Fleming's Life "note" worthy
By Tom Mahon
Irish American Staff
Sean Fleming likes to play music.
Doesn't matter where, doesn't matter
Back in 1969, Fleming sat in a
helicopter flying high above war-torn
Vietnam. He and the pilot were trying to
locate some troops that he was supposed
As they searched, Fleming daydreamed
of what could have been - what should
Just a year and a half earlier his life was
full of promise. He had appeared on the
Merv Griffin show several times and
had signed a record and a movie deal
with MGM. With any luck, the talented
musician and singer was on his way to
fame and fortune.
And then it happened.
"I was a resident alien and back then you could be drafted if
you had a green card," said Fleming, who hails from Country
Kerry in Ireland. "I spent the next two years in the Army."
Making the best of a bad situation, Fleming, who was already
proficient on the accordion, learned to play the guitar while
in the Army.
"I would play for guys in the MASH units from time to
time," said Fleming. "One day, General Hayes, a woman who
was the head of the Army Nurses Corp, saw me perform and
told me that what I was doing [with the guitar] was more
important than what I was doing with an M-16. So for the last
five months or so I played for the troops. But even that was
extremely dangerous. Often times it was just myself and a
pilot in a helicopter flying around looking for US troops in
places that you wouldn't think troops would be. We would
radio ahead and ask them to send up smoke to let us know
where they were located."
Fleming survived the war, but his budding career took a
"I was just glad to get out of there alive," Fleming said. "The
first guy I shared a tent with never made it back. After I came
out I had to start (my career) from scratch. Everything
changes quickly in the entertainment business and when I got
back things had changed dramatically."
The calendar told him it was 1971, just two years since he'd
made the last of seven appearances on the Merv Griffin
show. But in show business, two years is an eternity, and
Fleming found himself starting over, trying to work his way
back to where he was before he got drafted.
Once he had shared the stage with such notable performers as
the Beach Boys, Della Reese and Rodney Dangerfield. Now,
he found himself back in New York City performing a solo
act. - just himself and an acoustic guitar - in small clubs and
pubs. Eventually, he formed several bands and played several
large venues including Carnegie Hall and Philadelphia's
Robin Hood Dell.
You can catch The Sean Fleming Band at the Bucks County
Irish Festival at the Phoenix Club in Feasterville on June 4,
and at the annual 2000 Irish Festival on June 17 - 18 at
Penn's Landing in Philadelphia. Fleming who plays guitar,
synthesizer and accordion heads up one of the most talented
On drums is Steve Holley, who has backed up some of the
biggest names in music, including Paul McCartney and
Wings, Elton John, Kiki Dee, Joe Cocker and Julian Lennon.
On guitar is Justin Jordan, who has played with the likes of
the Turtles (Flo & Eddy), the Shirelles, Joey Dee and the
Starlites and Frankie Ford.
And on bass is Bruce Gordon, who has recorded with Ray
Davies of "The Kinks." Gordon, who started out playing
blues and R&B in Buffalo, NY, has a diverse musical
background. He was a member of the new wave band "The
Screaming Honkers," which appeared in the movie "Ishtar,"
and has also performed in a country and western swing band
called the Jazz Cowboys."
And, of course, there is Fleming, whose Irish roots help give
the band a unique, hard-driving sound.
Those who knew Sean Fleming as a lad growing up in a golf
club house on the shores of the Lakes of Killarney, could
never have imagined that he would end up performing in a
Celtic rock band.
A golf pro maybe. Fleming to this day is and avid duffer who
has played some of the best courses in the world including
Pine Valley in New Jersey.
But a Celtic rock performer?
Surely, he loved music, but in the beginning he played
anything but rock and roll.
"I guess I was about 4 or 5 when I got interested in music,"
he said. "I got a harmonica every year for my birthday and I'd
found an old accordion in the closet and learned how to play
that too. I was amazed at how easy it was for me to get a
sound out of it. I went from that to the piano accordion and
was a member of the Killarney Monastery Accordion Band, a
group run by Brother Finian [of the Christian Brothers order].
