@ 1993 Bill DeYoung
When the 1960s turned into the 70s, and the flood of longhaired, acoustic guitar–carrying singer–songwriters began, sensitive and poetic and wearing their hearts on their sleeves, Jimmy Seals and Dash Crofts had already been through the star–making machinery. With the Champs, the pair jumped on the pop music merry–go–round, grabbed the brass ring and, not thinking too much of the experience, got off again.
But as Seals and Crofts, they forged a career their own way, playing by their rules and making records that said exactly what they were feeling inside. What set them apart from the other early turn–of–the–decade pop folkies was their commitment to God and their deep religious beliefs, which dominated and ultimately illuminated their songwriting. Over the course of a 10–year recording career, Seals and Crofts never wavered in their pledge to declare and advance the Baha’i faith through their music.
Even so, they wound up with a bunch of hits.
Jimmy Seals was born October 17, 1941 in Sidney, a dusty Central Texas oil town where the family picked up musical instruments to amuse itself, simply because there wasn’t much else to do. Jimmy’s father Wayland Seals was a driller who played guitar in a local swing group called the Tom Cats.
One day, Jimmy recalls, his dad’s musician friends came home for supper – young Jimmy was about 6 – and the bunch of them wound up entertaining the family in the living room. Jimmy was enthralled by the violin player, who could turn a mean western rag, and that night he asked his parents for an instrument of his own.
Eventually, he got one, and by the time he was nine, Jimmy Seals was good enough to complete in the Texas State Fiddle Championship. He remembers that he played “Sally Good’n” and “Listen To The Mockingbird,” and that when he won the state contest he beat out fiddlers from all age groups, including grown–up musicians with many years’ experience under their worn rawhide belts.
About 25 miles to the northwest of Sidney, in slightly larger Cisco, Texas, Dash Crofts was waffling between a future in music and a future in baseball. Four years older than Seals, he’d begun playing piano at the age of five, and had some lessons, before switching to drums at 10 or 11. When they met, Seals was in the eighth grade and just learning the saxophone, and Crofts was a high school senior drumming in a moderately popular local swing and country dance band, having given up his dreams of the ballpark.
(Crofts’ given first name is Darrell; he has a twin sister, Dorothy, and when they were tots, their mother entered them in a “beautiful baby” contest in Cisco, thinking they’d be ever so cute as Dot and Dash. The nicknames stuck.)
Seals had joined Dean Beard and the Crew Cuts, a swing band that was working its way into rock ‘n’ roll, courtesy of Seals’ honking tenor sax and Beard’s boogie–woogie piano. When the Crew Cuts lost their drummer, Seals suggested his Cisco buddy Dash Crofts, and the group carried on.
Beard and his band were managed by Slim Willet, an entrepreneur and early Texas TV star who’d written and recorded the hit “Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes” in 1952. Willet led the Crew Cuts through their paces at West Texas teen dances and the occasional nightclub, but only on weekends so the 13–year old Seals could be home for school on Monday mornings. Through Willet, Jimmy Seals cut a pair of instrumental singles in 1958 on the Winston label.
Beard, who “knew Elvis” and believed he was himself destined for stardom, had hit moderately with a couple of singles for Edmore and Atlantic, and he and his group had backed a number of performers cutting demos in Texas studios, among them Charlie Walker and LaVern Baker.
And this is where the story of Seals and Crofts really begins. The Champs, from Los Angeles, three months into their chart–busting success with “Tequila,” were on the road when a dispute began over ownership of the group name – did it belong to guitarist Dave Burgess or saxophonist Chuck Rio?
When the smoke cleared, Rio and drummer Gene Alden were back in Los Angeles, and Burgess and company were in the middle of a tour with only half a band. “Dave Burgess called somehow and got a hold of Slim Willet,” recalls Jimmy Seals. “They said they were looking for a saxophone player and a drummer. They were looking for somebody who wasn’t married, who could be kind of groomed for the part.”
“Jimmy said to me, ‘Would you like to tour through Texas and be Big Time?’” Crofts says with a laugh. “So I went with them.”
Seals: “They settled on me and Dash, but Slim told them the only way they could have us was if they took Dean, because Dean had a record out on his own.”
