For decades, rock’s apologists have paid lip service to the fact that rock n roll is black people’s music. We can argue over whether the chicken or the egg came first but rock music as we know it is most definitely a white boys club. After the arrival of LIVING COLOUR, the door was opened just a crack with artists like SEVENDUST, LENNY KRAVITZ, and FISHBONE (to a lesser degree). Black rock n roll is no schematic for popular acceptance. No one knows this better than bassist DOC PHILLIPS. Almost thirty years earlier, PHILLIPS hijacked an all-black new wave band and turned them into JOE STEEL – the world’s first ever all-black hard rock band.

Years before the founding of LIVING COLOUR, JOE STEEL wowed live audiences throughout New York and the surrounding states with their raucous four-to-the-floor attack. Unfortunately, audience acclaim never materialized into a record deal. “It is frustrating to this day that LIVING COLOUR got all of the glory and the record deal.” says PHILLIPS. “We would have record companies come down all the time and say things like ‘you guys are phenomenal, we’d love to sign you but we don’t have a way to market you.’ It seemed obvious to us that we should’ve been marketed as a rock band and they would be like ‘Yeah, but you’re black.’”

It was the skin color that proved to be a liability for the band and after ten years, the fellas from JOE STEEL threw in the towel and unwittingly gave the title of ‘first-ever-all-black rock-n-roll-band’ to LIVING COLOUR. PHILLIPS may have been uneasy about VERNON REID receiving all of the glory that may have been due to JOE STEEL but there was little he could do about it. Almost twenty years after breaking up the band, PHILLIPS got a call from guitarist SPYDER WILLIAMS. In no time at all, PHILLIPS flew out to Los Angeles and the two picked up right where they left off. The newly reformed JOE STEEL have released their EP ‘ROCK HARD OR DIE’ and PHILLIPS refuses to let something like skin color get in the way.

ROCKWIRED spoke with bassist DOC PHILLIPS of JOE STEEL. Here is how it went.

How did the show at the KEY CLUB go?
It went very well. We had a ball and people seemed to enjoy it quite a bit.

Was the music new for the audience that you were playing for or was the audience already familiar with your work?
It was a combination of both. It was one of the reasons that we decided to do the show. We got a very good response from the crowd so I was very pleased.

It’s been almost twenty years since JOE STEEL hit the stage. What is it like being up there again?
The lead singer was really just a one shot deal because he has his own thing that he does back East. The guitarist and I got back together about twenty months ago and it was probably one of the best experiences of my whole life. When we all went our separate ways, there was no fighting or anything like that. We just decided to pack it in one day and I always said that if I could be granted one wish in this world, it would be to play with this guitarist again. Out of the blue, he called me up and the timing was right and I flew out to L.A. and here we are.

How do you feel about all of the work that has been put into the EP?
I like the outcome. It’s probably one of the best things that I’ve ever had a hand in a long, long time. I really enjoyed writing everything on it. I’ve got good people that I’m working with and we had an excellent engineer named TONY BROCK – who was the original drummer for THE BABYS. It was a pleasure to get to work with him. I’m happy with it and I’m looking forward to the next full length CD.

