YOU COMIN? Sitting in with Son Seals

YOU COMIN? is an excerpt from  SKINNY -DIPPING WITH JOHN LENNON
by Carolena de la Norte

Carolena  ‘Juicy Flute’

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1983.

“Okay young lady, now before I let you onstage with me, play me some blues.”

I sit backstage, really just a cubbyhole off stage right. It’s a plain small holding area, teeming with the echoes of many masters who’ve passed through this small but famous live music venue in the heart of Harvard Square. Graffiti-splashed walls are the backdrop and the stale smell of a million smoked cigarettes permeates the air. I view a grizzled visage. I peer straight across into world-weary, watery eyes and study their corners, because that’s where the truth always lies.

Stark fluorescent lighting illuminates all too clearly every single detail of the man questioning me. Jeri-curl. Over-generous hangdog pout surrounded by dark facial hair, kinda like Bluto from the Popeye cartoons. Beefy silhouette. Dark bluesman vest. Solid. Substantial. Slightly hunched forward in his chair just inches from my seat, focusing his full attention on me as I release my flute from its case and begin to assemble it.

His searching of me is native, invasive – what does he want? He’s looking for a clue as to whether or not I can play, if I could actually cut it, and wants his answer right now. I can see by the set of his jaw that bullshit is given no quarter here, not even a dime. In the back of my head I’m vaguely aware of a past/present/future collision taking place and then I’m grabbed by this sucking, sinking feeling, like when you’re falling fast in a dream and then suddenly wake up. Jesus, am I trembling? Clearly this is a decisive moment in my life, and the gravitas of it all threatens to submerge me.

I am in the commanding presence of Son Seals. Arkansas-born, raised in his daddy’s blues club, he is one of the few authentic heirs to the legacy of all those gritty electric blues greats. The Albert Kings, the Willie Dixons. Just one generation removed and still embodying their essence, preserving it, carrying on the tradition. Living it. You have to live The Life, there’s just no other way, and it’s a hard life. No sir, they do not come any more authentic than him.

We were in Jonathan Swift’s, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a high-profile 180-seat-capacity nightclub that regularly hired top-notch national blues acts, as well as the creme de la creme of jazz, oldies revival groups, rock, soul – anything that could sell out the basement venue’s two nightly shows. The place was a hot spot.

Carolena de la Norte, photo by BJ Pappas

Carolena de la Norte, photo by BJ Pappas

I was 23 and had a job there as a cocktail waitress. The place attracted a young music-loving staff, with several aspiring musicians among them, myself included. Fresh off my studies at the lauded jazz institute Berklee College of Music in Boston, this seemed a good place to get familiar with the business, plus the money was good. Hard-earned, but good enough.

Two of our bouncers, Jim ‘Studebaker’ and ‘Joey D.’ were drummers who had already been working there for a while when I was hired, and they had trail-blazed this cool situation where they would occasionally ‘sit-in’ with some of the blues bands that came through our club. A long-standing tradition in the blues, ‘sitting-in’ allows an invited random player the chance to join the band for a number, mixing things up a bit and giving some experience and exposure to the ‘sitter-inner’. Sometimes the jammers would even cop a gig that way. I applauded Jim and Joey’s genius; what a great opportunity to hone their chops and get known, and right there in the comfort of their own home away from home to boot! Smart. In the future both of them would go on to achieve quite a bit of success as professional musicians.

It had never really occurred to me to try and take advantage of those ‘sitting-in’ opportunities at work. Being a flute player, it seemed too incongruous to try and fit in with those hardcore blues bands – blues and flute, it’s not really the first thing that comes to mind, know what I mean? Fate intervened, however, at the beginning of this one night. While setting up my station in preparation for the onslaught of customers, I was chatting with the drummer of tonight’s band, Willie, and mentioned that I play flute. Turned out the sax man that night, ‘Red,’ also played flute, so the group was familiar with my instrument. Willie offered, “Why don’t you sit-in with us tonight? I’ll set it up with Son, the leader of the band. I’ll take care of everything, don’t worry about nuthin.” So I said, “Okay.”

Sitting backstage I’m thinking, hmmm, what the fuck! Blues, what exactly is that anyway? I think about my studies. About Miles Davis, John Coltrane – jazz blues. They talked a lot about playing ‘a blues’ in school. But no, that wasn’t what the gruff, daunting, Chicago guitar-slinging, growling, snarling Mr. Seals is looking for. He’s talking THE BLUES, not ‘a blues’. Very. Different. Animal.