Says Crofts, “They said, ‘We don’t need a piano player,’ and then he said, ‘Well, then you can’t have ‘em.’ We didn’t know anything about this.” But the Champs took Dean Beard anyway. “They found out later that he was stealing from them,” Crofts recall, “so they fired him and kept us.” The three erstwhile Crew Cuts joined the Champs tour in Baton Rouge, the fans none the wiser for the sudden change. The musicians had their clothes torn off at the very first gig. Someone called in a bomb scare too.
Seals, who was by then 14, was having trouble at home. His parents had divorced, younger brother Danny going off to live with mom while Jimmy stayed in Sidney with Wayland. When Burgess invited Seals and Crofts to move to Los Angeles to record as full–time Champs, Jimmy had no trouble saying yes.
“I said, ‘Look there’s nothing out here in west Texas at this time but tumbleweeds and jackrabbits,” he remembers. “If I’m gonna do music, I’ve got to go where it’s being done.’” So the teenage Texans moved to California, where they spent the next six years recording and touring with the Champs (Crofts was drafted in 1962 and spent two years with the Army in Fort Bragg, North Carolina; he was replaced, and his replacement was in turn fired upon Crofts’ discharge from the service).
Because “Tequila” was an instrumental record, the Champs were an instrumental group, which Seals and Crofts began to find increasingly claustrophobic. They loved to sing, and so did Dave Burgess, but Champs records were just not vocal records. That was that.
“For me, it was very frustrating,” Seals recalls. “We were starting to write songs and when we’d come back from touring we’d beg them to do some records vocally. They never really got into it. We formed another group with Dave Burgess, called the Chimes. The three of us did a couple of records with that group on the side; they just didn’t want to put the Champs’ name out there with it.” (The Challenge Records discography lists the artists on these 1962 records, “Desire” and “Peg O’ My Heart,” as the Trophies. Both Seals and Crofts say they were recorded as the Chimes, and they’d always thought they were released under that name, but Burgess presumably changed the moniker at the last minute.)
Crofts remembers the Chimes only too well. “Dave Burgess wrote a couple of songs and wanted us to sing background on them. We’d go: ‘Bong…BING…Bong…’ That was our big debut as vocalists, and we said, ‘This is not happening too much. We’d like to get into something a little more creative.’”
Challenge Records continued to refuse, even though Champs guitarist Glen Campbell wanted to sing on records too. Of Burgess, Crofts says, “We found out later that he owned the name the Champs. So he brought in all the dough and gave us salary. He was making money hand over foot. Then he decided that he would stay home and run the record company and send us out on the road, like work horses. And that’s what he did.”
Still, they were turning a profit. “It was a pretty good salary for those days, $500–$600 a week,” Crofts says “Pretty good for us, because we were irresponsible teenagers. We’d buy shirts and throw them away and buy others instead of taking them to the cleaners.”
“Too Much Tequila” in 1960 had been the Champs’ last Top 30 single; still they slogged on. In 1965, after nearly seven years as a Champ (he’d had four singles released under his own name on Challenge, too, and they all bombed), Jimmy Seals had had enough.
When the band was booked for a tour of the Orient, with dates in Korea, Japan and Hong Kong, Seals announced he would not be going.
Crofts recalls that Seals was terrified of getting drafted, and thought that he ought to stay low, staying off international airplanes and out of the newspapers. And – according to Crofts – Seals married a woman he didn’t really love, simply to reduce the risk of being called up. The two actually argued their way into a fistfight, and Crofts, hurt by what he saw as abandonment by his old friend, left for the Far East with a chip on his shoulder.
When the Champs returned, he too, resigned. His heart was no longer in it. The band dissolved for good soon afterward. Both Seals and Crofts spent the next year or two as Los Angeles session musicians, and eventually they patched up the friendship.
Seals, who’d started messing around with the guitar and was writing songs prodigiously, was particularly affected by the end of the Champs. “To live through the decline of the group was very depressing,” he says, “although the group was progressing musically to where we were doing Blood, Sweat and Tears or Chicago–type material at the end of the run.”
Crofts went back to Texas, while Seals “collected pop bottles” in California, taking session work when he could get it. In 1966, Seals hooked up with guitarist Louie Shelton and bassist Joe Bogan to form a cover band dubbed, among other things, the Mushrooms (Seals says they changed the name regularly to get re–booked into places that otherwise wouldn’t invite them back). Crofts was persuaded to return west and take the drummer’s chair. The Mushrooms played rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, country, any kind of music that was needed to bring in jobs, Crofts says.