Talk about the genesis of this band. How did it happen?
Without totally giving away my age, we started out as an all African-American New Wave band. I had always been in hard rock bands and I had joined this particular band because they had management and money. I really wasn’t happy with the direction that the band was going in but having management and money has a way trumping anything else. We were playing around quite a bit and opened up for a couple of New Wave bands that were making it at the time. What happened was, I was trying to push the band into being a hard rock band and they were resisting me so I managed to set up a show opening up for a friend of mine who I knew was going to blow us off the stage. For the gig, we showed up in a limousine and made this big, grand entrance. We didn’t quite get booed off of the stage, but we were definitely ignored by the audience. That was the only time that had ever happened to me personally. I wanted to show those guys in the band that we weren’t as good as we thought we were. To make a long story short, my friend’s band came on and they just blew everybody away like I knew he was going to do and we crawled back into our limousine with our tails between our legs. When we got back to our studio I said “Okay, we’ve got a choice here. We can rise to the occasion and change the direction of the band or we can continue what we’re doing and go absolutely nowhere. At that point, we were a five piece band with a keyboard player. The singer’s brother was in the band also and I suggested that the first thing we needed to do was strip down the band and become more guitar-oriented band. So the singer’s brother bowed out and he’s doing very well in Las Vegas right now. He’s got a long term contract singing with THE PLATTERS. I took over the writing of all of the material and we went back into the studio and spent three or four months working on these new songs. When we came out again, we were a force to be reckoned with . We started blowing audiences away. Then we had some management problems. The band was originally called THE COUP – not be confused with the rap act that’s around now – and because of management problems, we decided to change the band’s name and that was how JOE STEEL was born. We wanted an all-American name so we decided on JOE and STEEL is the all-American product. JOE STEEL is an attitude, not a dude. The band was around for roughly ten years. We eventually went from a four-piece down to a three-piece and than eventually there was no one. The timing wasn’t right for what we were doing. We were around as a four-piece long before LIVING COLOUR. We were actually the first all-African American band that was doing what we were doing. We were getting radio play on BAB and LIR and our management was marketing the band with no photos. We would get shows and when we would show up to play, people would want to know who the hell we were. Club owners would take one look at the band and say ‘Tonight’s not R&B night!’ and we’d be like ‘We’re not an R&B band.’ We were winning over audiences that way and eventually packing the clubs in New York and the tri-state area. It is frustrating to this day the LIVING COLOUR got all of the glory and the record deal. We would have record companies come down all the time and say things like ‘you guys are phenomenal, we’d love to sign you but we don’t have a way to market you.’ It seemed obvious to us that we should’ve been marketed as a rock band and they would be like ‘Yeah, but you’re black.’ That became a liability. Eventually, we all went our separate ways. I spent several years playing in different bands and playing around the city and then I retired from the business and twenty months ago, I got a call out of the blue from the guitarist and the timing was right for me. I had just closed down my own business and I flew out to L.A. He had no idea that I was coming out to L.A. with a bass. We got in the studio and within fifteen minutes, the old magic was back. We advertised for a drummer and here we are now.

The first time around, the only liability for the band was the skin color.
Yes it was. I remember one place we played in particular. We walked into the redneck bar and it was packed. A friend of mine had told me about this place. They were having an open mic night which was invitation only. We were invited but my friend didn’t tell them that we were black. When we walked in, we got a bunch of rude comments. We almost turned around left but we decided to just go for it. We sat the bar just to be out of the way and to not cause any commotion. Once we got on stage and launched into the opening of our song GOTTA ROCK N ROLL, our lead singer screamed ‘This ain’t no disco! This ain’t no R&B!’ and everybody shot up and we just rocked the place to death. When we were finished everybody in the bar was buying us drinks and patting us on the back. They had never seen anything like that. It was liability walking through doors but once you were in everything worked out. Record companies would not touch us and that was so frustrating. After years of rejection, we just said ‘to heck with this!’ and we just decided to go our separate ways.

How did music begin for you as an individual.
My parents met in JULLIARD. My father – who just turned ninety-one two days ago – he is an organist and my mother was an opera singer. I started playing piano when I was four. I played just about every major concert hall in New York with exception of the LINCOLN CENTER. My father actually played at LINCOLN CENTER twice. I graduated from the SCHOOL OF PERFORMING ARTS and classical piano was what I did. Then, I saw THE BEATLES play on ED SULLIVAN and that changed my life. I really didn’t appreciate PAUL McCARTNEY at the time. I thought he was really up there going through the motions. I had decided that I was going to be a bass player and the rest is history and now I have a tremendous amount of respect for SIR PAUL. Here I am and I love being a bass player. It is what I do and other musicians who have watched me play say that I have a unique style of playing. I’m not a virtuoso at all but I definitely have my own style and sound.

