997

By Steve Knopper

Son Seals stands at center stage of a dark blues club, a guitar strapped to his body and a band at his back.

His droopy eyes stare straight ahead, past the spotlights, into the crowd of people swaying to the music. His thick, calloused fingers move quickly down the guitar neck. Seals steps to the microphone.

"I got a bad feeling," he sings, "that my baby don't love me no more."

From the bar stools at B.L.U.E.S. Etc., the North Side club where the 54-year-old blues singer regularly performs, nobody can see exactly how bad this feeling is. Seals has had a bullet lodged beneath his right ear since early January, when his wife, Johnnie, shot him in the jaw.

The small lump under his ear no longer hurts, he says later backstage, smoking a cigar. Seals was lucky -- the bullet missed his tongue, so he can still sing -- but he has a mouthful of broken teeth and faces long-term dental work.

"It wasn't too difficult getting back on a stage," says Seals, who has been performing regularly since early February and has summer tours planned in Hawaii and Europe. "In fact, I get some consolation out of it. I forget myself for a minute."

He can't say as much for his home life. "You can't be at peace like that," says Junior Wells, the great Chicago blues harpist who has been close to Seals since they toured Europe together years ago. "You can't lay around because she could do it to you again. I just hope that everything turns out all right for him."

Seals still sleeps, most nights, in the same bed where he says he woke up Jan. 5 with searing pain in his mouth and blood over the pillow. He still lives in the same South Side apartment where the shooting happened. And whatever Seals' home used to look like, it's now a shambles.

Tape covers a bullet hole in the big front window. Sometime last fall, Seals says, somebody fired inside while Johnnie Seals and her 5-year-old grandson were home. Nobody was hurt, but he says he keeps the hole in the window, and a chipped wooden beam near the ceiling, in case the police return for evidence. Still, he plays down the problems of the neighborhood, where he has owned this building and the flat next door for the past decade.

"Those gang-banging sons of (expletive)," says Seals. "They're everywhere. That could happen any place."

Seals speaks slowly, in a low tone, considerably lower than the soprano shouts his fans know so well. He politely answers questions about ancient history -- yes, that's him playing drums on Albert King's classic album "Live Wire Blues Power"; yes, he was the third artist ever to record for Chicago's influential Alligator Records -- even though he has obviously answered them all many times before. But when the subject of his wife is broached, he throws up his hands and paces quickly around the house.

The house is in such disarray, he says, because Johnnie Seals returned while he was in the hospital to steal most of the valuables. (In legal statements, she has denied the allegations.) The kitchen shelves, which Seals says used to be full of nice dishes, contain nothing but paper plates and plastic shopping bags. The only remaining piece of china in a living room cabinet is a flowery tray cracked down the middle.

But the memories, he says, are the worst part about living at home. "It was hell to come back there and sleep in that bed. At first it was really, really spooky for a while," Seals says. "But I'm not going to be scared out of my house.

"You know, it's strange," he says. "I've had dreams, but not about that incident. Mostly about (Johnnie) and me in different situations. But not about that. Thank God for that."

There's a certain warmth and familiarity to the home. Triumphant pictures of Seals, playing guitar in various stages of his career, with his head reared back and hair full of sweat, line the walls. "See this?" he says, pointing to a framed black-and-white picture of a small wooden house. "This is the house I was born in. I think now they've torn it down."

Seals says he bought his Chicago apartment building, and the one next door, 10 years ago as an insurance investment against an accident. He has escaped physical harm in the past, surviving a 1974 train crash while touring Norway and enduring a pin in his left middle finger after a recent car accident. Seals, who grew up watching Robert Nighthawk and Albert King play his father's Osceola, Ark., jukejoint, has occasionally lived the prototypical bluesman's hard-luck life.

In January, the worst pain came when Seals returned home after a week in the hospital. He was confined to his living room.

"Weekends were the worst," he recalls. "I was sitting in my chair with my jaw wired shut. I could see the club -- I knew by looking at the clock they were in there playing."

Friends and relatives, worried about his inactivity, encouraged him to leave the house, go to the bars, see the crowds, maybe sit in with a band. He tried -- but it was January, this is Chicago, and "every time that air would hit my mouth, it would give me the blues sure enough."

Although his attorney advised him not to talk publicly about the case, Seals can't resist a few general comments.

"Let's just say she hasn't told things the way it happened," he says. "You may know what you did, but you can't lie to the Almighty. And I got some consolation in that. It's a bad thing when you start lying, because you have to lie to everybody."

Police levied five felony charges against Johnnie Seals -- including attempted first-degree murder and armed violence. But where Seals says his wife shot him in his sleep without provocation, Johnnie Seals' attorneys say she woke him up to confront him about an alleged affair. They say he then went into a rage and grabbed his gun; she struggled to take it away and, by chance, it hit him and not her.

Chicago attorney Raymond Prusak, who's handling Johnnie Seals' criminal defense, says Seals, an acknowledged gun collector, is "goofy with guns" and prone to violence. Seals has no criminal record in Chicago.

Seals' attorney, Chicago-based John L. Malevitis, says there was no verbal conversation before Johnnie Seals shot her sleeping husband in the face.

The blues, meanwhile, is a comfortable escape from Seals' difficult home life, legal worries and tormented memory.

On the stage at B.L.U.E.S. Etc., Seals rarely smiles, rarely says anything, just sings and punctuates the verses with sharp, high-pitched guitar solos. He has performed this song, Elmore James' "The Sky Is Crying," hundreds of times -- and he doesn't need dental work to play it exactly the right way. "The sky is crying," he sings. "Look at the tears roll down the street."

"He's got a strong will," Wells says. "He's just like me. This is my whole life. I love the music. If I don't have music -- if I can't play music -- I'd rather be dead. He loves what he's doing. That's it. That's what he lives for."