One night, the group was playing at a Los Angeles bowling alley, the Hollywood Bowl, when they were approached by three sisters; Billie, Donnie and Lana Day. The Day sisters, who were quite taken with the young musicians, introduced themselves as singers.
Right away, the gears started turning. “We thought ‘We’ll gang up together, go up to Vegas and make some big bucks,’” Crofts recalls. “We were making a living, but figured that if we added three girls and went to Vegas, we could make a bigger salary.”
The new group was dubbed the Dawnbreakers. The girls’ mother, Marcia Day, was an agent for a couple of Hollywood actors, and she lived in a gray, three–story house on Sunset Boulevard with her family and sometimes dozens of “friends.” Day became the Dawnbreakers’ manager, and it was she who got them a “fill–in gig” in Las Vegas, fitting them out with matching stage suits. Back in L.A., Dash Crofts started dating Billie Lee Day, and the boys in the band were invited to move into what was affectionately known as Marcia’s Place.
Soon, Seals, Crofts, Shelton and Bogan started regularly attending the Friday night meetings, or “firesides,” Day held in her home to discuss with many friends her belief in the Baha’i religion, based around the teachings of the 19th Century Persian prophet Baha’u’llah. During his subsequent imprisonment he wrote hundreds of letters and books that became the principal Scriptures of the faith.
Seals and Crofts, dissatisfied with many things in their lives, began to listen. “It gave us a lot of food for thought,” says Crofts. “Our priorities began to change. When you get into music, your goal is to become as famous and rich as you can become. It’s an ego trip. When we came across the Baha’i faith, it talked about things like oneness of god, the oneness of mankind, the oneness of religion, equality of men and women, elimination of prejudices of all kinds. And we thought, ‘Wow, this is really lofty stuff.’
“Probably too lofty for us, but it interested us. And so, we started looking into it.”
Crofts, because he was romantically involved with Billie Lee Day, was the first to convert to the Baha’i. Seals considered himself at a spiritual dead end. His marriage was over and his career was going nowhere fast. Still, he resisted at first. “Because we were working together, they didn’t want to make me feel like they were pushing religion or anything on me,” Seals relates. “So what it boiled down to was, no one really told me directly what the faith was all about. Finally, one day Dash started trying to tell me about it. We were driving down Hollywood Boulevard, and he got so frustrated because he just wasn’t getting through to me. He pulled over to the side of the road, slammed the brakes, and told me what Baha’u’llah’s claim was that he was the promised one of all ages.”
In the Baha’i Scriptures, Seals found answers to the questions he’d been asking all his life. When you stripped away the conventions of each of the major religions, all the prophets were saying essentially the same thing: love one another. The basic tenets of the Baha’i faith – love, tolerance, absolute equality of all sex or race and worldwide unity – appealed to the young Texan.
“From that point on, I just started ripping books apart,” he says, adding that the words of Bah’u’llah “became the foundation for the writing that we did with Seals and Crofts.” (“I’ve been trying to find a loophole now for 26 years,” says Crofts, who married Billie Lee Day in 1969. “And I haven’t found it yet. I was really skeptical.”)
Shelton and Bogan married the other two Day sisters, and Seals became involved with Ruby Jean Anderson, another “friend” who’d stopped by to sit in on the Friday night firesides at Marcia’s Place and stayed a while. One night when no one else was home, Seals and Anderson were thrown together, helping a young woman who’d overdosed on drugs on the Day doorstep, then tending to the victims of a car crash down the block. They wound up sitting over coffee and talking all night, excitedly sharing their feelings about life, love and spirituality. They were married in 1970.
The Dawnbreakers actually cut a couple of sides for Dunhill in 1968, produced by Richard Perry. However, Crofts says with a laugh, Perry crossed paths with Tiny Tim during this period and “we got dropped like a hot potato.” Perry hit the top with “Tiptoe Thru The Tulips” and the Dawnbreakers’ wax never materialized.
Meanwhile, Louie Shelton, who was making tons of dough as a session player while starving with the Dawnbreakers, decided to leave the group to work as a session guitarist and producer. Bogan went with him.
