RIP: We’ll Play for You

If I set out to compile a list of the best musical families, several obvious names would come first (and then the Interweb would flood me with dozens of others): the Jacksons, the Carter/Cash family, the Osmonds (stop laughing), the Van Zants, the Gibbs, the Marleys, the Nevilles, the Drinkards (known to us as the Warwicks and the Houstons), the Wilsons, the Phillips’z, etc. And if I go back far enough the Bachs; including JS, PDQ and BR549.

I studied several lists of musical dynasties and family bands, looking for one name in particular. I didn’t find it, but I should have.

The Seals family has produced more music than just about any family not named the Jacksons. Jimmy and Danny Seals were brothers; Troy and Brady Seals, along with Johnny Duncan, were cousins. This West Texas family of pickers and grinners burned a swath across folk, pop and country music from the late 1950s into the 21st century and ranked behind only the Gibb family as late-seventies chart hoggers.

I’ll take a minute to go through the main cast.

Troy Seals was a prolific songwriter from the early 1960s into the new century; he wrote 43 songs that are listed on Wikipedia (yes, that’s a lot).

Among his hits are “Seven Spanish Angels” for Ray Charles and Willie Nelson; “Lost in the Fifties Tonight” for Ronnie Milsap; “Bayou Boys” and “Joe Knows How to Live” for Eddie Raven; “I’ve Got a Rock and Roll Heart” for Eric Clapton; “Country ‘til I Die” for John Anderson; “I Won’t Need You Anymore” for Randy Travis; “Maybe Your Baby’s Got the Blues” for the Judds; “When We Make Love” for Alabama; “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” for George Jones; “There’s a HonkeyTonk Angel Who’ll Take Me Back In” for Waylon Jennings; “We Had it All,” covered by Waylon, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles and the Rolling Stones; and a long string of hits for Conway Twitty.

Brady Seals had a couple of minor hits as a solo artist and a long career as the lead singer of the band, “Hot Apple Pie,” but he is best-known for his work with 1990s country supergroup Little Texas. He played keyboards, shared lead/harmony vocals and wrote or co-wrote all of their hits during his six years with the band. The band foundered after he left for a solo career in 1994.

Danny Seals came to prominence as England Dan in the mid-1970s; England Dan was a childhood nickname, given to him by his brother Jimmy when Danny was caught faking a British accent to sing Beatles songs. England Dan and partner John Colley (stage name John Ford Coley) produced four top ten Billboard hits, reaching the top 40 nine times. They peaked at number two with their debut song, “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight.” The duo also hit number one four times on the Adult Contemporary charts.

After Seals and Colley split in 1980, Dan had a tremendous second career as a country music artist, hitting number one 11 times including nine in a row. His recording career didn’t survive the “new country” explosion in 1991, but he continued to tour until cancer got him in 2009. Danny wrote six of his 11 country number ones, including “Love on Arrival” and “Everything that Glitters (Is Not Gold).”

Jimmy Seals was the quiet, blonde, cabbie hat and sideburns half of the iconic 1970s duo “Seals and Crofts.” The duo is most famous for their hits “Summer Breeze,” Diamond Girl” and “Get Closer;” all three songs peaked at number six on the Billboard top 40 and number four on the Adult Contemporary charts. Two other songs, “We May Never Pass This Way Again” and “You’re the Love,” reached the two-spot on the AC charts. They also charted 13 albums between 1969 and 1978.

A fifth cousin, Johnny Duncan, grew up playing with Troy and Jimmy and got his start in the business as a songwriter. He never achieved much renown as a writer, but as a singer he charted 39 singles on the Billboard country charts between 1967 and 1986. Most of his biggest hits came between 1976 and 1980, including all three of his chart-toppers. I mostly remember him for his duets with Janie Fricke (“Stranger” and “Come a Little Bit Closer”).

The Seals family traits were prolific songwriting and virtuoso musicality. Troy was a session guitarist and background singer. Danny was a versatile guitarist and a sought-after duet partner because of his vocal versatility. Brady was a concert pianist. Danny, Jimmy and Johnny Duncan had big hits as part of duos, and Brady was the keystone of one of the best harmony groups ever.

Jimmy was most versatile musician of the bunch, I think. He learned how to play the violin when he was six; his parents bought him one out of the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. According to legend, he already knew where to put his fingers. He said that he imagined playing the violin in a dream.

He also played saxophone, guitar and mandolin and he was (of course) a prolific songwriter, writing or co-writing virtually every song in the Seals and Crofts songbook. Jimmy usually wrote the lyrics and collaborated with Dash Crofts on the music.

Jimmy, who died yesterday, may be the most prominent musician from the American Rock n Roll era who does not have his own Wikipedia page. A quiet, unassuming guy who looked like he should be a backup singer with the Irish Rovers, he never seemed all that interested in the spotlight. Had he not met up with Dash  — a far more intense, outgoing presence — he likely would have wound up in the room next to Troy, writing songs for other people.

I have a six degrees of Kevin Bacon connection to Jimmy Seals, or rather to the Seals family. Many of them are active in the Bahá’í faith, and they often performed at jamborees and conventions. Seals and Crofts shared the faith, and often appeared together.

In a past life, I was married to a woman who grew up in the Bahá’í church, and she knew the family. We talked about them from time to time, and she’d talk about how friendly and inviting they were. Even after they were famous, they would still come to the jamborees and sit for hours in guitar circles, playing and singing with anyone who came and sat down.

Rest in peace, peaceful brother. Thanks for all music, and thanks for being real, in a world a little too full of fake sincerity.

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