Definitive Collection/England Dan and John Ford Coley (Rhino Records)
All through their hit-making years at Big Tree Records, England Dan and John Ford Coley fought to have their own compositions released as singles. They were almost always outvoted, and their biggest hits – from “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” to “Nights Are Forever” and “It’s Sad To Belong” – were written by others.
How ironic then, that the one song that encapsulated all the personal things that this predominantly acoustic duo wanted to get across in their music – interracial and societal love and harmony, acceptance and a plea for a unified planet – was not only penned by an outside songwriter, but became their last and most enduring hit.
Todd Rundgren’s gospel-tinged “Love is the Answer” was like a crib sheet for the Baha’i faith, to which England Dan and John Ford Coley belonged:
And when you feel afraid, love one another.
When you’ve lost your way, love one another.
And when you’re all alone, love one another.
And when you’re far from home, love one another.
And when you’re down and out, love one another.
And when your hopes run out, love one another.
Between 1976 and ’79, the pair placed six songs in the Billboard Top 40. They were viewed by many as a sort of “sweeter” version of Seals & Crofts, who certainly made their share of melodic and radio-friendly soft rock, but were apt to veer into controversial subject matter (“Unborn Child”) and lace their albums with overtly religious references to the Baha’i and its tenets.
Dan Seals, of course, was (and is) the younger brother of Jim Seals, who wrote (and sang) most of Seals & Crofts’ material.
But England Dan and John Ford Coley steered clear of controversy and sang, almost exclusively, about love lost and won, about loneliness, joy, elation and all the other landscapes of the human condition.
They met in high school in Dallas in the early ‘60s. Seals played saxophone and guitar, much like his brother, who was at that time touring the country as a member of the Champs (in their post-“Tequila” period). John Colley was a classically trained pianist; the duo hit it off and began to sing and play together in a series of suburban Texas cover bands.
(In 1964, Seals, like so many other budding young musicians, became obsessed with the Beatles and, much to the annoyance of his friends and family, briefly affected a nasal Liverpool accent. He thus earned the nickname England Dan.)
They hit the Big Time, or so they thought, as part of a country/rock band called Southwest F.O.B. (“Freight On Board”). After the group scored a pair of (very minor) hits, Seals and Colley splintered off into a part-time acoustic duo, opening Southwest F.O.B. shows around Dallas.
(This is exactly what had happened with Seals and Crofts, in California as part of a lounge act called the Dawnbreakers. As a twosome, they’d open for their own band, and soon realized they liked it a whole lot better. So did the audience.)
By 1970, Dawnbreakers guitarist Louie Shelton was producing Seals & Crofts for Warner Bros., and he brought Dan and John’s demos to Herb Alpert of A&M, who snapped them up.
It was at this point that the pair were persuaded to adopt a hip-sounding moniker; according to legend, it was Jim Seals who resurrected the name England Dan, added Ford to Colley’s name (probably because it sounded more English) and suggested they change Colley to Coley, which was how it was pronounced, anyway.
England Dan and John Ford Coley. It had a nice ring to it.
Their Shelton-produced sides at A&M did pretty much nothing, although “Simone” (included here) reached the top of the Japanese pop charts. After two albums, they were dropped from the label.
In 1976, a young songwriter (and a devout Baha’i) named Parker McGee sent a batch of demos to Seals & Crofts. Shelton cut McGee’s “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” with England Dan and John Ford Coley, and it was this version – re-recorded in Nashville with producer Kyle Lehning, a friend of McGee’s – that caught the ear of Big Tree president Doug Morris.
“I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” reached No. 2 in the summer of ’76 and went gold, making a Bicentennial splash alongside Peter Frampton, “Afternoon Delight” and the soon-to-be unstoppable stampede of disco.
Their first album, Nights Are Forever, was released as the single was climbing the charts. The anthemic “Nights Are Forever Without You” (another one from McGee’s treasure chest) reached No. 10 in October.