“Louie started moving into producing and Joey started moving into engineering…it just kind of naturally broke up, but we were all still together, in an indirect way,” recalls Crofts. After all, he says, “Three marriages came out of that group.”
But he and Seals had already done some hard thinking about something new. “In the Champs and the Mushrooms, and in the Dawnbreakers, we were playing a harder kind of music,” Crofts says, “and we were kind of sick of that. So for therapy we would go into a room and write these little, pleasant soft songs, like wandering troubadour kind of music. And we didn’t play it for anybody. We’d just go play it for ourselves, just a therapy. And then we got to where we thought we’d try it out in between sets – at the breaks, when everybody took a break, Jimmy and I would sit there and play these little tunes. And we saw that people liked them.”
Crofts wanted an instrument to complement Seals’ acoustic guitar, drums simply wouldn’t do. So he borrowed a cheap mandolin from his brother – who kept it on the walls as an ornament – and taught himself to play. “I just plunked it and it sounded really good,” he remembers. (Eventually, Crofts wandered into Barney Kessel’s Music Store in Los Angeles and bought a vintage Gibson mandolin for $125, an incredible price even in 1969. He played the instrument on “Summer Breeze,” “Diamond Girl,” all the big Seals and Crofts records, and he still has it.)
Seals: “We worked out counterparts on the mandolin and guitar, and also on the vocals, and then we tried to work it out sometimes where we would sing two parts, and play the other two harmony parts on the instruments. Being from a small band, we were trying to make it sound as big as we could.”
Seals and Crofts played their first show as a duo at the Ice House in Pasadena, California, in 1969. Next, they signed on to perform at the legendary Hoot Night at Los Angeles’ Troubadour club. Seals recalls that he had to borrow the $2 the club required as a guarantee they’d show up.
“We went on between two hard rock bands,” he says. “And we only had four songs. We played those, and the whole house stood up and just went crazy. So we sat down and played them again. And we told them, ‘We’re sorry, we’ll have to come back when we write more.”
And so the teenage prodigies from Texas abandoned rock ‘n’ roll and the big beat more or less forever, and found their “true calling” in folksy, acoustic music, dedicating their work – as they did their lives – to the teachings of a Persian religious leader who had been dead for almost 100 years.
Day got them a record contract in 1970, with Talent Associates (TA), a low–budget subsidiary of Bell. Two albums were released that year, Seals and Crofts and Down Home, both largely self–written collections of “wandering troubadour music.” They were sweet, simple and folksy, and despite the release of two singles from each album, there were no sales to speak of.
Still, Seals and Crofts’ performance following grew progressively larger, and in early 1971 they were signed to Warner Brothers Records, then on a roll with James Taylor and on the lookout for more introspective singer–songwriters to bankroll.
Seals and Crofts’ sound, a vaguely medieval blend of acoustic guitar and mandolin, was mannered and polite, courtly even, and their lyrics – almost always penned by Seals alone – were radiant and positive, talking of a kind of love that could have been about the opposite sex or about God, depending on how you read them. The songs were full of love, faith, peace and talk of “the truth.” And that, not to put too fine a point on it, was the sort of thing that was selling in 1971.
To produce their first Warners album, Seals and Crofts brought in their old Dawnbreaker chum Louis Shelton (suddenly they could afford him). To further keep it in the family, Joe Bogan became their engineer. Crofts, Shelton and Bogan were at the time happily married to the three Day sisters. “We had been drawing 3,500 to 4,000 people a night for like two years without a record,” Seals recalls. “So we felt like, if we ever got a record that would appeal to the masses, we would be able to draw more people and have a career.”
Year Of Sunday was released on Warner Brothers in the waning days of 1971. A vast improvement, sonically, over the TA albums, it also featured sharper and more pointed songwriting. One particular ballad, “Antoinette,” was an exquisite blend of harmony vocal, acoustic guitar and mandolin soloing.
The Baha’i influences were everywhere if you looked. “When I Meet Them,” the first single, was a plea for universal brotherhood, as was the R&B–flavored “Sudan Village.” The title track, in fact was based around the Baha’i belief in “progressive revelation,” that is, the teachings of the prophets, in succession, forming a sort of map for mankind to follow. “We all live in a year of Sunday,” then, meant that every day was like a church day, with something to be learned. Heady stuff was for the pop charts, to be sure, but expertly put across. Despite a massive promotional push by the label, however, Year Of Sunday did not light the world on fire.
