Book review by Mark Griffiths -Editor in Chief Modern Drummer February 2023

Book review by Mark Griffiths -Editor in Chief Modern Drummer February 2023

One day in late 2022, my phone rang, it was drum industry stalwart John DeChristopher telling me that fellow drum industry vet Colin Schofield was trying to get in touch with me. I emailed Colin only to learn about a brand new book and an author that (according to Colin,) I should know about. If it was good enough for Colin and Johnny D, it deserved a close look. The subject of the book was Phil Seamen, and the author was Peter Dawn. A few weeks later the book arrived, and I started reading!

Even amongst some drummers, Phil Seamen is not a household name, but he should be. He is the patriarch of the British drumset tradition. His place in the annals of British modern jazz is paralleled only by the legendary saxophonist (and club owner) Ronnie Scott. Throughout the years, Seamen’s praises have been sung by everyone from Ginger Baker, to Carl Palmer, to Charlie Watts, and beyond. However, very little was known about Phil, his life, his career, or his many recordings...
Until now!

Enter author Peter Dawn. Peter grew up in the same town as Phil, he went to the same school, and he walked the same streets. Peter is an avid record collector, music lover. In his years working in law, psychology, and human resources, he has become a master interviewer and researcher. After retiring, Peter turned his finely tuned communication skills and his love of music towards the subject of Phil Seamen. For years there had been rumors in Burton on Trent about someone writing a biography on Phil, with the aim of shedding some light on this supremely talented yet tragic figure of the British jazz scene. Today, the mystery is over, and the book has arrived.

Peter Dawn’s new book Phil Seamen: Percussion Genius, Legendary Rebel, and Born Raver, has done much more than “shed some light” on Phil. The book details his entire life in painstaking detail. In the 600 plus pages, we learn precisely what made Phil tick. Peter explores all aspects of Seamen’s musical career, drumming genius, personal life, and his tragic demise that was shrouded in mystery. There could not be a more entertaining story to tell.

This book deserved much more than a review. I wanted to go directly to the source and find out how and why this book was made. I wanted to know why it took so long for someone to grab the reins of Phil Seamen’s life and squeeze it between the covers of a book. After reading the book, I wanted to learn even more about Phil, if that was indeed possible. It was.

MD: What was the inspiration behind writing this book?

PD: There had been rumors for many years that someone was writing a book on Phil’s life, but nothing ever materialized. In 2006 I started by tracing Phil’s musical career through collecting mainly vinyl recordings of his work as a sideman. It took about five years to find around 100 recordings as some are quite rare. After I compiled a draft discography, I started seeing the names of the different musicians that he had played with, I found the ones who were still alive, and I started interviewing them in 2011. All told, I interviewed about 240 people for the book.
I grew up about a mile away from where Phil was raised and lived, I saw him play once at a club called the Eight Bar Rest in our hometown of Burton on Trent. When Phil was in the club, a ripple of excitement would go around that “Phil is here.” I already knew many of the local semi-professional musicians that Phil came up and had worked with him early on, I started by interviewing them. When I started to interview the professionals that he worked with in London, I started to learn about his far-reaching musical and drumming influence. I interviewed Chris Welch who was the Features Editor for Melody Maker. Chris knew Phil and had interviewed him several times for Melody Maker. Chris later agreed
to be my editor for the book. I also interviewed Michael Baird (a drummer from Holland, not the LA drummer of the same name) who had written the booklet for the CD The Late Great Phil Seamen, that he put out on his SWP label. It was Michael who told me about the African rhythms that Phil had built into his drumming. Interviewing Chris and Michael was when I really knew that this was an important subject.

Then I moved on to the more well-known musicians that Phil had worked with, starting with legendary names like Stan Tracey, Tony Kinsey, and Don Rendell. I found a promoter from Manchester named Ernie Garside that had known Phil. Josie Barber (Ronnie Scott’s niece,) who Phil got engaged to and Leonie Craven who Phil married, both agreed to be interviewed. I discovered that the British Library had interviews on reel-to-reel tape with musicians who had died, such as Ronnie Scott, Kenny Clarke, Joe Harriott and Jack Parnell. Those recordings hadn’t seen the light of day for over forty years, and they were digitalized for me.

I quickly learned of the reverence that surrounded Phil. So many people and musicians wanted to talk to me about Phil, and they all seemed relieved that someone was finally researching Phil’s life and was going to tell his story.

MD: Were you prepared for the surprises that Phil’s story provided, and the trials and tribulations that he went through?

PD: When you are interviewing people, you have to learn the fine art of shutting up. You get the real gems after those pregnant pauses, and through just letting people speak. You seem to do that very well. I didn’t know anything about the drug side of things, that was a complete surprise. I was also unaware that many of the musicians in Phil’s time were Scottish, and many of them also happened to be Jewish. Although Phil wasn’t Jewish, the antisemitism of the day had an unfortunate effect on Phil’s life, and that subject intersected with his drug use.

MD: So many drummers revere Phil Seamen, what drummers did you interview about Phil?

