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The tale of a Burton music enigma is to be told at last

By Burton Mail  |  Posted: October 13, 2012

Phil Seamen

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AN article written 10 years ago by the late Mail legend Andy Parker inspired a South Derbyshire author to tell the tale of Burton's most famous musical figure. 

The son of a Marston's brewery worker, Phil Seamen would become the country's most in-demand jazz drummer, earning the respect and admiration of the great and the good of the world of music.

Seamen died 40 years ago today, when years of drug and alcohol abuse finally caught up with him, but while his legacy lives on, he remains a criminally underappreciated figure in his home town.

Former football referee and semi-retired recruitment firm owner PETER DAWN, from Hartshorne, has travelled the length and breadth of the country to finally tell the tale of a music enigma, and is seeking help to put in place the final pieces of the jigsaw.

PHIL Seamen died in his flat in Old Paradise Street in Lambeth, south London, on Friday October 13, 1972 — 40 years ago today.

Some of you will be saying ‘Is it that long?’, but the majority are probably asking ‘Who’s Phil Seamen?’.

Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones said: “Phil was a one-off player and is probably the best drummer we’ve ever had. There’s a whole crowd of guys who were influenced by him.” For close on 20 years, Phil was the outstanding drummer in Britain. He set the standard. As a drummer he gave everything and as a character he wasn’t exactly retiring.

His amazing talent has never received proper recognition in his home town, something that the late Andy Parker campaigned for over many years — and today it is appropriate to put that right.

Phillip William Seamen was born in Victoria Crescent on August 28, 1926, the only child of Joseph Phillip Seamen (Joe) and Florence Ellen Seamen (Flo). Phil went to Stafford Street Infants and Broadway Central School, in Branston Road.

He started playing drums when he was six and assembled what he later referred to as his ‘Heinz 57 kit’. Peggy Ross and Armsbee Bancroft were fellow pupils. Phil took his drums to school and they, together with Eileen Woodhouse, would accompany him on piano at concerts in the school hall.

The family moved to Outwoods Street and, Phil, leaving school at 14, was helped by his father, a brewery foreman at Marston’s, to get a job at the firm as an electrician’s mate.

He used to pick up supplies from Bargates Cafe, in Bridge Street, owned by Len Reynolds, who had a band called the Metro Dance Orchestra and when he needed a replacement drummer, he invited Phil, at the age of 14 and a half, to join.

They played at venues throughout the Midlands four or five nights a week and often wouldn’t get back to Burton until 2am. Phil was working 10 hours a day and would arrive at the brewery half asleep. Even in those days he was burning the candle at both ends.

Phil discovered jazz, buying 78s by Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa, and practised to them with the window wide open, much to the annoyance of the neighbours.

Len formed the Metro Jive Cats with his son Tony The tale of a Burton music on saxophone, Ted Gibbs on piano and Phil on drums.

They would play jazz during the interval of dances, which gave Phil some outlet for his talent, and everyone would gather around the stage to watch.

In March 1945 Len’s Orchestra won the Birmingham and District Dance Band Championship at Stoke. This qualified them for the All England Championship later in the year.

Len, who hadn’t been well, wasn’t able to conduct and Tony took over the baton.

They did well, finishing fifth.

Phil won a cup for the best drummer, which was the start of him becoming more widely recognised as a rising star.

Phil carried on working at the brewery and would come home for his dinner, cycling along the canal towpath and saying to Flo: “How much longer have I got to put my overalls on?”

She would reply: “Your turn will come.” Sure enough, in late 1944, aged 18, he got home and a telegram had arrived from Nat Gonella asking him to go to London to join his Georgians.

He took the capital by storm and as word got around he was in demand. He left Gonella to join Paul Fenoulhet and later Tommy Sampson’s Big Band, who were the most popular dance band of the time. In 1948 he joined Joe Loss, spending a summer season on the Isle of Man. He was living his boyhood dream.

In 1951, Jack Parnell formed a band and Phil became the drummer. Jack wanted to make an impact and being a drummer himself they devised a synchronised drum feature between the two of them.

It was the first time this had been done and they launched it at the Jazz Jamboree in October. They recorded ‘The Champ’, ‘Skin Deep’ and ‘Kick Off’.

The Parnell band was one of the most exciting bands this country has ever seen. It toured, appearing in Derby, where coachloads would go to see them.

The high spot was the drum battle between the two men and every night the crowd went wild.

In America, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were developing music that transformed jazz and became known as ‘bebop’. Phil had met Ronnie Scott, Tubby Hayes, Kenny Graham and Victor Feldman who embraced the music. In Phil’s words: “We were knocked out.”

Phil also discovered the layered and melodic approach of African drumming and analysed music from Cuba and the Caribbean. What developed was Phil’s own special and distinctive drum style — a mix of big band swing, bebop and African drumming.

Jazz drummers traditionally held their sticks where the right hand used an overhand grip and the left an underhand grip. Phil held both sticks in an overhand grip, referred to as the ‘matched grip’.

He was told he held his sticks incorrectly but paid no attention.

It was a major factor in how Phil sounded different. Charlie Watts refers to it as ‘Phil’s tymp style’, which is now used by most drummers in Britain and which he was responsible for.

The American pioneers of bebop took drugs and most British jazz musicians, including Phil, wrongly thought that to play like them they needed to do the same.