We would play marches, semiclassical, waltzes - music of
that genre. But certainly no traditional Irish music. In my
opinion, it's really impossible to learn traditional Irish music
through notes. You have to play it by ear, you have to live it."
"I used to play a lot of traditional Irish music on the regular
accordion. And when I came to New York I played for the
dances and feises."
"Playing for feises isŠ. well you have to have the patience of
Job," he continued with a laugh. "I'd play the same song, 35
times for a group of 4-5 and 6 year old dancers. But I think
that it's wonderful that the youngsters today are involved in
Irish dancing and I encourage it. It's nice to see them keep the
" I remember when I was growing up that people would go
out on St. Bridget's Day. Guys would dress as girls and girls
would dress as guys. And some people would put a little
band together and go from house to house and sing a song.
They'd get half a crown or whatever and take the money and
have a Biddy Ball. That's where I got my traditional Irish
That background has served Fleming and his band well as his
legion of fans continues to grow.
Fleming, like many others, is quick to credit one man with
the resurgence in the popularity of Irish music and dance.
"Michael Flatley" Fleming said, referring to the originator of
the wildly popular Riverdance. "There is certainly no doubt
in my mind that Riverdance had a tremendous impact on
"Before that you had groups such as the Pogues and the
Chieftains, but they didn't attract as large an audience. I know
a guy I Washington, D.C. who teaches Irish dancing. When I
first met him several years ago he had four or five students.
Now, He has over 325 and he's thinking of building has own
"And it's not just Irish Americans that are involved. There are
kids that have absolutely no affiliation with the Irish who are
taking lessons. It's great."
That non-Irish people are interested in Celtic music and
dance doesn't surprise Fleming, who likes to listen to all
types of music.
If you were to see Fleming motoring about New York in his
1974 BMW 3.0 CS you might be surprised to hear what radio
station he was tuned to.
"You can tell a lot about a person by the pre-sets on their car
radio," said Fleming. "My No. 1 pre-set on AM is National
Public Radio. My No. 1 pre-set on FM is Fordham
University's station, which plays everything from Irish music,
Celtic music, American Folk music and the Blues. "
"I also have a country pre-set, a cutting-edge rock and roll
pre-set, a classical pre-set and a pre-set for the Fairleigh
Dickinson University station which plays New Age music. I
like a lot of different types of music because I an learn
something from all of them."
To date, Fleming has released four albums and written about
"10 to 12" original songs. He's married to Liselotte, an
exercise physiologist who has taught at Queen's College, who
has started the Preschool of the Nyacks. They have three
children, Dillon, 8, Anders, 5 and Elin, 2 and live in a
beautiful home on a hillside off the Hudson River near
Tarrytown, NY, about 25 miles from Manhattan.
Fleming's career has taken him to just about every major city
in the U.S. and he has played in Ireland, Japan , the
Philippines and the Czech Republic.
Raising a family has forced him to take another look at his
career. Fleming said he no longer thinks about making it big.
"If it happens, it happens," he said matter-of-factly. In the
meantime, he's hoping to branch out into other areas.
"I'm thinking about doing a children's album," he said. "And
I've begun to think about writing [songs] a lot more ad
having someone else - or perhaps myself - record them. I'm
also thinking about putting together an Atlantic City act that I
would do on a semi-regular basis, a couple of weeks at a
"Sort of a Celtic-flavored Wayne Newton," he added with a
Sean Fleming in an Atlantic City casino act?
Don't bet against it.
"I'm a large procrastinator," he said. "So who knows what
Certainly not Fleming.
His career has taken more left turns that a race car driver in
the Indy 500.
Thirty-one years ago he flew in a helicopter over war-torn
Vietnam looking for some troops to play for.
Now the troops come to him - an army of loyal fans that
show up wherever he plays.
They listen to him and his band in spots such as Finnigan's
Wake, Brittingham's and Callahan's. And at the Philadelphia
Festival on Penn's Landing too.
Who knows? Maybe someday the venues will become
bigger. Perhaps Fleming will see his name on the marquee of
an Atlantic City casino or even the First Union Center.
For now, he's perfectly content, right where he is.
Sean Fleming, you see, likes to play music.
Doesn't matter where, doesn't matter when.