The 1970s produced relatively little popular music displaying elegance and unassuming charm. Often identified by pop historians as the "me" decade, it was an era of tremendous self-indulgence -- in music and everywhere else -- marked most strikingly by open, almost frenzied sexual exploration. Running almost counter to these currents were a handful of pop/rock acts of the period that managed to make some headway against the twin assaults of disco and punk on the musical consciousness, and got listeners to slow down and appreciate life.
England Dan & John Ford Coley were one of the better such acts. Although considered a mid-'70s phenomenon, and often misidentified in peoples' memories as a one-hit act, they actually charted six Top 40 pop singles, four of them Top Ten, in just four years. Their history actually goes back a decade prior to their first and biggest hit, "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight." The duo first met in high school in Dallas, TX, during the early '60s.
Dan Seals, as he was known formally and as he later re-established himself as a country artist in the 1980s, came from what, by anyone's definition, could be considered a musical family. Born in McCamey, TX, in 1948, he was the son of E.W. "Waylon" Seals, a pipe fitter and repairman for Shell Oil who also played guitar and bass, and was an alumnus of bands led by Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills. Dan learned to play upright bass at age four and soon after, he was playing in the family band founded by his father. His older brother, Jim Seals, enjoyed a considerable career of his own as a member of the Champs from 1958 through the mid-'60s. His other brother is successful country musician Eddie Seals (of Eddie & Joe), while his cousins included composers Chuck Seals (author of "Crazy Arms") and Troy Seals (who later married rock & roll singer Jo Ann Campbell), Brady Seals (of Little Texas), and country singer Johnny Duncan.
John Colley was a classically trained pianist and attended the same school. The two began working together as members of a series of local cover bands, including Playboys Five and Theze Few. They took an early run at recording success in association with Shane Keister in a series of demos done in Nashville as the Shimmerers, but the death of their producer before he could secure a recording deal ended their prospects.
It was as members of a group called Southwest F.O.B. that the pair first emerged as a formal duo. The band, with Colley on keyboards and Seals playing sax and singing, played a mixture of rock and R&B and became popular locally in Dallas. They were signed to Hip Records, an imprint of Stax/Volt, and got to number 56 in 1968 with a single called "Smell of Incense," which later yielded an album of the same name. Seals and Coley had begun writing songs together around this time and recognized that they were moving in a different direction from the rest of the band, more toward Paul Simon than Jimi Hendrix. They were soon opening shows for the band with an acoustic set featuring their harmony vocals, warming the crowd up before the entire Southwest F.O.B. took the stage, and it was from there that their formal work as a duo began. They remained with the group until 1969, when they decided to head to California and try and land a recording contract.
Originally known as Colley & Wayland (Seals' middle name), the name didn't quite work and a change was needed as proposed by Jim Seals. "England Dan" was a reference to the fact that Dan Seals, when the Beatles first hit in America in 1964, had fixated on the Liverpool quartet and briefly affected an English accent; "Ford" was added to John Colley's name, and the spelling of his last name shortened to "Coley" to assure its proper pronunciation. England Dan & John Ford Coley not only scanned well, but were unusual enough to merit a second look from programmers, reviewers, and promoters, as well as the general public, even if they'd never heard any of the duo's music.
England Dan & John Ford Coley were signed to A&M Records in 1970 with the assistance of guitarist Louis Shelton, who'd played with Jim Seals in the Dawnbreakers (and would be part of Seals & Crofts band), and who had brought the duo's demo to Herb Alpert. A pair of LPs, a self-titled debut album and Fables, both produced by Shelton, resulted in very modest sales, a minor chart entry with the song "New Jersey" at number 103, and a number one Japanese hit single ("Simone"). Those albums and singles featured a somewhat rough-textured version of the sound for which they would later become known and an array of Los Angeles session men, including Larry Knechtel, Tommy Morgan, and Hal Blaine, not to mention string arrangements by Marty Paich.
The pair were dropped by A&M in 1972 and for the next four years, they were without a recording contract. They busied themselves performing and Coley also played on a couple of Seals & Crofts albums during this period. Fate took a hand in 1976, however, when their manager heard a demo of a new song authored by a Mississippi-based composer named Parker McGee. The duo cut their own demo of the song with Shelton producing and began shopping it around to different record labels. Ironically, it was after an executive at Atlantic Records turned it down that Doug Morris of Big Tree Records, having heard it through the wall of his adjoining office, offered them a contract.
The version of the song that was released was produced by Kyle Lehning, a Nashville-based engineer who had recorded McGee's demo. The result was a number two pop single (number one on the adult contemporary chart) in the spring and summer of 1976, which ultimately sold two million copies. It was the sheer ubiquitous nature of that song on the radio that, despite their subsequent Top Ten singles, leaves many people convinced that the duo were one-hit wonders.