Talk about the two other members of the current line up. Tel me who they are and what it is that you think each of them brings to the table both musically and personality-wise.
SPYDER WILLIAMS and I have been buddies for thirty years. When I first met him in the first incarnation o the band, I thought that he was a lot better than he was. I just felt that he could be better than what he was doing. I was pushing him to expand on his playing and he and I became musical soul mates. I always enjoyed playing with him. When we decide to write something together, he’ll start a riff and I will instinctively go in the direction that he thinking of going in. I found it to be pretty wonderful –after being apart for so many years – that the connection was still there. He knows where I want everything to go in terms of music. Our drummer –MIKE ZWAAF- is almost like the clown of the band. He is a unique individual. We call him the ‘Frying Dutchman’. He had been playing blues for quite a while. When I answered his ad, I asked him what he was looking for in a band and he said that he couldn’t find anybody to keep up with him. When I heard that, I started laughing because I knew he hadn’t played with us yet. We got into the studio and we wore him out. It took him a while to get back into the groove of playing our kind of music but he pulled out all of the stops. He is a musical soul mate and the kind of persona that fits in perfectly with this band. He has the same kind of background as SPYDER other than the fact that he’s a white guy. From day one, were able to sit in the same room and laugh at the same things. There are egos or conflicts. The three of us just have fun together. I could actually imagine being on a tour bus with these guys for six months to a year without slitting each other’s wrists or throats.

How does songwriting get done in this band?
Right now, most of the material is written by me just because I come up with a lot of ideas very quickly. I don’t really tell anybody what to play. SPYDER has his own way of writing. He and I used to write together a lot and we’re trying to get back into that. Because of convenience, I’ve been doing ninety-nine percent of the writing, but that is going to be changing in the future.

Talk about the songs on this CD. Let’s start with the title track ROCK HARD OR DIE.
That is our motto. There is a line in there that goes – “You’ve got no reason to doubt what I say / So I’ll make it clear you’ll play or pay / There’s a mainstream dagger through you heart / what once was the ending is now the start.” With this song, I wanted to say that this music that everyone though was dead is actually starting up again.

I’m an old school sex, drugs and rock n roll kind of guy. That’s really what the song is about. It’s a bout a guy that picks up a young lady and takes her home. There is no reason to wait until night time to do what it is that you want to do. You can do it in the day light too.

I wrote that before JOE STEEL got back together. It’s about somebody that I knew who was kind ‘pay to play’ and this song is kind of a tribute. She wasn’t out working the street or anything, it’s just in order to get with her, you had to give up something.

That song was written during the wildfires in California last year. I went home and started thinking about all of the bands that influenced us in the eighties and the song mentions sixteen bands from that era and that’s what it’s about – all of the bands that were hot back in the day. Unfortunately California is burning again for real right now.

It doesn’t seem like the door has been pushed wide open for black rock artists. What is your opinion?
It definitely wasn’t. Nowadays, it’s a lot more common to see a black artist in a band. I haven’t any all-black rock bands out there. My problem with LIVING COLOUR to this day is that COREY GLOVER sounds like an R&B singer. You don’t have to see them to know that there is at least one black guy in the band. With JOE STEEL, KING’s influences were FRANK SINATRA and DEAN MARTIN and that is what he is doing now that he is back in New York. He’s a jazz singer. When we were getting our airplay back in the day, everybody thought that JOE STEEL was a white band and it wasn’t until we showed up for a gig that people would look at us and go ‘…who are you guys?’ There was one band on one those shows like AMERICA’S GOT TALENT. This band was a black rock band but they sounded like an R&B band but there were a few performances that could’ve competed with any hard rock band out there but I knew immediately that they were going to get eliminated. There was no way that the audience was going to vote these guys all the way through. They went quite far and they never quite made it to the top.

It seems like Black Rock n Roll can only thrive on public acceptance of it.
Absolutely right! It’s a shame. The reason I came out to L.A. is because I had come to the realization that if JOE STEEL came out to LA in the eighties, we wouldn’t have had the same problems that we were having back east. When the opportunity presented itself, I figured what the heck! I’ll give L.A. a try. In talking to people in the industry, it has always been said that if you want to make it, the only three places in this country where they don’t look at you for your color and your age are Nashville, Chicago and Los Angeles. I happened to like Los Angeles the best and decided to go for it. In L.A., we haven’t been getting any opposition from the people that we’ve been sharing stages with. Everybody has been wonderful and we’ve been having a ball.

What would you like people to come away with after they’ve heard this new material?
I just want everybody to feel good and come away with a smile on their face and hopefully be a little emotionally and physically drained from having so much fun.