Nurse!* I give you the one and only Phil Seamen

Read Mark Baxter's (AKA The Mumper of SE5) blog for Art Gallery Clothing. The Speakeasy is published online every Monday. The Speakeasy is now available as a paperback series. available exclusively from artgalleryclothing.co.uk Bax's musings cover all things mod, everything from sixties film. music & style to football, cycling & art

I’ve always had an eye for a quality photo and one day in a Sunday Supplement back in the early 80’s, I saw an image of a drummer, who  I didn’t instantly recognise, but discovered was Phil Seamen. I loved the photograph, which was by Sefton Samuels and it’s the one accompanying this posting,  and managed got myself a print of it, which remained on a wall in my flat for many years.  As I weaved away and delved deeper into the world of jazz, I eventually realised how highly rated Seamen was by his peers. I also noticed a lot of comment of his chaotic lifestyle and industrial sized drug taking in particular. 

So, having recently finished the forensically researched biography ‘Phil Seamen – Percussion Genius’ by Peter Dawn, it struck me that if anyone deserves a Speakeasy blog, then it is Phil. He was born Philip William Seamen on October 28, 1926, in Burton upon Trent, the only son of Flo and Joe. Marston’s, the local Brewery loomed large in his life, with his father Joe working there, as did he himself a few years later, as an electrical apprenticeship after leaving school aged 14. 

He had begun playing the drums from the age of 4, and eventually made up his kit from a variety of odds and sods which he picked up. This became known as his ‘Heinz 57’. The world of jazz then reached his ears, by listening to 78’s by the likes of Gene Krupa and Count Basie among others. Quickly obsessed, he practiced religiously playing along to the records. 

Self-taught, he joined a local semi pro-outfit run by Tony Reynolds, and they became well known in the surrounding Midlands area. His unique way (then) of the holding of his drumsticks, later known as a matched grip – i.e. holding each stick in each hand, the same way –  brought him a certain  notoriety, and demands from future band leaders for him to change.  Phil refused and that style is now how most drummers hold their sticks today.

His brewery apprenticeship completed in 1945, Phil turned professional, and moved to London to join Nat Gonella and his band The Georgians. Once there, his dedication to the art of drumming, coupled with an innate talent, saw his reputation grow very quickly. He moved on to play with the Joe Loss Orchestra and then in 1951, he joined the Jack Parnell band, and they quickly devised a drum duo duet that brought the house down, wherever it was performed. 

Around then, he had discovered not only the Bebop work of the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie Max Roach and Art Blakey, but had also became engulfed in the pervading drug culture associated with the scene and developed a heavy heroin addiction. For the time being though, his drumming continued to be in demand, due to his technical prowess and impeccable timing. His ability to drive any rhythm section, had made him a highly sought-after drummer for both live performances and studio recordings. Among the names he worked with, from the early 50s and into the 1960s, included Ronnie Scott, Kenny Graham, Dizzy Reece, Stan Tracey, Joe Harriott – then at the forefront of the burgeoning free form jazz scene – Victor Feldman and Tubby Hayes. Phil and Tubby, in particular, became very close and when Tubbs married Margaret (Maggie) Yates in 1953, Phil ended up living with the couple in their Brixton flat.

The musical association between Phil and Tubby  saw his  intuitive and dynamic drumming style perfectly complement Hayes’ energetic saxophone playing, resulting in a powerful and captivating musical partnership. The group’s recordings, including the influential album Tubby’s Groove recorded in late 1959 showcased Seamen’s ability to create complex rhythmic patterns while maintaining a deep sense of swing.

Phil had married West End dancer Leonie Franklin in 1956  and a year later he was booked to work with the Ronnie Scott quartet in the USA, a visit to where had been a lifelong dream for Phil. Sadly, before he boarded the Queen Mary for the trip out there, he was detained by customs officers at Southampton and found to have drugs in his possession. So, the dream was over and that would remain the case for the remainder of his life. However, his drumming reputation found composer Leonard Bernstein asking him to be take the drum chair when his musical West Side Story landed in the West End. Once in place, Phil was accompanied in the orchestra pit, by his devoted Alsatian dog Bill, who Phil couldn’t bear to be parted from, much to the bemusement of the fellow players and conductor.

Phil’s now full-on struggle with addiction to various drugs and drink, resulted in serious health issues that began to overshadow parts of his musical life. He was often late for a gig or ‘nodded out’ in the middle of a song. Somehow, he continued to perform and record throughout the 1960s and into the early 70s, with the likes of Don Rendell, Harold McNair, Tony Coe Dick Morrisey and famously Georgie Fame among them on the classic album Sound Venture. 

He also worked with Ginger Baker, a former pupil of Phil’s, who was perhaps his most devoted disciple. The former drummer for the band Cream, then asked Phil to join him in his Ginger Baker Air Force line up, where the drumming style blended elements of traditional jazz with more contemporary influences and African rhythms. 

As ever Phil’s uncanny ability to adapt to different musical contexts and genres demonstrated his versatility and artistic range.  His exceptional technique, innovative use of dynamics, and a deep understanding of the jazz tradition, plus his overall command of the drums, created intricate rhythms while maintaining a strong sense of groove and musicality. The solos were marked by their creativity, often incorporating complex patterns and polyrhythms, that simply captivated audiences.

1972 saw the release of The Phil Seamen Story , on which Phil not only played, but also spoke, relating his personal story in his own inimitable way. Unfortunately, Seamen’s battle with his drug dependency, ultimately took a toll on his health, and he died in his sleep in his flat in Old Paradise Street,  Lambeth on October 13th, 1972, at the age of 46. His death certainly left a void in the UK jazz community of that time, but his musical legacy lives on. His impact on the British jazz scene simply cannot be overstated. His remarkable talent always shone through.

Bud Freeman – (talking to newspapermen and critics) ‘See here you writers, you’ve just got to tell everyone that Phil Seamen is one of the world’s greatest drummers.’

Gene Krupa –  ‘When next you see Phil,  be sure to tell him how much I enjoyed his wonderful drumming in West Side Story. It gave me a real kick.’

Ginger Baker – ‘When Phil played me his African records it opened up a whole new world and changed my playing overnight. It saved me twenty years in three months.’

Louie Bellson  – ‘The first time I came over here I heard Jack Parnell’s band, and he had Phil Seamen playing drums with him and he was a terrific player. Boy, he could really swing, and do all the things that he had to do. There was an example of a guy that took care of business in a big band. Unfortunately, he didn’t make too many records. That was really a thrill, to watch and hear Phil play.’

Charlie Watts – ‘Phil was my idol, and he influenced a whole new generation of drummers. There is a legacy of players who emanate from Phil. [He’s] the best drummer we’ve ever had. Totally unique and what a life he led.’

*Nurse! –  Phil’s cry to a barmaid when requiring a drink.


The Mumper of SE5

Read The Mumper’s other weekly musings on ‘The Speakeasy’ blog page




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THE SPEAKEASY Volume Three by Mark Baxter (The Mumper)

Illustrations by Lewis Wharton

Foreword by Eddie Piller

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The Speakeasy Volume 3 by Mark Baxter, Bax began writing for the The Speakeasy on the Art Gallery Clothing site in 2017 & has covered various mod related subjects from music to film & clobber to art & literature.




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