Jim Seals, the sweet and graceful, soft-spoken rocker of hardscrabble, Texas, died Monday of unknown causes. He was eighty years old. He is survived by his wife, Ruby; their three children, Joshua, Juliet and Sutherland; and his longtime musical partner, Dash Crofts. Together, the two helped create something that changed America forever: 70s rock.
For years I’ve been fascinated by Jim, one half of Seals and Crofts, one of the greatest soft-rock bands of all time, especially after discovering where he grew up: the small oil towns of the West Texas. Add to that the fact that Jim’s younger brother, Dan, grew up to be half of another one of the greatest soft-rock bands of all time (England Dan and John Ford Coley), and I had to know: how did the smoothest, prettiest pop music come from the roughest part of Texas?
I spent a few months in 2019 trying to figure this out. I visited the small towns of Iran, McCamey and Rankin and talked to the folks at the Rankin museum in the old Yates hotel, where they remembered “Jimmy” as a kid playing the violin and sax who was one of the first locals to grow his hair long in the 1950s. I also spent a day with Jim and his wife Ruby in Hendersonville. They divided their time between this suburb of Nashville and Costa Rica, where they raised their three children. Jim wasn’t in very good health – he had suffered a stroke in 2017 – but they welcomed me into their home. We sat on the back deck among mockingbirds and bougainvillea. Jim had an excellent memory, although sometimes Ruby, who had been with him since 1969, gently nudged him. His voice was soft and calm. “It was James Brown’s songs that attracted me,” he said. “Don’t forget you’re recorded,” Ruby was saying, and speaking up.
Jim talked about the three small towns he grew up in, living in gun shacks and eating the squirrels his father, Wayland, hunted. He talked about the jam sessions Wayland would host at their home, where families from Ohio and Virginia would sit down and play the tunes they remembered where they came from. He talked about playing old country songs with Wayland and Dan. Ruby said, “You have to tell him how you got the violin and how you learned to play it.”
And he did. His stories were incredible. He played with West Texas characters like Bozo Darnell and Dean Beard – and Wayland, who released some stunning hard-country 45s at the end of the fifties. He told me he heard rock and roll and learned to play sax from Little Richard. He remembers meeting drummer Dash Crofts and playing with the Champs, who were big stars because of “Tequila.” At that first show, when Jim was fifteen, fans ripped off half their clothes, he said. “It was like Beatlemania.” In the early sixties, he and Dash moved to Los Angeles, joined the Baha’i Faith, and Jim met Ruby. Jim and Dash were tired of rock and roll, and the two sat down with acoustic instruments and sang in harmony to Jim’s elegant and majestic songs. In my 2020 Texas monthly story, I wrote that “they had been playing together for so long that they finished each other’s phrases and heard harmonies in each other’s melodies”. Soon they had developed a new way of singing and playing, and America had a new soft-rock sound.
After Seals and Crofts separated, Jim and Ruby raised their children and Jim played with Dan, who had become a major country star in Nashville (he died of lymphoma in 2009). When Jim’s stroke rendered him unable to act, he began to paint colorful still lifes in the manner of Monet. He had a weekly lesson and the hobby made him happy.
My favorite story from that day was the tale of how he wrote the monster hit “Summer Breeze,” a song that helped define the seventies. It came to him in 1970 in a recording studio in Woodstock, New York, melody and lyrics at the same time, as he remembered his days as a little boy running around a gun shack in a small oil town in Texas – the few days before his parents separated and he moved on and became a rock star, his life changing irrevocably. He told me how many times the band had recorded it before finally succeeding, and how he reacted when he first heard it on the car radio in Los Angeles in 1972. ‘highway,’ he said, and he started choking. at the top. “You will have to forgive me. We’re on the freeway heading to Hollywood, and boom, it happened. I asked why it still affected him so many years later. He stopped himself. “So grateful. We had worked so hard for so long.
Fifty years later, those first notes from Jim’s acoustic guitar on “Summer Breeze” still make us nostalgic for another time. I have no idea what Jim meant about the summer breeze blowing through the jasmine in his mind. But I know exactly how he felt.