In February 1954, Parnell had a touring revue called Jazz Wagon. Phil met and got engaged to Leonie Franklin, a beautiful dancer, and they married in 1956.

Phil left Parnell and joined Ronnie Scott. In February 1957 he was on his way to America when, despite promises he would ‘go straight’, customs at Southampton found drugs. This stopped him ever going to the States.

He was offered the drum seat in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and, becoming more drug dependent, separated from Leonie just before its opening. Phil played throughout its run of 1,039 performances, first at Manchester’s Opera House and then at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, closing in December 1958.

There are hundreds of stories where the Phil Seamen legend looms large. He was larger than life and he did do all the outrageous things people talk about.

Fearless and a rebel, he was afraid of nobody. He fell asleep in the orchestra pit of West Side Story, woke up, thought he had missed hitting a gong, hit it, realised he had made a mistake, stood up and announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, dinner is served.” His cry of ‘nurse’ to the barmaid and ‘skint’ at the sight of a Rolls-Royce were typical. He was banned from restaurants and had problems at the Polish Embassy and with a TV producer in Rome.

Everything happened to Phil! He played with Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes in the most successful of all British jazz groups, The Jazz Couriers. A member of Joe Harriott’s Quintet that pioneered ‘free jazz’.

Their album ‘Free Form’ received a fivestar rating from the American Down Beat magazine, the first British jazz recording to do so.

Rock ‘n’ roll changed the music scene and the 60s meant little work for jazz musicians. Phil was in demand as a studio drummer and we will never know the hundreds of chart hits he played on, although they include Acker Bilk’s Stranger On The Shore, which reached number one on both sides of the Atlantic.

In 1962, Phil returned to Burton to try to kick his drugs habit. The Brian Fennel Quartet played at the Market Hotel’s Eight Bar Rest jazz club which Phil would visit, asking Dave Brown if he could ‘have a knock’.

He joined Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated in early 1963, replacing his protege Ginger Baker. He was clean of drugs, but it wasn’t long before he returned to them.

Ronnie Scott had opened his famous jazz club, where Phil used to ‘hang out’, and he backed Americans who came over, such as Stan Getz and Roland Kirk.

He would regularly make trips north to play Manchester, Leeds and The Cavern in Liverpool and recorded some classic albums with Dick Morrissey and Harry South, but his health continued to deteriorate.

The 1970s saw something of a comeback. Cream had broken up and Ginger Baker formed Airforce and asked Phil to join. They did concerts at Birmingham Town Hall and the Royal Albert Hall and toured, but after three months Phil left as ‘they were too bloody loud’.

He was doing regular gigs in London pubs such as the Hope and Anchor in Islington and the Plough at Stockwell, with Chris Welch writing in Melody Maker: “Get off down there, Phil’s enjoying a renaissance.” It was not to be. Just when he seemed to be getting things back together he fell asleep in his chair and didn’t wake up.

This was no overdose but a build-up over the years of the barbiturates, alcohol and smoking that should have killed him years before but caught up with him in the end.

His ashes were spread in the Golders Green Crematorium remembrance garden.

A final word from Ginger Baker: “Phil was without doubt the most talented drummer to come out of Europe.” And to think he came from Burton-on- Trent . . .

(Copyright Peter Dawn)


PERIODICALLY, Andy Parker would sound off in his Burton Mail music pages that there was going to be a book about Phil, who has a cult following worldwide, but nothing happened.

He did it again about 10 years ago when I was looking for something to do in retirement and, being keen on music and jazz, decided to investigate.

I discovered that Phil only made three recordings in his own name. He played in other people’s groups and bands. Unless I could trace his musical career I hadn’t really got a story.

I set out to find and collect recordings that he played on. I now know of around 250, own more than 200 and have completed a discography.

I started researching in earnest two years ago. I have interviewed 50 people locally and more than 100 from all parts of this country and abroad, who knew and played with him, and have spent 50 hours listening to material in the National Sound Archive.

This has all been transcribed, I am now ready to write it up and hope to complete it for publication next year. I’m only sorry that Andy isn’t with us to be able to read it.

If there are any relatives, neighbours, workmates, musicians who played with him in local bands or anyone who saw him play, it isn’t too late to make your contribution.

I would particularly like to hear from anyone who I haven’t already spoken to who has photographs or cine film of Phil. I can be contacted by calling 01283 222533 or emailing peter@peterdawn.co.uk

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  • Burton Mail  |  January 19 2013, 11:41PM

    I was a tronbonist in the guards and keen on learning jazz.I lived around the corner from the plough in Stockwell.Phil played regularly there I remember him doing a drum battlewith an unknown drummer Martin Drew who went on to play with Oscar Peterson.The night Phil died I was doing a gig in New cross with amate of Phils Tenor player Gerry Skelton. On hearing the news he broke down and cried.

  • Burton Mail  |  January 06 2013, 12:00PM

    There is a magnificent four cd set called "The Phil Seaman Story" which was released by Proper Records in 2011. Anybody who is interested in great jazz music or just great drumming should check it out.

  • Burton Mail  |  October 15 2012, 4:39PM

    My son-in-law,Kevin Neal,owns a set of Zildian Hi-Hats that once belonged Phil Seaman, aparently his father was a contempory of Phil's and knew Phil's father. i used these once and they superb!!!!