The duo began while they were friends and classmates at W. W. Samuell High School in Dallas, Texas. Seals and Coley performed first as part of Dallas pop/psych group Southwest F.O.B. (Freight on Board), whose material has been re-released on CD by the Sundazed label. Seals was the younger brother of Jim Seals of the 1970s soft rock duo Seals and Crofts. Dan's childhood nickname was "England Dan" because he was a fan of English rock band The Beatles, and he occasionally adopted an affected English accent. John Colley's last name was re-spelled "Coley" for ease of pronunciation; "Ford" was added as his middle name for flow purposes, thus England Dan and John Ford Coley.

Both toured the Texas music scene where they had one hit, "The Smell of Incense", that in 1969 rose to No. 43 on the charts. This band played on the bill with such acts as Led Zeppelin. While in the band, Dan Seals and John Coley began their own acoustic act, Colley and Wayland. The act was renamed England Dan & John Ford Coley, and the duo was signed by A&M Records. In 1971, they moved to Los Angeles where they opened for numerous bands. Their first break came in 1972, with the song "Simone". It became a No. 1 hit in Japan and was also popular in France, but it did not fare as well in the United States. The duo was released from its contract with A&M after three albums. Undaunted, the pair continued to press on, stumbling upon the song "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight", written by a young Mississippi-based songwriter, Parker McGee. They recorded a demo and played it in the office of Bob Greenberg, a senior VP at Atlantic Records, who was dubious of the song's potential. Unknown to them, Atlantic had a subsidiary label named Big Tree in the same office, and Big Tree's A&R rep, Doug Morris, came in afterwards, claiming that he heard the song through the wall. After Greenberg decided against it, Morris offered the duo a deal, which they accepted. #23 in 1978 - how about today?