Gary James' Interview With Wings Drummer
He made his way from Lehighton, Pennsylvania to New York City where he became a top studio musician. From there it was on to Paul McCartney where he played drums on albums such as "Ram", "Wildlife" and "Red Rose Speedway". Denny Seiwell spoke to us about his musical journey.
Q - Denny, you're in Los Angeles and you're giving drum lessons out of your house? Is that what you're doing as we speak?
A - Actually I'm playing with a couple of bands and I do some teaching at home to special students, but I formed a jazz trio. It's called The Denny Seiwell Trio. It's made up of an organ, guitar and drums. It's kind of jazz. It crosses over a few genres of music. Our first record is called "Reckless Abandon". It's got five McCartney tunes on it that we've kind of made ours and put it into our genre of music. We play around. We play in all the jazz clubs out here. We've actually performed in New York and up in Pennsylvania and in Washington. Now we're setting up a little West Coast swing from Seattle down to San Diego and we're fixin' to make our second record as a matter of fact. That's one band. The other band I play with is a band named Shelby Flint. It's a girl singer. We were very popular and the biggest draw in Los Angeles in the 1980s. We made a second record that was never released that we are about to release any day now. Fans had been bugging us for 25 years to get back together and we have recently. We did three sold-out shows. That's really a lot of fun. Both my trio and Shelby Flint can be found on YouTube. There are some great YouTube clips of us up there. So, your readers can get a kick out of that. Then I do some teaching at home here. I have a lot of the young guys that are playing in really big bands actually that come to me to brush up their skills and learn how to take their drumming to another level and reading music and translating parts. I really enjoy the teaching. I do give clinics around the country every so often where I represent the companies that I endorse, the equipment that I use. I'm pretty damn busy to tell you the truth! (laughs) And your readers will probably like this new thing we've got up and running. It's a company called musinq.com, like if you took musician's inquiry. It's a website where you can actually go on and we have a roster of people like Davey Johnstone from Elton John's band, Steve Porcaro from Toto, myself, Lenny Castro, a great percussionist with Toto and Boz Scaggs, and tons and tons of other people. Also Nathan East just joined us. So, you can go online and talk to those celebrity musicians if you will and ask them questions about the business, about how they got there, how they keep the gig, what amp or drum they used on certain recordings. You can ask them all kinds of questions. We are just now setting up this website that when you become a member of it, you'll actually here the answer to your question in the celebrity musician's voice. You'll hear the actual guy answering your question! This doesn't exist on the Internet. So, we are quite excited about this. We launched it last year (2012). It was all typing, but we had 7000 questions the first month and the guys were very excited about doing it. Now that were up in the game, it's really going to be nice.
Q - It sounds like you're doing part of my job. Maybe those guys won't want to give interviews anymore.
A - I don't know about that. As busy as we are, we still do interviews. It's not really an interview. When the fans write in or ask a question, it's just like a question or two. It's not like sitting down and doing an interview like we are doing now.
Q - Can you mention any of the names of people you're giving drum lessons to?
A - I can give you one of them, a fellow by the name of Ryan MacMillan. He studies with me off and on whenever he's not touring. (Ryan is the drummer for Matchbox Twenty) There's a few other guys too.
Q - I've been told that Los Angeles is a place to go if you are looking for musicians, but in terms of finding gigs it's very difficult. You are telling me you can still find places to perform?
A - Well, yes. There's a pretty thriving jazz world out here. I've kind of grown out of rock 'n roll if you will and I'm going back to my roots, playing a little more jazz oriented, not crazy jazz from the '30s and '40s or any of that stuff. It's just more modern-day jazz. It's just a step up from the rock world and there is a lot of that going on out here. There's a lot of places to play in the rock world, but a lot of it is "pay to play" where the people actually have to bring in so many people. They have to put some money in up front. There is very little if any money to be made in the club scene here. You don't really make any money playing music until you leave L.A.
Q - Is teaching drums satisfying to you? And is it lucrative for you?
A - Absolutely, yeah. I don't have like 30 or 40 students. I have students that I really care about. The kids that come to me as young as 10 years old and have a gift; two of my students I've worked with about eight or nine years and they're both in NYU (New York University), right now in the music department. So, I'm really proud of the work I get to do with those guys and to watch them grow and get into the music world. Even though the music world is bleak, they go in with all of the skills they need to make it. And that's always great to be able to pass that on.
Q - What kind of place was Lehighton, Pennsylvania?
A - It's just a little borough, a mile square, 7000 people, but it was a very musical town. We had a Boys Band Association. When I was seven years old I started receiving drum lessons and playing with 40 kids, playing marches on a Tuesday night. Then when you get a couple of years older you get up to the senior bands. So, you got a couple of nights playing with a concert band in high school and orchestra. And I had a dad who was a drummer. We had a lot of music in my family. It was kind of a natural thing. By the time I was nine years old, I knew what I was going to be and do.