July of 1976 saw the release of England Dan & John Ford Coley's debut Big Tree album, Nights Are Forever, also produced by Lehning. Their second Big Tree single, "Nights Are Forever Without You," also written by McGee, soared to number ten. They were now a hot commodity on radio and on tour, but neither of their hit singles did more than scratch the surface of their sound. A listen to their album gave a hint of the sheer diversity of music that they created. Along with the smooth harmony based pop/rock of their two hit singles, England Dan & John Ford Coley played and composed catchy country-rock ("Showboat Gambler"); serious topical songs ("The Prisoner," about the founder of the Baha'i faith, to which both belong); upbeat, effortlessly catchy mid-tempo rock ("Westward Wind"), and romantic pop/rock ("Lady").
They slipped with ease into the singer/songwriter ethos of the mid-'70s. Though they never had another hit as big as "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight," they sold records by the hundreds of thousands, attracting not only older listeners (those "adult contemporary" chart placements) but many hundreds of thousands of younger listeners who didn't feel like waiting for the next time that either low bank balances or the stars and planets moving into the right position caused a Crosby, Stills & Nash reunion. Additionally, the two musicians' writing styles were just different enough, yet compatible, to make their music and their collaboration consistently interesting and enjoyable.
Moreover, even if their biggest hits were authored by other composers, England Dan & John Ford Coley had a knack for capturing an elusive yet reassuring component of life in the 1970s. If one was in college or just out of it in the mid-'70s, their music seemed to say that life (and love) were these wonderful components of existence worth exploring and experiencing, slowly and not frantically. Their lyrics sang of an innocence in the air, before the Iran hostages, AIDS, the schisms of the Reagan era, and the open cultural warfare of the 1980s.
By 1977, they had a second album, Dowdy Ferry Road, which included a fascinating array of originals, among them the haunting "Soldier in the Rain," co-authored by Coley and lyricist Sunny Dalton, which was almost ahead of its time. Based not on the William Goldman novel of that name, "Soldier in the Rain," rather, dealt with the disillusionment and dislocation of returned Vietnam veterans. The album also yielded a pair of moderate hit singles ("It's Sad to Belong," "Gone Too Far") -- a self-penned Top 20 single such as the latter, however, didn't seem to satisfy the record label and the duo found themselves being pressured to find songs by other composers with which they could scale the Top Ten. They'd spent years perfecting a sound and two complementary styles of composition that would allow them to do things musically that were important to them, but both Seals and Coley found the most personal aspect of their work shunted aside and held out of the most prominent positions in their work.
Their third LP, Some Things Don't Come Easy, seemed to say more than was intended with its title. The 1978 album generated a Top Ten hit with "We'll Never Have to Say Goodbye Again," but it was the work of songwriter Jeffrey Comanor, rather than either Seals or Coley. Additionally, the album was mixed in New York, in contrast to their prior work, which was recorded and mixed out of Lee Hazen's studio in Hendersonville, TN, which pointed to the increasing need for a new sound and texture from the duo's work.
By the end of the 1970s, England Dan & John Ford Coley were beset by new pressures from all sides. The perception was that, between the burgeoning disco boom and the undercurrent of punk rock (which always got a lot more press than it actually sold records), their continuing with the brand of harmony based, melodic pop/rock in which they specialized was a losing battle. After some near-disastrous sessions in Los Angeles, they salvaged but a single song -- but that song proved to be their last Top Ten hit, "Love Is the Answer," written by Todd Rundgren. Released as part of a very regrettably titled album, Dr. Heckle and Mr. Jive, it was a beautifully arranged (by Gene Page) and produced record, and just about their last attempt at anything new and lasting.
The duo split up in 1980, following the release of a best-of album on Big Tree. They made one last effort at selling their sweetly harmonized music in the guise of the single "Why Is It Me," and contributed one song "Part of Me Part of You," to the movie Just Tell Me You Love Me. Dan Seals initially pursued a career in pop/rock as England Dan on Atlantic (which had bought up Big Tree Records), and managed a low placement in the Top 100 with "Late at Night."
It was around this time, however, that the Internal Revenue Service began an action against Seals that resulted in the seizure of virtually all of his assets. He re-emerged, still produced by Lehning, as Dan Seals and reinvented himself as a top country performer. After hitting the country charts three times in one year with "Everybody's Dream Girl," "After You," and "You Really Go for the Heart," he moved into high gear with a six-year string of major hits, including nine number one country hits in a row and a string of Country Music Association awards to go with them.
John Ford Coley withdrew from performing after the split in their partnership, although he did return to A&M Records in 1981 to cut an album, Leslie, Kelly & John Ford Coley with singers Leslie Bulkin and Kelly Bulkin, on which Jim Seals' longtime partner Dash Crofts did some singing. During the early to mid-'90s, he re-appeared as a performing artist in Southern California. In 1996, Rhino Records released The Very Best of England Dan & John Ford Coley, a 16-song compilation that remains in print. As far as each of them may go, and whatever success they enjoy in reshaping their images and music, England Dan & John Ford Coley will always draw smiles, sighs, and warm feelings about a simpler, more innocent age for which they wrote a good deal of the prettiest part of life's soundtrack. ~ Bruce Eder