Those were the days when record companies actually believed in their artists, and instead of getting the hook for their poor sales showing, Seals and Crofts were encouraged to try again. “This was all an experiment,” Seals says. “We never dreamed we’d be heard on the air. Some of it sounds like shopping cart music. Nobody knew what they were doing.”
In the summer of 1972, the duo signed on as opening act on a national tour by the supergroup Chicago. The exposure was priceless, as their second Warner Bros. album Summer Breeze was to be released in July. Summer Breeze is, arguably, the definitive Seals and Crofts album. All the elements were in place, including top–notch songs and deft performances by the twosome and a band of friends and studio acquaintances (bassist Bobby Lichtig, who played with Seals and Crofts for most of the ’70s, made his debut here, and the widely–seen Chicago tour featured just him backing Seals and Crofts). Here, they found the ideal commercial formula.
Again, Seals wrote most of the lyrics, and he and Crofts collaborated on the melodies. On Summer Breeze, they came up with mystical–sounding ballads (“East of Ginger Trees” and “Hummingbird,” both of which included verbatim quotes from the Baha’i Scriptures), a finger–snapping, bluesy acoustic ballad that was literally about faith (“The Euphrates”), a couple of socially relevant “pop” songs (“Funny Little Man,” “Yellow Dirt”), a beautiful if obtuse folk ballad (“Advance Guards”) and an excuse for Seals to take his hoedown violin out of mothballs (“Fiddle In The Sky”). He played a little sax on “The Euphrates,” too.
Then there was the title song, a simple celebration of home and hearth. With its catchy chorus (“Summer Breeze makes me feel fine/Blowin’ through the jasmine in my mind”) and unforgettable signature “riff” (played in unison on Crofts’ mandolin and Lichtig’s bass), “Summer Breeze” became a classic “soft rock” single overnight.
The single reached #6 in September, and the album went gold, spending 100 weeks on the Billboard chart. Seals and Crofts appeared on every television show that showed an interest, and began a touring schedule that would hardly abate for eight years.
“We were ready to be disc jockeys, roadies, sound mixers or whatever, just so we could be in and around music,” Seals explains. “Because that was all we had known. We didn’t have any grand delusions about what might happen; we just took the next step when it came. If the door opened, we went.”
“Hummingbird,” the second single, made it to #21 in January 1973. By then, Seals and Crofts were almost finished with their fifth album, the one that would ultimately prove to be their biggest seller, and, as each of them would come to realize years later, the beginning of the end. The album was Diamond Girl, and it too went gold soon after its release in May 1973. The title song – jazzy, with some complex changes – was released as a single, and like “Summer Breeze,” reached #6.
There were no simple acoustic duets on the album – Seals and Crofts had acquired a band. A rather large band. Seals: “After Summer Breeze hit, somewhere in between there and the recording Diamond Girl, we realized that we could not progress any further…we were very limited as to the kind of music we could play. But there was no way that we could play anything any harder. If you’re playing with a band, all of a sudden you’re in competition with 10,000 other bands. The band has got to really cook; and it’s got to have an identity. And for the crowd that we were playing, it had to be hard rock. I feel like we lost a little bit of uniqueness in what we were doing, because we started leaning more and more on the band.”
Once again, the words and teaching of Baha’u’llah were prominently displayed, in such songs as “Intone My Servant” (“Intone my servant/the verses of your Lord”) and “Nine Houses,” a symphonic “suite” that paid homage to the nine major organized religions of the world. Then there was “We May Never Pass This Way (Again),” which retold the story of the fabled “year of Sunday”: learn all you can in this lifetime; it may be your only chance. This was the second Diamond Girl single, released in September and slightly edited from the album version. It climbed to #21 on the charts.
Seals honked his tenor sax on the jazzy instrumental track “Wisdom,” and the duo tossed out a humorous cowboy song, “Dust On My Saddle,” that would become an in concert staple.
Another highlight of the album was “Ruby Jean and Billie Lee,” which Seals and Crofts wrote together as a love letter to their wives. “We kept it a total secret at he time we were doing it,” Crofts says. “We wanted to give them a gift that would last for a while. So Jimmy started writing the song about Ruby, and I said, ‘You can’t write one for her without me!’ So we decided you write a verse, I’ll write a verse, and we’ll put the kids in the middle. We had one kid apiece, Joshua and Lua. The funny part about it was, they’d show up at the studio and we’d start calling it ‘R&B Waltz,’ instead of ‘Ruby Jean and Billy Lee,’ so they wouldn’t know what it was. That was the code name.”