PD: Rod Brown studied with Phil when he was 18, and he gave me exercises that Phil wrote out and he wrote out other drum exercises that Phil had taught him. Geoff Moss who now lives in France did the same. These exercises are included in the drumming chapter, as are some exercises that Phil taught Ginger Baker. Ronnie Parry was a contemporary of Phil’s and we talked quite a bit, I also interviewed Tommy Chase who was very forthcoming. Jon Hiseman and I spent five hours talking about Phil about three months before Jon died. I also interviewed John Marshall. John and Geoff Nicholls actually edited and proofed the drumming chapter just to be sure everything was correct.

Charlie Watts and I spoke extensively about Phil, Charlie adored and idolized him. Charlie actually wrote the Foreword of the book and let me include a drawing of Phil that Charlie created when he heard that Phil died. It was Charlie who arranged my interview with Ginger Baker, and Ginger and I talked for about three hours at his house down in Canterbury.

MD: Jon Hiseman, John Marshall, and (of course) Charlie Watts, those are legendary drummers. How did your interview with Ginger go?

PD: I knew he had the reputation of being a bit prickly. He had done the interview for the movie Beware of Mr. Baker about three months before we talked. Before I interviewed Ginger, I asked Chris Welch for some advice. He told me that I knew my subject, and to stick to it. He told me to only ask Ginger questions about Phil,
and if I did, I would be OK. About a half hour into our interview, Ginger smiled and said, “I’m actually enjoying this.” After that he really opened up, we got along very well, and the interview went great. Ginger was going to write the Foreword for the book, but he died before he could put pen to paper. That is when Charlie agreed to write the Foreword.

MD: What did Charlie Watts tell you about Phil? Charlie and I spoke once or twice about Phil, and I can still remember the sparkle in his eye when he talked about him.

PD: Phil was Charlie Watts’ hero. The first time that Charlie got his passport and travelled abroad, he went to Paris to hear Phil play at the Blue Note. That was the reason he got his first passport. Charlie told me that Phil influenced an entire generation of British drummers. According to Charlie, Phil was the first drummer in England of any standing to use the matched grip on the drumset exclusively. John Marshall told me how Phil popularized the matched grip, and as rock and roll became popular in England, many of the rock drummers latched on to that grip while most of the jazz drummers were still using the traditional grip. Then when the British rock drummers got to the States, American drummers saw the matched grip that Phil had used and had been adopted by the British rock drummers and adopted it for themselves. Is that something that you would agree with?

MD: I do know that American jazz drummer Tiny Kahn was using the matched grip very early on as well. As to who was fi rst Phil or Tiny? I don’t know. I know Phil started playing drums professionally in 1946 in England, and Tiny started professionally in 1948 in New York. There are many lessons and revelations in your book. What was your biggest takeaway from writing the book?

PD: Ultimately, it was a waste of talent. God gave Phil an abundance of talent, and in the end, he knew that he had blown it. Phil enjoyed himself and he didn’t compromise. Phil’s one ambition was to become a drummer, and he loved making people happy with his music. He achieved both things.

With so many musicians, all you can talk about with them is their music, but Phil was much more than that. He had a natural wit, he led an outrageous lifestyle, he was a born rebel, but people respected him. There is also a beautiful, yet sad, love story in Phil’s life, and in the end, there was a tragic accident too. The accident contributed towards his death. There has always been some mystery surrounding his death.

MD: Phil’s story is simply fascinating. Do you think there might be a movie adaptation? It’s got a little bit of everything!

PD: There has been some talk about that. When Phil was alive, he was approached by Gordon Williams who wrote a book called The Siege of Trencher’s Farm. They made it into a film called Straw Dogs. An American film maker wanted Gordon to write Phil’s life story so that he could turn it into a film.

I believe that the fact that someone had actually asked Phil about his life story was the spark behind the recording of the rare LP The Phil Seamen Story. But Phil didn’t want to do a film until after his parents had died, and unfortunately Phil died before his parents, so nothing ever came of it.

There hasn’t been much written about the post-war music scene in Britain. People start talking about English music in the late 50s with Skiffl e and rock and roll. But Phil’s story is also a picture of the music scene and the jazz musicians after the war, and how those musicians and that scene contributed to the beginning of rock and roll in the 60s.

MD: That is another very intersting aspect to your book, that is an ignored part of music history. This is a riveting book, and a spellbinding tale of drumming and music history from an era of music that is rarely discussed. From my own listening and previous research, Phil Seamen was a great drummer, and an intriguing human being, I’m so glad you wrote this. Phil Seamen: Percussion Genius, Legendary Rebel, and Born Raver is a book that many drummers will enjoy. While they are enjoying Phil’s story, they will also learn a great deal about drumming and life. It is one of the best biographies about a musician that I have ever read.

PD: Thank you very much.

Peter has self-published the book. He has also had remastered over 100 recordings that Phil played on that are available for download. For more information and to buy the book, go to: Peter can be contacted at

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