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Ronnie Stephenson: 1937-2002
Ronnie Stephenson

Born: January 26, 1937 in Sunderland, England
Died: August 8, 2002 in Dundee, Scotland

Ronnie Stephenson, major UK jazz drummer

Copyright © 2002 

The Scotsman


Ronnie Stephenson was one of the most in-demand drummers on the British jazz scene in the 1960s. The relentless work schedule and his involvement in the endemic drug scene of the time eventually led him to move to Germany, where he maintained his career until 1995. He retired from music on medical advice, and settled in Scotland, where he turned to golf as a restorative.

His initial ambition as a child was to be a tap dancer like his idol, Gene Kelly. Instead, he put his innate feel for time and rhythm to use as a drummer, encouraged by his father and his elder brother, pianist Bob Stephenson.

He claimed to have played his first gig in public in the same week as he took his first drum lesson at the age of 14, and was soon working professionally with his brother, and then with Ray Chester’s Sextet.

He spent ten months touring with singer Lita Roza, then was conscripted for national service in 1955-57. He worked briefly in Scotland, then moved to London, where his jobs included backing female impersonater Danny La Rue and comedian Ronnie Corbett at Winston’s Club.

He moved to Newcastle in 1958, and formed the EmCee Five with trumpeter Ian Carr and pianist Mike Carr, one of the most highly regarded British jazz groups of the era. He replaced his friend Kenny Clare in the John Dankworth Band in late 1960, beating off a challenge from Ginger Baker, the only other drummer auditioned, and remained with the saxophonist until 1963.

He joined the Stan Tracey Trio in that year, a passport to playing with a long list of visiting American stars at Ronnie Scott’s Soho club, including the likes of saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, and Zoot Sims, guitarist Wes Montgomery, and singer Ella Fitzgerald, as well as British jazz stars Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott and John Dankworth.

He maintained an equally busy parallel career as a studio and television musician. He refused many offers to move to America, but the pressure of his punishing schedule and problematic lifestyle began to tell.

In the interests of self-preservation, he accepted an offer to work with Kurt Edelhagen in 1969, and moved to Cologne. He held that job for three years, then worked with pianist Paul Kuhn in Berlin, and toured all over Europe with a variety of leaders.

He joined the orchestra at the Theater des Westens in Berlin in 1981, and remained there until his retirement on health grounds in 1995. He taught at the University of Berlin from 1990-93.

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