Seals and Crofts put perhaps the best signing of their careers on this one recording. “Finally, the day came for us to spring it on them. They came down to the studio, and there was like four or five Warner Brothers executives there with big cigars in their mouths and all that; we started playing it for them and they started crying, and then the executives started crying, big tears in their eyes. It turned out to be really neat. We said, ‘This is specifically for you guys. We’re not even going to release it as a single, we’re just gonna give it to you, and you can have it.’” It never was released as a single, but it was included on the duo’s Greatest Hits album two years later.
By now, Seals and Crofts were a major touring act, a top grosser, with a private plane for Seals and Crofts themselves, another for the band, and another for the crew. Still burning with the fervor of the newly–converted, they devised a way to “tell” their fans about their Baha’i beliefs without, they hoped, coming off like pushy religious zealots. After each concert – about 20 minutes after the house lights had gone up – the duo would return to the stage and chat, sans microphones, with anyone in the crowd who wanted to hear about it. These little post–concert rap sessions, announced at the beginning of each show, were called firesides just as they had been on those long–ago Friday nights at Marcia’s Place.
“We tried to take our art and use it toward something that would further civilization in some way,” Crofts says. “Yeah, we were successful and we got hit records and we started making bigger money, but what we did was hire more people and try to make it a better show. But we decided at the same time to put in our contract that every place we have the alternative to talk about the Baha’i faith. We never incorporated it into the show itself. We always said that they came to hear music, and that’s what they’re gonna hear. And afterwards, if somebody wants to hear about the Baha’i faith, we’ll come back and tell them about it. We’re not evangelists.”
Seals put a lot of stock in these discussions. “It was something we felt was like a great responsibility, because you don’t want to be like parrots out on the street, telling everybody that comes along this, that and the other,” he says. “And the other thing is, you’re having to try to live it. You can call yourself whatever you want, but how you live your life is your religion.
“It was at a time when it was very important that the faith become known in this country, because there wasn’t enough Baha’i at that time, and because they can’t take donations from outside, and they can’t proselytize, the only way you can do it is through an interview, or if you have firesides.
“You also can’t have people come listen to music and then force religion on them. So it was a strange setup. If people know that you’re gonna talk about something that is religious, or that’s your faith, if they’re attracted to that and want to stay and listen to it, I don’t think you can hurt yourself.”
The year was 1973. Richard Nixon was looking at another 12 months in the White House, tops, the Vietnam War was raging away…and Roe vs. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in the United States, had just been handed down.
“I think you can ruin your career, as we almost did, by taking a concept and trying to put it into a record,” Seals says “where it becomes sucked into the political scheme of things.”
Lana Day Bogan, wife of the group’s recording engineer and longtime crony Joe Bogan, had seen a television documentary on abortion and were moved to write a poem, from the point of view of the unborn child.
Seals, at Lana’s suggestion, put it to music.
“Oh, little baby, if you only knew.
Just what your momma was planning to do…”
This was “Unborn Child,” Seals and Crofts’ follow–up to the sweet and singable pop hits “We May Never Pass This Way (Again)” and “Diamond Girl.” The album likewise, was called Unborn Child.
Crofts: “Warner Brothers warned us against it. They said, ‘This is a highly controversial subject, we advise that you don’t do this.’ And we said, ‘But you’re in the business to make money; we’re doing it to save lives. We don’t care about the money.”
Both Seals and Crofts insist the song’s message was, simply “don’t take life too lightly,” to stop and think before going through with an abortion. But the critics tore the record to pieces, and Seals and Crofts with it, deriding it as not only preachy drek, but lousy poetry. The single was a commercial disaster; the album shipped gold, but the retail returns were serious.
“It was a double–edged sword,” Crofts says of the Unborn Child controversy. “It hurt us in one way, and helped us in another. It turns over fans, is what it does. If you’re against something, you lose those fans. But if you’re for it, you gain some fans. And that’s kind of what happened.”