Although Seals and Coley compositions weren’t released as singles, they formed the backbone of what remains, arguably, the duo’s strongest album. Coley contributed the bouncy “Westward Wind,” about a blissful Hawaiian Islands vacation (the publishing was credited to both composers), while Seals’ country-hued “Showboat Gambler” was a flight of fancy inspired by his grandfather’s tall tales about well-dressed gambling men sailing Tennessee’s Cumberland River.
The spiritual “The Prisoner” would not have sounded out of place on a Seals & Crofts album; it’s a (very thinly) veiled parable about the prophet Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i faith.
Nights Are Forever climbed to No. 17 and earned a gold record award.
The Dowdy Ferry Road album appeared in March of 1977, sending the England Dan and John Ford Coley version of Randy Goodrum’s uptempo weeper “It’s Sad to Belong” to No. 21 on the Billboard chart.
Both Seals and Coley later expressed dissatisfaction with the song and its theme of mixed fidelity.
Dowdy Ferry Road also included hints that the pair were more than capable of writing gems: Coley’s bittersweet Vietnam opus “Soldier in the Rain” and Seals’ plaintive ballad “Love is the One Thing We Hide.” Coley’s snappy “Gone Too Far” was, in fact, released as a single, but just missed the Top 20.
Jeffrey Commanor contributed “We’ll Never Have to Say Goodbye Again,” which became England Dan and John Ford Coley’s second-highest charting single in March of ’78 (No. 9 on the pop charts, it was an Adult Contemporary No. 1 for an astonishing six weeks). It had been previously recorded by a duo called Deardorff & Joseph.
“We’ll Never Have to Say Goodbye Again” was the leadoff single from the Some Things Don’t Come Easy album, which also included several wonderful self-penned tunes (“Who’s Lonely Now.” “Hold Me,” “Wanting You Desperately” and the title track).
As disco did it best to make veteran hit parade artists look and sound behind the times, Seals and Coley released the dance track “You Can’t Dance,” which charted miserably. These guys – despite their propensity for leisure suits – were not the dance-floor type.
This was particularly evident on Coley’s “What Can I Do With This Broken Heart,” another single misfire, from the 1979 album Dr. Heckle & Mr. Jive. Here, England Dan and John Ford Coley do the hustle, complete with stabbing strings, pulsating bass (courtesy of jazz great Wilton Felder), funky guitars by Lee Ritenour and Steve Lukather, and deft keyboard work from studio pro Greg Phillinganes.
Dr. Heckle, which would be the duo’s last album, was problematic from the start. Pressured by record execs to “update” their sound, Seals, Coley and Lehning had left their familiar Nashville studio for Los Angeles, to work with an entirely new set of musicians and arrangers.
“Love is the Answer” – the only song any of them were happy with from the arduous first week of sessions – rose to No. 10 on Billboard’s pop singles chart, and spent two weeks atop the AC chart.
The duo’s final recordings, “In it For Love” and “Why Is it Me,” were released on Big Tree’s Best Of collection in ’79, with “Part of Me Part of You” and “Just Tell me You Love Me” appearing on a 1980 film soundtrack.
By then, England Dan and John Ford Coley were no more. Seals and Lehning began a lucrative second chapter in 1980 with the Stones album, which many critics suggested could – or should – have been a duo recording (“Late At Night” from that album is included here).
With Lehning at the board, Seals – the “England” long left behind – embarked on a hugely successful solo career as a country artist, notching nine consecutive chart-toppers in the 1980s.
In 2007, he and brother Jim began touring together as Seals & Seals. Both brothers are still active in Baha’i activities and fundraisers.
Coley, however, renounced the faith in 1999 and reverted to the Christianity of his boyhood (he has written a book about his experiences). He performs infrequently in the Nashville area.
As with all artists whose time has come and gone, England Dan and John Ford Coley’s enormously affecting music remains. And it remains a gift.
- Bill DeYoung