Q - When did you make your way to New York City?
A - Well, I got out of the service in 1966. I was in the Navy band. My last stationing was in the South of France I was on the Admiral of the Sixth Fleet's ship in the band there. I actually met this girl in France that I got married to. When she came over, we went into New York City and started my career. We are still married since 1966. That's a long time! (laughs) My first gigs were up in the Catskills playing a few of the hotels for a singer / dance team / comedian. Then all of a sudden my skills got recognized by some guys in New York and they told me to come into the city and I started going into New York to do some sessions and I landed a gig at the Half Note, which is the famous old jazz club. I became the house drummer there. I was mainly playing with guys like Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. They are two of the greats. I got to play with a lot of the greats at the Half Note. I did that for about a year and a half, two years, while I was starting to become "the" guy in the studio world in New York. That's how Paul came to town, to hire a couple of musicians to do the "Ram" album. He contacted Barry Kornfield who was a very knowledgeable guitar player in the studio world. He asked for a couple of recommendations. "Who were the hot guys on drums and guitars?" He auditioned 10 or 12 drummers and a handful of guitar players. I don't know how many he looked at. He hired me out of that batch and the rest is history.
Q - Whose sessions were you playing on?
A - One of the first records I made was with John Denver, a record called "Take Me To Tomorrow". I made some recordings with Astrud Gilberto and Stanley Turrentine. Then I made records with James Brown, Billy Joel, Janis Joplin, Art Garfunkel. The list goes on and on and on. I made records with Denise Williams and Rick Danko of The Band and Jennifer Warnes. I probably made close to 200 albums over the years.
Q - How did you find Janis Joplin to be in the studio?
A - She was already gone. And I mean that in every sense of the word. We were in San Francisco. I left Wings and this is something I don't talk about too often. My dear friend Henry McCullough, who has suffered a heart attack and is having a real tough time of it right now grabbing onto life, well Henry and I when we left Wings, we added Chrissy Stewart, a bass player from Spooky Tooth and Nick Weaver, an English guy who played in lots of bands. He was our keyboard guy. We had a band called "Druth", which means dry mouth and we were living in San Francisco. Elliott Mazer, the producer was in touch with the Janis Joplin estate. They had these beautiful tracks with Janice, with Big Brother And The Holding Company that were 'live' performances. The band was really shaky on a few of the tracks. They sounded like they were drunk. (laughs) It was stuff that was unusable, but Janice was great, and she was probably higher than all of them put together. Elliott asked us, the band, to come in and record over Big Brother And The Holding Company, and we did. It was quite a task actually to do that technologically. We heard Janice in the middle of our headphone mix and had Big Brother And The Holding Company on one side and we had the track we were laying down at the time on the other side of our phone mix and we recorded a bunch of songs with her like that. Her last record is called "The Farewell Song". It's on CBS. It's really cool.
Q - Too bad you didn't get to do it when she was around.
A - No kidding.
Q - Do you think personality weighed into the selection process for Paul McCartney's musicians?
A - Absolutely. We had a lot of fun during the interview process. I made him laugh a couple of times. We both seemed really comfortable with each other and he just liked my playing and my attitude. When he first hired me, he hired three drummers to do the "Ram" album and he booked each guy for a week. After the first couple of days, I was the first guy in the studio. After the first couple of days, he called the two other guys and just canceled them. He said "I'm going to use this Denny guy for the rest of the record." We hit it off right off the bat and had a great time making that record. It was one of the highlights of my life. It is the best record that I've ever made of all the records I did make. "Ram" is by far the best recording.
Q - Before making that record with Paul, were you a Beatles fan?
A - Well, sure. Who isn't? I wasn't a rabid Beatles fan. (laughs) I couldn't tell you or quote lines from songs, but I knew their music. I really appreciated what they had done. I just went in there pretending to be Ringo. I think that's how I got the job. Whenever Paul would play a song for me, I'd think, "What would Ringo do on this?" (laughs). I kind of put my own twist on something that had a lot of Ringo in it.
Q - Was it an intimidating experience to be in the studio with an ex-Beatle?
A - Not at all. He was just another guy. We are musicians. A week before that, I might've been working with Roy Orbison or Carl Perkins. Every week you're working with somebody of that quality. Paul was a little bit more. James Brown one day and then Paul McCartney the next. This is the kind of stuff we were used to. That might have been one of the reasons he hired me, because I wasn't awestruck by his personality or who he was in the world. I was respectful of course, but not awestruck. You want to have people that you have peers with, so you can make that kind of music. And we did. We had a very, very... We didn't have to talk to express ideas. We could do it musically with just looks and what we would play and how we would treat a song or a passage from a song. It was great. We had a great communication.
