England Dan and John Ford Coley
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
(All Music Guide.com)