“I don’t know whether people knew what was in there or not,” Seals recalls, “but some of the pro–abortionists called up the radio stations and demanded equal time. Well, that killed the airplay on it. What we had done is we had taken a single issue. Before, we were dealing with the general concept of things. I think everybody in the world, regardless of whether they’ve previously been a racist, or an atheist or whatever, can accept, without getting too upset, the fact that mankind is one family. We’re all here on one dot and we need each other. It’s obvious. But when you pull it down and start taking the different really hot issues, if a person is not looking at the overview that you are, then they’re not gonna connect the parts together. They just see one thing.”
This one thing Seals and Crofts picketed all across the country. “I think we got more good results out of it than bad,” says Crofts, “because a lot of people called us and said, ‘We’re naming our children after you, because you helped us decide to save their lives with that song.’ That was very fulfilling to us.”
“I thought either it would be very much accepted, on the strength of the song itself, or that it would be the biggest bomb that we ever had,” Seals explains. “But it was incidental by that point, because the music was gone. I was out of gas already. When you get in that position, you really don’t know what to do. It happens without a lot of different artists, and I admire those people who have not let that happen to them. We started with a classical–oriented instrumentation, mandolin and guitar, and trying to find ways to use that – and to not use it – with two people was very difficult.
“If you had one person with the freedom of adlib kind of singing, of being able to move through different phrases of music, it’s much easier for one person to do it than two. Duos had never been my cup of tea, to start with. Outside of a few records, I don’t like ‘em. A group, and a single artist, are much easier to manage and to record.”
Unborn Child hurt Seals and Crofts’ reputation – it was as if they had crossed that thin line, that sacrosanct divider that separated their music from their religious beliefs. The single never made it higher than #66 in Billboard, and the follow–up, “King Of Nothing” (with Crofts on lead vocal), only went to #60. They toured for much of 1974 with the issue hanging over their heads. Often, their concerts were picketed by pro–choice groups.
In April of 1975, damage control began with a new single and album; both titled I’ll Play For You. As a response to the fires stirred up by the “Unborn Child” single, this one was an innocent, somewhat innocuous pop song, the most neutral thing the duo had ever recorded. “I’ll Play For You” squeezed into the Top 20, but the follow–up, “Castles In The Sand,” failed to chart at all.
For Christmas that year, Seals And Crofts Greatest Hits was issued. It had both of the I’ll Play For You Singles, and “King Of Nothing,” but “Unborn Child” was conspicuous in its absence. Buoyed by the plethora of songs from the glory days of Summer Breeze and Diamond Girl, the album sold well.
Still, Seals says, he could read the writing on the wall. “After Unborn Child and I’ll Play For You, the music just started getting more and more watered down, less identity and this, that and the other,” he explains.
“I remember the night it happened. I was in the dressing room, I think it was down in Mobile, Alabama, and I just knew. I said, ‘The spirit is gone.’ You sense it. I sensed the same finality that I had sensed with the Champs, except it was our music. And it really made me kind of sick. But at some point like that, you can’t go backwards. And also, if you’re a hard rock group, you can get softer, you can go to a softer song, or a softer style, and you can find your way to peace in your soul, or whatever you want to express and you can get way with it. But if you’re a soft rock group, you cannot do a hard song and get away with it. Very seldom, at least in those days, was it acceptable.”
Still they plugged on, pretending nothing was wrong. Ironically, when they tried a “hard song,” it gave them their biggest–selling single ever. “Get Closer,” which Seals had written as a Bill Withers–type ballad, was recorded as an uptempo R&B single, with a trio of lead vocalists – Seals, Crofts and R&B singer Carolyn Willis, who’d been a member of the trio Honey Cone (“Want Ads”). “Get Closer” reached #6 in April of 1976.
“I always felt like Carolyn Willis’ voice was too high for ours,” Seals laments, “because she would be singing at the bottom of her range, and us at the top, in order to get three parts.” Nevertheless, Seals and Crofts hit the road in support of the gold Get Closer album, with a huge band, Willis and background singer in tow.
They both knew it was all wrong. “I tried several times to get him to go out with just the two of us again, after we had been successful,” Crofts explains. “The problem with touring, in those days, was the expenses were astronomical. You had to ask promoters for a fortune just so you could make some money. And the farther along it got, the higher the expenses got. I think that’s what caused the decline.