I screw up my courage and summon up my experiences of fighting. I recall all the busking I did during my college years. Fighting to grab someone’s ear as they hustled by me on their way to where ever, trying to get their attention for a moment, just a moment, please just one little moment of your time – that’s all I’m asking for! Getting them to stop and hear my flute and like it. Fighting so hard to block out all the hubbub around me. How painfully hard I had to blow just to be heard over the urban back-drop…

So I blow. With all my might. After a few seconds, Son stops me with a “Whoa, whoa, whoa there!” Figures, I think – I blew it. But then, miraculously, Son smiles. “Save it for the stage,” he says.

Now it’s a couple of songs into the set and I’m standing at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the stage. My mind is flooded with possibilities. Maybe it won’t happen, my brain taunts. Maybe it was a mean joke on me, maybe there was never any intention of letting me play (could he really lie with such viscosity?), maybe he changed his mind, maybe he’ll forget to call me, may-Oops! There it is. Son gives me the nod.

Carolena, Red, and Son Seals

Carolena, Red Groetzinger, and Son Seals.   Photo by Jay Miller

I eagerly jump up there. Happy, that’s how I’m feeling, elated. But then, how funny – from the audience, the stage looks to be a only few feet high (which it is), yet standing on the periphery of the band now looking out over the packed house, I get this surreal sensation of towering over the seated figures at my feet. The colorful brightness and blazing heat of the stage lights along with that vertigo induce a sort of waking swoon over me. Someone points to a microphone reserved for my use. I snap to, and gingerly step around cables and other musicians to find my mark.

The band cooks, pumping out blues as they were born to do. My eyes are glued on the leader as his bad-ass, low slung, semi-hollow body Guild guitar slices up the joint, searing the air. Son looks over at me indicating that I should take a solo. My adrenaline level is through the roof – damn those shaky legs! But I do what I have to do: squeeze my eyes tight shut, force out my blues with wild bursts of air into the flute. In short, I play that singing silver bitch as best I can, that’s what I do. I go on feel and a bit of the blues scale. Lucky for me, this music is mostly played in ‘open’ keys, meaning guitar-friendly, and these typical blues keys of A, E, and G lay beautifully on flute as well; my fingers fall naturally into the appropriate scales.

I finish my solo, for which Son has generously allotted a nice chunk of time. I pick up on parts that Red is playing and try to complement them. At the end of the song, I am bid to stay and play another and I hang in there with more of the same. As I get ready to return to my duties I hear clapping, and for the first time I experience the back and forth exchange of love between musician and an emotionally involved, rapt and raucous audience. Man, does that ever feel good!

I return to my station to finish out the night passing out beers and collecting quarter tips from sometimes surprised looking customers. Some realize that I was just on stage and give me props, some are obliviously drunk. But the most important thing would be the reaction of just one man, Jim Seals’ boy, Frank ‘Son’ Seals.

After the last song of the night, the band retires backstage for a breather. I ditch my station and dash across the club to see how they are doing, secretly hoping for another chance to play. Yeah, I was hooked already. I see to it that the musicians are okay with drinks and all, then just chill out and check their vibe at the moment. I notice that it’s an unusual feeling, everything suddenly muted. Hearts are still racing from the show but they’re spent, need a little time to re-gather some strength before going back up. The muffled applause from the next room sounds distant, minuscule, like the crinkling of potato chip bags. You feel it, the audience wants more. But Son takes his time, makes them wait until they whip themselves into a frenzy.

[pullquote]You feel it, the audience wants more. But Son takes his time, makes them wait until they whip themselves into a frenzy.[/pullquote]

After a few minutes, the noise has reached a crescendo and Son gets up, ready to give ’em what they’re demanding. I watch the backs of the musicians as head up the few steps to re-take the stage, feeling like a puppy dog that’s been left behind in a store window. Good luck, guys…

Son pauses at the bottom of the stairs as if he remembers something, guitar around his neck at the ready. He looks back over his shoulder at me, raises his eyebrows and gruffs out an expectant, “Well, you comin’?”

Years later, Son Seals, after refusing doctor’s orders to give up alcohol, fell into a diabetic coma, recovered, quit drinking, lost a buncha weight (thinner and even more imposing, I thought), went back out on the road, got shot in the face by his wife when she found out he was cheating, recovered, went back out on the road, and finally ran out of lives when a heart-attack claimed his last one. He left a legacy of tough, joyful music on Alligator Records.

Thanks, Son. You turned me out, showed me how to reach across the edge of a stage to an audience and showed me the generous nature of some musicians. I suspect you wouldn’t have considered it much more than a handshake, or maybe just bringing up one of the ‘green ones’ into the fold, but your influence on my life was both cathartic and essential. I wonder if you know how much it meant to me.

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BG is a free magazine bringing you stories about Buddy Guy's Legends, blues music, and music generally. Please direct submissions to buddyguyslegends@gmail.com for consideration.

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