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Artist Profiles

The Late Great Phil Seamen

By Published: January 30, 2010
He married the beautiful young West End dancer Leonie in 1956, whom he had met while with Parnell, working together in the show 'Jazz Wagon.' His hobby was fishing. And in 1957, on February 8th to be exact, Seamen was finally on his way to America, about to fulfill a lifelong dream—to hear all the greats live, play with as many icons as possible, hang out with the best drummers. The Ronnie Scott Sextet were going over on the Queen Mary to do a tour as part of a Musicians Union exchange deal. But going through customs in Southampton prior to boarding, Her Majesty's custom officiers took one look at him, pulled him aside and Seamen got busted for possession of drugs. In spite of a solemn agreement with his fellow musicians, having stashed the marjuhana in the seat of his drumstool and enough heroin for the voyage in other secret places in his drumkit, he just completely goofed it by having one shot in his coat pocket! Slung in jail until his case came up, then released after being fined 80 pounds by the magistrate, Seamen never made it to the States. (Ronnie Scott ended up having to fly Allan Ganley over for the tour, and never really forgave Phil). He was terribly disappointed. But he picked himself up. In 1958 the West End production of West Side Story opened with Seamen—Leonard Bernstein reputedly specifically asked for him and, despite the heroin and alcohol, the producers hired him and he was magnificent.


In 1960 Joe Harriott came with his 'free form' concept and new quintet: no more chord changes, a lot of interplay rather than one soloist after another, searching for collectiveness—a great group. Seamen saw it as his job to keep things swinging, and that he did. In my opinion his playing in this group was his absolute artistic highpoint. Across the board, Phil's popularity was rising and, combined with a 'certain notoriety,' he was the man: he could work drum magic in any setting, a figure who was larger than life itself, often causing uproar, sometimes not turning up at all. But his wife divorced him in '61, after five years of marriage to a junkie she wanted a normal life! He was devastated, but for any addict, not finding the next fix is the most devastating thing imaginable. Later on in '61 he bought a lovely German Shepherd pup and the two of them became inseparable.

During the first half of the 60s he worked a lot with Tubby Hayes—including a famous 'sit-in' by Dizzy Gillespie when they were playing at Ronnie Scott's in November '61—and Joe Harriott, in '62 played a couple of nights with Dexter Gordon at Ronnie's (Dexter: "Every night there was a new drummer—but Seamen was great!"), recorded with Carmen McRae, in '64 played r&b with Alexis Korner, Georgie Fame. Started teaching in 1962 and one of his pupils was Ginger Baker, who went on to influence a whole generation of rock drummers. However, heroin really was getting the better of him, his health was deteriorating, and increasingly many bandleaders would not hire him any more. So Seamen did work at Ronnie Scott's—with British bands, but it is a grave misconception that he was ever 'the house drummer.' Whereas Stan Tracey was 'the house pianist' from 1960-67, Ronnie would not book Seamen to back the visiting Americans because he was 'so fucked-up and a tad unreliable,' and one must remember these were 3-week stints. Notable exceptions were with Freddie Hubbard in '64 and Roland Kirk in '67 (followed by a UK tour).

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