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The Late Great Phil Seamen

Michael Baird By

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Phillip William Seamen was born in Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, on August 28th 1926 and died on Friday 13th October 1972—he fell asleep in a chair in his abode on Old Paradise Street in Lambeth, south London, and didn't wake up any more. The police were called in quite quickly and their pathologist began by taking a sample of Phil's blood, which is usual procedure. Back in the lab he could not believe his eyes—the level of barbiturates was so high that medically speaking Phil should not have been alive at all prior to his death! This was no overdose, but a build-up over the years. The guy had some kind of superhuman stamina and it's true, there is the odd exceptional junkie who somehow can handle amounts that kill everybody else - and god knows he was one of them. But it finally all caught up with him, aged 46. His ashes were spread in Golders Green Crematorium remembrance garden, northwest London. Phil Seamen is arguably the greatest jazz drummer Europe has ever produced. But let's not confine his talent to 'jazz' or Europe—he was a great drummer, period.

Seamen took to drugs like a duck to water. The French have an accurate word for that—toxicomane—meaning having a talent for addiction. He was a born raver. He consumed the drugs and they then consumed him; that's how it goes with junk. All washed down with copious amounts of alcohol. It's a wonder he lasted so long. But Seamen had a sharp wit and great sense of humour, which he also unsparingly applied to himself, and which must have helped him cope, along with his love for music and unfailing desire to play. As a young man he was physically big, with a chest and everything, but by the late 50s he was just a head, hands and feet, hooked on heroin. Still, he was such a good drummer and sight-reader, he was continually in demand, also being the king of the recording sessions—everyone wanted him. But getting into the 1960s, he became more and more unreliable and lost most of the recording work (he complained about magnets under his bed, which prevented him from getting up!). Whereas he had been a jazz star and acclaimed drummer throughout the 50s, as the 60s progressed his heroin addiction caused him big problems and there were periods when he had sunk pretty low. On top of that, jazz in England was ousted by the rise of pop, soul, rock music and the general onslaught of Aquarius. These were some hard and disillusioning years for the jazz scene, work became marginalised to certain pubs—plus the one and only Ronnie Scott Club—none of which paid 'particularly well.'


Seamen started playing drums at the age of six. Grew up in the jazz and dance big band era. Turned professional at the age of 18 by joining Nat Gonella and his Georgians in 1944. About this move and how he came to be such a good reader, Seamen explained: "Nat was a marvel. He was a father to me—he looked after me, you know. Ten days before I joined the business, I went out and bought a drum tutor to learn how to read. Nat used to make me stay behind after the band rehearsals to practice my parts. If I made a mistake I got a clip round the earhole—sharp and swift, because Nat wouldn't stand for it. We used to get Tommy Dorsey arrangements, which had the Buddy Rich drum solos written out. And believe you me, if you've ever seen a Buddy Rich drum solo, it looks like flyshit—and that's not very nice at all!" Seamen also mentioned that he had Britian's first bebop combo together with members of the Gonella band (alto saxophonist Johnny Rogers, tenor saxophonist Kenny Graham and bassist Lennie Bush amongst others), and that Nat did not consider it music. Joined the powerhouse Tommy Sampson Orchestra in 1948, and by 1949 bop had become a real factor: Seamen and tenor saxophonist Danny Moss formed a bebop quintet from within the ranks which was even featured on a radio broadcast by the orchestra in September of '49. He then went on to play in the Joe Loss Orchestra for about 14 months, the most popular dance band of the time. Then the top job with Jack Parnell from 1951 until midway '54, from 12 to 17-piece band. Seamen was much sought after during the 50s, he set the standard—also playing in Kenny Graham's Afro-Cubists projects from 1952-58, from 1954 onwards with the Joe Harriott Quartet, the Ronnie Scott Orchestra and Sextet, and an ever extending list including Dizzy Reece, Victor Feldman, Jimmy Deuchar, Kenny Baker, Don Rendell, Stan Tracey, Tubby Hayes, Laurie Johnson, as well as blues stars Big Bill Broonzy and Josh White, countless sessions.


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