Q - And after "Ram" you went out on the road with Paul?
A - He called me three or four months after "Ram" was out and said "C'mon over. Let's have a little vacation." I took my wife and went up to the farm in Scotland. When we got to Scotland, he said "Let's put a band together." I said "Yeah. That sounds like a good idea." So, we went back to New York and packed everything up and moved to England and formed the band Wings with Paul. Then we toured. We did the British university tour. We did a huge tour of Europe, then another proper British theater tour. So, I've done three tours with Paul.
Q - During that time did any of the other Beatles come backstage to say hello?
A - No. We didn't play any Beatle songs. We didn't talk about the Beatles. We were busy forming a new band. The same with "Ram". There was no talk of any of that stuff. There was a time when you knew Paul was really hurting from having to sue the other three Beatles to prove that there was something immensely wrong in their organization. That just devastated him. He was really, really sad for a little bit of time there, for a long period of time, but he never brought it into work with him. But we sensed what was going on.
Q - At the end of the night, after a gig, would he ever tell stories of for example what it was like to come over to the states in 1964?
A - Oh, he'd tell stories like that occasionally. I remember out at L Street we were filming the James Paul McCartney TV special and we had a lot of time while they're setting up shots. We're just hanging out in the dressing rooms. Every once in a while he talked about some of the old days with the Beatles, but it wasn't very often, and we spent a lot of time together. It was like a family. That band in the beginning, we were in the trenches with him, the university tour. He drove that damn band. We had wives, kids and dogs in the van. We set out trying to find a place to play. We didn't have a gig booked. We didn't have hotel reservations. And he was driving that damn van. We had a lot of time for that stuff. If we were all talking about our past experiences, he'd throw in a Beatles story just to top us. But it really wasn't the topic of conversation at any point. If he brought it up, great. We really didn't care. I think Denny Laine knew all the other lads. He was close with John. He probably initiated more than anybody simply because he was part of that whole time period.
Q - Looking back on it, his days in Hamburg, Germany would probably have been the most interesting.
A - Yeah.
Q - You were on three albums with Paul.
A - Right.
Q - That translates into three or four years with him?
A - Yeah, approximately.
Q - Then you left.
A - I left because of financial matters. Henry (McCullough) had just left. Henry left when we were up in Scotland. Here we were getting ready to go to Lagos and cut "Band On The Run" and we still had no agreement in writing. We had a verbal agreement that didn't hold any water. I'd already made "Wildlife" and "Red Rose Speedway" with that agreement in mind, but I never received a dime from that. It became a financial matter at that point and the fact that we weren't getting that document, letter of agreement, that never came. I said "you know what? This is not good. My interests are not being looked after here." I should have sat him down and talked to him and said "look, I won't do this anymore!" But instead I was infuriated by a couple of things that happened and I just called him up and said "I'm leaving. I'm done here." So that was the only regret that I have.
Q - You didn't have representation yourself?
A - Nobody had representation. We didn't have management. We didn't have an office. We had a little office with a telephone and a secretary in it and sometimes our checks would come two weeks late. We made a little retainer, just a couple of bucks to live off of. I'm telling you, it was really, really minuscule. We were one of the top bands, if not the top band in the '70s and we had nothing to show for it. That end of it was so wrong.
Q - You left Paul then and came back to the States?
A - Henry and I put this band together. We moved to San Francisco. I didn't want to go back to the rat race in New York. It was too hard to keep up with that style of life. So, we thought we'd try the band in San Francisco. We did pretty well. We made records. We made a half dozen records up there. That band kind of fizzled out and Henry and Mick went down to Santa Barbara to join Joe Cocker's band. Then we lost track of each other for many, many years. I didn't see Henry again until we both did a Beatles Fest in Liverpool, oh, I don't know, seven or eight years ago (2005 or 2006). We were both invited as guests to a Beatles Fest over there. I saw Henry again and then last year (2012), Henry and I were invited to the Beatles Fest in New Jersey. I suggested to Henry that he do some Beatles songs, just record them, guitar, voice, and send them over to me and I'd put drums on 'em and mix them and we'd finish the record here. So, he did that and we made this album with Beatle tunes. It's really quite nice. It's actually available on my website www.DennySeiwell.com. It's called "Shabby Road". (laughs) It's Henry and his different take. It's not a cover of the Beatles songs the way they did them. They're all slightly different. It's all Henry's versions of their versions. It's really a unique little album. I'm quite proud of it actually.
Q - Do you ever go back and listen to the songs you played drums on and say to yourself "I wish I could go back and play that differently?"
A - Not really. I really don't. Every time I hear some of the stuff I did in the past, I'm just really proud of it. I don't think I'd go back and redo anything I did.