From pop to country success, Dan Seals made his own path By Peter Cooper THE TENNESSEAN
Dan Seals wasn’t particularly interested in being correct.
The singer-songwriter, who died on Wednesday evening at age 61, played a 12-string guitar that had only eight strings. It was a right-handed guitar, and he played it left-handed. “Upside down, and backwards,” as he used to say.
Texas born and raised, he called himself “England Dan” when he was in a duo that recorded hit pop songs like “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight” in a Hendersonville studio. His first solo No. 1 hit was a country song about be-bop dancing, and he followed that with a five-minute ballad about a rodeo sweetheart. He was hilarious offstage, and somber on it.
“He could do anything he wanted to do,” said keyboard player Shane Keister, who recorded and performed with Mr. Seals for decades. “That’s the mark of a true artist: They find where their path leads.”
Mr. Seals’ path lead through halcyon days in the 1970s, when he and duo partner John Ford Coley scored with smooth pop hits such as “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight” and “We’ll Never Have To Say Goodbye Again.” And then it led through Nashville. Here, he began the 1980s broke and sleeping under a friend’s piano and ended the decade having scored nine No. 1 Billboard country hits, including “Bop,” “Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold),” “Three Time Loser” and “Addicted.”
The path, or at least the part of it that can be known by the living, ended Wednesday in Nashville after a lengthy battle with cancer. Seals and his friend and manager, Tony Gottlieb, had talked about the musician’s impending death as if it were a particularly important gig to be played.
“That was the metaphor for him passing,” Gottlieb said. “He died right at 8:30 p.m. Showtime.”
Mr. Seals’ life in music began when he stood on an apple crate and played stand-up bass in the family band. Not knowing that guitars could be strung in reverse to be played left-handed, he learned to play the instrument in a manner that was never taught by music teachers. He played in bands in high school, and in 1965 came to Nashville and recorded at RCA Studio B as The Shimmerers.
That group ultimately became rock band Southwest F.O.B. (short for “Freight On Board”), which featured Mr. Seals and friend John Ford Colley — that name was later altered to Coley — and Southwest F.O.B. wound up opening shows for acts including Led Zeppelin.
“Dan had one of the finest voices I’ve ever heard, and he could do so many things with it,” Coley said. “He could sing R&B, sing the rock things when we opened for Zeppelin, and sing soft ballads, always with his own style. He played sax in the F.O.B., and he was a phenomenal sax player. And when he played guitar, he played it upside down and could make chords I couldn’t begin to make.”
The F.O.B. became England Dan (he loved The Beatles and sometimes sang in a British accent) and John Ford Coley, a duo that took off for California because older brother Jim Seals was having pop success as half of duo Seals & Croft on A&M Records.
Connections were made, bargains were struck, and by 1972 Mr. Seals and Coley had a hit in Japan with “Simone.” In America, though, they struggled.
“We were poor, and working on that rock musician ’emaciated’ look,” Coley said. “We’d take guitar strings off and boil them to try to extend their lives. Dan had a 12-string guitar, and he strummed it when he’d taken four of the strings off and it sounded really rich. We figured that if he only needed eight strings, that was four less that he had to buy.”
The A&M deal didn’t work out, and Mr. Seals and Coley wound up in Hendersonville, at Lee Hazen’s Studio By The Pond, working with producer Kyle Lehning. Mr. Seals walked in, told Lehning that what he really wanted to do was make a country record, and then sang “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight.” Doug Morris of Big Three Records heard the song and signed the band.
England Dan and John Ford Coley charted six top 10 adult contemporary singles between 1976 and 1979. When the duo broke up, Mr. Seals inherited lawsuits and debts, and he wound up bankrupt. Solo pop projects Stones and Harbinger produced no hits, and Seals became busted in Nashville. The Internal Revenue Service seized most of his assets. He told The Tennessean that the IRS left him with his Karmann Ghia automobile, ” ’cause it was worthless.” He slept at friends’ houses, or under a piano at Gottlieb’s Morningstar studio in Hendersonville.
“Under a piano, as long as it doesn’t fall on you, is a nice place to sleep, because you don’t hear a lot of noise under there, ringing phones and stuff,” he told The Tennessean in 1987.
But Liberty Records offered a deal and stuck with Mr. Seals through three low-charting singles in 1983. In 1984, “God Must Be A Cowboy” broke into the top 10, and Mr. Seals’ career had new life. With Lehning producing, Mr. Seals went on a remarkable run of hits of a layered and literary nature that would seem at odds with commercial success.
“The song had to stir him emotionally,” Gottlieb said. “If it didn’t raise the hair up on the back of his neck, it wasn’t in consideration.”
Lehning said, “He pushed excellence in every aspect of the recording process. In the studio, he had a constant, light-hearted seriousness. Everything had to pass muster.”
Mr. Seals’ 1985 duet with Marie Osmond, “Meet Me In Montana,” was his first country No. 1. He and Osmond won the CMA’s top vocal duo prize, and solo hit “Bop” became the CMA’s single of the year in 1986. The run continued with seven more No. 1 hits, then a No. 5 with “They Rage On,” then two more No. 1’s in 1990.
“He enjoyed his success, but it didn’t rule him,” Lehning said. “He loved fly fishing as much as being onstage and singing, and he wasn’t consumed by the business.”
The run ended later in 1990, and Mr. Seals never scored another top 10 hit. The record company hierarchy changed, and Mr. Seals left for Warner Bros. to little success. He carried on as a touring act. In later years, he and brother Jim toured as Seals & Seals. And then he was diagnosed with something called mantle cell lymphoma.
“I was really proud of Dan because he went off and made a career of his own in country music,” Coley said. “I told him that many times. I knew he was destined for other things, that England Dan and John Ford Coley wouldn’t be the end for him. We talked before he passed away. We were able to tell one another that we loved each other.”
A public memorial service will be held 1-3 p.m. Saturday at the Baha’I Center, 1556 Bell Road in Antioch.