“And Jimmy was his own worst critic. He was very critical of himself, and was very hard on himself. Sometime I’d say ‘Jimmy, when are you gonna just let go and enjoy this?’ He was pretty much of a perfectionist, but Jimmy took it so seriously that sometimes he would badger his own self.”
The reason he took up mandolin, Crofts says was to be able to travel without “a bunch of stuff to carry around. I ended up with like three 18–wheeler trucks to carry the stuff that goes with the mandolin.
“It got really insane at one point, and I finally said, you know, this is unbelievable. We’ve got four pilots, three truck drivers, a road manager, an assistant road manager, a business manager, a creative manager, a band and about 12 roadies. We were taking 30 people on the road. It was like an army.”
Warner brothers tried valiantly to keep the Get Closer momentum going with Sudan Village, released in the fall. It was a live album, of relatively obscure songs from the Seals and Crofts archives, and the first recording of Seals’ “fiddle breakdown,” a highlight of their live shows for years. “We were touring so much that we didn’t have time to go in and do a legitimate album,” Crofts remembers, adding the album was (badly) recorded over a three–night stint in Las Vegas. “I think it was a pretty lame idea, myself. But there wasn’t too much we could do about it, because we were so busy.” The album was a stiff, although the single culled from it, “Baby I’ll Give It To You” (another trio with Willis) actually charted slightly higher than “Unborn Child.”
“We felt like, after the Sudan Village album, that we were forcing ourselves to come up with material,” Crofts says. “Because, basically, we had said everything we wanted to say already. Our hearts weren’t into it, because we’d already made our statement. It puts you under such pressure. The pressure is once you’ve got a hit, trying to stay in the flow.
By 1977, they were flying blind. A friend of the duo’s, television writer Charles Fox, talked them into singing a collection of songs he’d written (with lyricist Paul Williams) for the soundtrack of the Robby Benson basketball movie One On One. Fox also produced the film, which was not a major success. The single from this project, “My Fair Share,” went down to #28. They didn’t write it, and they didn’t like it.
In 1978 came the album Takin’ It Easy. The uptempo single, “You’re The Love,” was out-and-out disco, a full 180 from the “wandering troubadour music” of their heyday. Warner Brothers even issued it as a commercial, 12-inch dancefloor single, extended to six minutes in length for maximum boogie-ing down. “You’re the Love” was Seals and Crofts’ last time in the Top 20, reaching #18 in April. Around the same time, they also cut the theme to the popular television drama The Paper Chase. Although it was heard each week by millions of people, “The First Years” never appeared as a full song on a record.
The next year, Seals and Crofts accepted $60,000 each to lay down a vocal for a McDonalds’ radio commercial. Crofts: “In those days, it wasn’t cool to do a commercial: ‘Oh, you’re selling out.’ Now everybody’s begging for commercials. They’re killing each other to get a commercial. We kind of did it with a grain of salt. We had offers from Kodak, and Johnson’s Baby Powder, and things like that. They were offering us really big bucks.”
The end finally came in 1980. Overtly jazz-inflected, The Longest Road was to be their last album. “The best part of The Longest Road was, for me, working with Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke,” Crofts reports. “They didn’t have to do the session with us, but they did it out of sheer respect.
“But I think what we were doing there was just grabbing for straws. We had material, but we knew that the material was not up to par. But we had a contract with Warner Brothers; we were supposed to put out two albums a year. And so we threw an album together – that’s basically what The Longest Road was.”
The album, and the single “First Love,” got nowhere near the charts. The Longest Road was outsold by K–Tel’s The Seals And Crofts Collection, which was released around the same time. Looking forward wasn’t doing anyone any good; it was time to look back. Warners dropped them.
“After that, we decided, ‘What the hell are we doing here?” Crofts says. “We’re trying to force material, and stay up with the standard we’ve already established. And why prostitute ourselves? Why don’t we just stop?’”
“We just didn’t have the material,” explains Seals. “And I think Warner Brothers probably looked at their past artists and said, ‘How many more have these guys got?’”
Don’t hold them to it, but Seals and Crofts have no intention on returning. “Even today, there’s not one been able to make a comeback and sustain it,” says Seals. “Maybe one album. In those days, a group was good for one, maybe two or three albums. They’d reach a high point, and the rest of it was greatest hits albums; milk it for all you can.”